McClaren sides with United against FA over Rooney

Coach unimpressed by Soho Square insiders who 'make my job very, very difficult'
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The Independent Football

England's new head coach, Steve McClaren, is questioning whether everyone at the Football Association has the best interests of the national team at heart in view of the decision to suspend Wayne Rooney for three Premiership matches, starting this Wednesday.

Even while basking in the glow of a 4-0 victory over Greece in his first match in charge, McClaren was keen to make clear his frustration at the damage done to relations between the FA and Manchester United just at a time when he is trying to improve rapport with the leading clubs. He is also upset that Rooney, who is already banned from next month's two European Championship games, will be denied further match practice before the two internationals early in October.

Rooney received a straight red card against Porto in the pre-season tournament in Amsterdam when his arm made contact with an opponent as he jumped for a header. United disputed the decision at the time and hoped that, as is often the case with pre-season games, the Dutch referee would not report either that incident or the sending-off of Paul Scholes.

He eventually did so, however, and last Tuesday an FA tribunal upheld a three-match ban. The two players are eligible for today's game against Fulham but will not then be available until the opening Champions' League match on 13 September. Rooney, who was unfit to play against Greece, will have had a maximum of six games before England play a double-header against Macedonia and Croatia in October.

"The decision has not made my job any easier when it comes to building relationships with the clubs," McClaren said. "I'm not criticising anybody, but when I have to build relationships with the clubs and managers, and decisions are made like the one on Wayne Rooney, then it makes my job very, very difficult. In this case it's a dec-ision made by somebody within the FA that I don't know. It's certainly not anyone close to me, certainly not Brian Barwick or any department near me.

"It has affected Manchester United, it has affected England and it has affected the player. That doesn't make my job any easier, and it disappoints me." Asked if he was surprised that anyone might think the challenge worthy of a three-match ban, he replied: "Absolutely."

McClaren is understood to be equally annoyed by the lack of consistency in similar cases. When his Middlesbrough midfielder George Boateng was sent off in a pre-season game abroad, the incident was not reported to the FA. Three years ago, Liverpool's Steven Gerrard and Neil Mellor were dismissed against Galatasaray in the same Amsterdam pre-season tournament and were not suspended.

United have already made their displeasure clear. Sir Alex Ferguson said he was "surprised", Ryan Giggs and Rooney himself have both complained about referees "trying to make a name for themselves", and Gary Neville said: "What frustrates me is that in this country we don't look after our own. We seem to shoot them. Why they didn't just throw it in the bin I don't know."

The FA declined to say who was on the tribunal, though it would have comprised a former manager or referee and three members of the disciplinary committee, who may well have been from the amateur game.

It is a clear embarrassment for McClaren, who had visited his former United boss Ferguson only a few days earlier to talk about England players and was pleased with the discussions.

As a Premiership manager for the past five years, he is keen to use his contacts to build closer relationships with the major clubs, though he may be overestimating the level of their enthusiasm for England. Of the 21 outfield players involved in last Wednesday's squad, Middlesbrough's Stewart Downing is the only one who has an English manager - McClaren's successor, Gareth Southgate.

Rafael Benitez at Liverpool, for instance, may have spoken enthusiastically about Gerrard's qualities when playing wide on the right, but it did not stop him using his new £6 million signing Jermaine Pennant there for the first two matches of the season. In other words, the clubs will continue to do what suits them, not England.

The argument about Rooney is also weakened by the fact that he got himself suspended for next month's games against Andorra and Macedonia after being sent off in the World Cup quarter-finals. A lack of match practice would certainly have handicapped him in those games, but he is not available anyway. The choice of strikers will therefore be much as it was against Greece, when Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe formed what had the makings of a useful partnership of two very different elements.

Only ever given eight minutes on the pitch as a pair by Sven Goran Eriksson, who came to distrust Defoe, they were brought together because of the unfortunate injury to Dean Ashton and are the most likely combination to start against the might of Andorra on 2 September.

Darren Bent, though he hardly touched the ball in his 10 minutes as a substitute, can expect to stay in the squad and Andrew Johnson should force his way back in, given a successful start to his Everton career this week. That assumes that McClaren believes the Under-21 team is still the best place for Arsenal's Theo Walcott, who scored for them within three minutes of his debut last Tuesday.

McClaren said of Crouch: "He has emerged and matured. He is giving performances that are very effective and he gives a different aspect that's not nice to defend against. He's not just good in the air, his feet are great. He can bring others into the game, which helps our midfield, who can run beyond him and get Defoe a bit of space. His height, his touch and his awareness are all very good."

McClaren has also revealed that whichever two strikers he eventually settles on could at some stage find themselves in a 3-5-2 formation, which Eriksson never once opted for.

"I've used the system before, very effectively, and we [Middlesbrough] beat some big teams with it," he said. "I'd have no hesitation in trying that. This time, because we had so little preparation time, we tried to keep the system simple."

Replay: 2001: When Sven first took charge

How ironic that Sven Goran Eriksson should have made David Beckham his captain for his first game in charge of England, against Spain at Villa Park on 28 February.

The Swede soon gave a clear hint of his approach to friendlies by hauling Beckham off at half-time, one of seven substitutions. In the post-Keegan era, Charlton's Chris Powell came into the team at the age of 31, while speculation was rife about the future of David Seaman after he conceded six goals at Old Trafford the previous weekend and was omitted in favour of David James and Nigel Martyn, who saved a penalty.

After a wobbly start, Sven's men strode to an emphatic 3-0 victory with goals from Nicky Barmby, who had also scored the first goal of Glenn Hoddle's tenure as England coach, Emile Heskey - playing on the right wing - and Ugo Ehiogu.

The new messiah of English football prophetically announced: "I hope England fans don't expect that every game, because football is much too difficult."