Darius Vassell, the big winner in Amsterdam's ArenA this week, may have attached himself to more than David Beckham's cross when he signalled his arrival on the international scene with the explosive goal that must have landed on his rival Kevin Phillips' heart like an arrow of a dispatch from malignant gods.
But if he did, the England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, is, naturally, not saying. This was no disturbance of the planetary system. This was not a new sun making a new dawn. This was a kid who handled himself well and gave himself a chance.
Eriksson will never be in danger of mistaking a bar-room scuffle for the outbreak of the Third World War. Nor will he make a banquet out of a tasty snack. So if Vassell undoubtedly did himself some good, he should know well enough that at the moment his status is pretty much that of an Andy Warhol character. He has made a run for celebrity, but whether or not he gets a lease on centre stage depends on so much more than anything that could be achieved in 78 minutes against a Dutch team who have so spectacularly cornered the market on under-achievement.
What happened in 1-1 draw with the Netherlands, practically speaking, was a mere nudging of the pecking order of Eriksson's lower echelon strike force. Phillips' supporters insist that he has a natural disposition to score goals at any level and that his accumulating failures at the highest one are the result of both the pressure he has brought upon himself with the force of his ambition and the lack of a sustained run at the job. This may be true, but the reality he must accommodate now is that one of his rivals for a place behind England's striking hierarchy of Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler, Teddy Sheringham and Emile Heskey has plainly moved a step or two ahead.
They were fluent, adept steps too. At 21, Vassell, whose early showing for Aston Villa spoke of pace and talent perhaps not supported by the strongest will or confidence, surely implanted himself in the consciousness of Eriksson, not least with his relish for the big stage. The volley which flew past the Dutch keeper Edwin van der Sar was not the work of a tiro. This was no tentative push at the swing doors of the big saloon. Vassell was plainly intent on shooting from the hip and, as England began to contemplate the deflating effect of a second loss in six months to the World Cup non-qualifiers, at no cost to accuracy.
The possibility is that Vassell could now just scamper on to the plane bound for the Far East but typically, Eriksson, was unprepared to put it any higher than that. Nor was he prepared to dismiss the first challenge of Bolton's big charger Michael Ricketts, which was as unconvincingly leaden as Vassell's was breezy and assured.
Here we had another example of Eriksson's style, one which has suggested all over again these last few days that, in the changing circumstances of the game, the Football Association's Swedish trouble-shooter has produced a set of credentials for his task which not so much defeated as emotionally viscerated so many of his predecessors.
He may not embrace the frustrations of his assignment, but he does not fight them. He does not pick club-and-country arguments. He does not go off on tactical tangents. He does not close down options so much as maintain such priorities as simplicity and self-confidence. He explores the art of the possible. Vassell showed promise, Ricketts felt a breath of failure, but Eriksson understands that either or both impressions could prove false.
It is stock-taking that errs on the side of modesty, and this is surely unprecedented in the affairs of the national team. Even the relentlessly professional Sir Alf Ramsey said that he fancied his chances to beat the world. When he said it he was in a minority that might have squeezed into a telephone box. Eriksson is never likely to make himself hostage to the smallest over-statement.
The result is a journey to South Korea and Japan blessedly uncomplicated by excessive expectations, and this was a reality underlined by the coach's reaction to Vassell's showy entrance. Yes, Vassell had looked a likely lad, but no more, no less, than that. Hubris, we know well enough, has been a deadly intrusion into the prospects of England on the international stage and if Eriksson achieves nothing else in concrete terms he has certainly properly identified it as public enemy number one.
It means that what we have at the dawn of the latest run at the big tournament is a set of certainties rare in the days since Ramsey. But for physiological problems on the left side – we do not have a natural one – we know England's best team, give or take a question mark against Sol Campbell's composure at the highest level, doubts which were not soothed by the fact that his partner, Rio Ferdinand, seemed to take on a new assurance the moment Gareth Southgate stepped on the field on Wednesday night.
Gary Neville, along with Ferdinand, has grown under Eriksson, Nigel Martyn has nailed down the No 1 goalkeeping spot and Michael Owen, in less than a year, has moved from the margins of doubt into the rock-hard conviction that he is the team's single most viable asset against the best class of opposition. As Beckham proved when he moved on to the right side in the second half, he is a peerless crosser of the ball. Steve Gerrard, without beginning to suggest that he can impose 90 minutes of sustained influence, has proved a big-play specialist in the most demanding of circumstances. Eriksson has firmly recognised Sheringham's old sweat's craft and savvy and Fowler's instinctive class, which would surely have illuminated and enriched England's approach work on a night when Beckham's latest flirtation with central midfield brought its usual result – a peck on the cheek and no invitation for coffee. What it amounts to is a well ordered if not breathtaking picture.
Eriksson has done well to paint it against the anarchic backcloth of the times. Vassell's achievement is to make it to the edge of the canvas.Reuse content