In times of trouble during his short period as England's head coach, Steve McClaren has been apt to quote Sir Alex Ferguson's dictum about having to "go through the fire", emerging on the other side all the better for the experience. Last night's extraordinary results in Tel Aviv and Skopje have left him still feeling the heat but with every chance of escaping from the ring of fire that seemed certain to have trapped him.
McClaren was understandably buoyant after watching Israel's triumph on television at the team hotel in Watford.
"What a night!" he said. "Absolutely fantastic news for us all. I'd like to pay tribute to Israel for the professional way they went about the job tonight – they showed what a proud nation they are and deserve a lot of praise for their efforts.
"I've said several times over the past few weeks that the campaign was never over until it was over and that I always believed it would come down to the Croatia match – thankfully it has."
Not that McClaren is quite running free. On Wednesday at Wembley he must choose the right team and tactics against Croatia. That proved beyond the management team in Zagreb a year ago when, stunned by the failure to achieve anything better than a goalless draw against Macedonia at Old Trafford, they suddenly came up with a new 3-5-2 formation for the most difficult game of the whole group programme.
There was minimal practice time in between the two games; Scott Parker was pushed into the side alongside Michael Carrick because Steven Gerrard was suspended; and the chosen players for the wing-back positions, the key to a successful five-man midfield, were lifetime full-backs Gary Neville and Ashley Cole. Neville, for all his experience, looked as bewildered as any England supporter even before giving Paul Robinson the back-pass that found a divot and ended up in the latter's net.
Now, against all the odds, the chance to make up for that awful night has been granted to the players and coaches. Michael Owen's injury, with Wayne Rooney and Emile Heskey already missing, makes the task of doing so more difficult and will presumably mean Jermain Defoe being brought in alongside Peter Crouch in the combination that played for 40 minutes of Friday's ill-chosen fixture in Austria. It might have been better to have left them together for the remainder of the game as well, but instead Alan Smith was given a run-out. The other tactical option is 4-3-3 with David Beckham, if considered fit enough, or Shaun Wright-Phillips and Joe Cole on the flanks providing the service for Crouch, who, worryingly, had his worst game for England in Zagreb, even with Rooney performing well alongside him.
There has to be sympathy for McClaren over the injuries suffered during the campaign. As well as missing three strikers on Wednesday, he must do without first-choice centre-halves John Terry and Rio Ferdinand relying on Sol Campbell and Joleon Lescott to subdue Arsenal's Eduardo da Silva, who had undone England in Croatia, even before the own goal, by heading in from a corner with Robinson stranded. McClaren says he had decided on his goalkeeper for Wembley before Friday's game, which does not make clear whether he meant sticking with Robinson or choosing this most important fixture of all to give Scott Carson a home debut.
Everything could still go wrong – England in McClaren's time have lost at home to Spain and Germany – offering the Wembley crowd the opportunity to have their say on whether a new manager would then be desirable. It is a rum notion that key figures like the Football Association's chief executive Brian Barwick may be swayed by how loudly supporters boo the head coach; £778m for a new stadium and the architects forgot to include a clapometer?
Thanks to statutes already in place as recommended in Lord Burns' report into modernising the FA, Barwick would become even more of a key figure than he was when McClaren was appointed 18 months ago after Luis Felipe Scolari decided he did not want the job. Already in a difficult position, as he was widely believed to favour Martin O'Neill as manager, Barwick went through his own little fire by announcing that McClaren had been his first choice all along.
The scorch marks are still visible, though the hope must be that chief executives, just like managers, learn more from the bad times than the good.
Could McClaren survive a failure this week? Apart from a few hawks, there is so little appetite within the corridors of Soho Square to go through the whole draining process of sacking and recruitment again that the greatest pressure for terminating his contract two years early comes from the public and press.
Longer-serving international committee members will recall "what a load of rubbish" hurrying countless England managers back to the dressing-room on one occasion or another, though none of them were dismissed for it, Kevin Keegan being the only one to voluntarily walk away. Ron Greenwood and Bobby Robson both learnt from bad European Championship experiences and came close to success at a later World Cup, as various football figures have pointed out in arguing against the constant chopping and changing of managers that everyone criticises at club level.
Greenwood, in 1981, even required more freak results in other group matches than the current head coach has been gifted. (It has to be taken as read at this stage that Russia are not going to lose in Andorra on Wednesday). For the other oddity of the current situation is that an unexpected outcome in one of two games played thousands of miles away yesterday may apparently have made McClaren fit to remain in his job, whereas the feeling was that he would have had to go had Russia won.
What it all comes down to might be called the tyranny of the bottom line, not in financial terms – though loss of income through not qualifying for next summer's finals would hit hard – but in the line that in football ends with a points total.
As one of the great cliches has it, it's a results business; and on those results managers are judged. Until last night they were going the wrong way. Suddenly and unexpectedly, a lifeline has now been thrown into the ring of fire.
ALL OR NOTHING FOR ENGLAND
No wonder Steve McClaren is smiling. Here's what is at stake when England take on Croatia at Wembley on Wednesday
If England lose... and Russia win in Andorra, who are rock bottom of the group, England are out
If England draw... they are through, regardless of how Russia get on as England have a superior head-to-head record against Guus Hiddink's deflated Russians
If England win... they are through. If England win by 2-0 or better, they will even win the group with a better head-to-head record against Croatia. Who'd have thought that a week ago?
David EdwardsReuse content