Nick Townsend: Sorry, 'responsible' is the hardest word

Beckham's further fall from grace suggests he may no longer be indispensable as captain or player

Contrary to what Elton John would have us believe, "sorry" is no longer the hardest word. Not after a week in which it has burbled from the lips so copiously, and, it must be said, so cheaply. And not merely at the Palace of Westminster. Indeed, far from that place. Where the country's best-selling tabloid was concerned, "Becks says sorry" was deemed rather more relevant front-page material than the apology offered by Captain Tony on the question of Iraq. These are decidedly times of perverse priorities.

Contrary to what Elton John would have us believe, "sorry" is no longer the hardest word. Not after a week in which it has burbled from the lips so copiously, and, it must be said, so cheaply. And not merely at the Palace of Westminster. Indeed, far from that place. Where the country's best-selling tabloid was concerned, "Becks says sorry" was deemed rather more relevant front-page material than the apology offered by Captain Tony on the question of Iraq. These are decidedly times of perverse priorities.

What has been significant, however, is that while the semantics of David Beckham's utterances have been debated with relish by the great and the garrulous, England, harnessed to the understated leadership of Michael Owen, have emerged from the Caspian squalls with the points secure, and a specific one made: England are scarcely a directionless vessel just because the Real Madrid midfielder is not at the helm.

England do not encounter World Cup qualification again until the spring, a convenient hiatus for Eriksson to reconsider the question of Beckham's captaincy, which has been found severely wanting. Saturday's incidents involving Wales's Ben Thatcher would have still been an issue, regardless of Beckham's subsequent apologies, defence, admission, honesty - describe his utterances as you will. It was far from the first occasion that the captain has incurred an unnecessary caution or behaved with conduct unbecoming the role. He is that rare example of a captain who leads by mis- example, his strategy apparently being: don't do as I say, do as I don't.

That said, his contention that he was using his brain when colliding with Thatcher to contrive a suspension-yielding caution when he was aware that injury would preclude him anyway from the ensuing contest in Azerbaijan, is risible. The act itself wasn't big. It wasn't clever. And as damage-limitation exercises go, the explanation was about as intelligent as igniting an incendiary device in close quarters. It was akin to a batsman not walking, and then declaring publicly that he should have been given out. No wonder another England captain, albeit a former one, Nasser Hussain, who prefers to adhere to the stricture that the umpire is always correct, described Beckham's candour as "silly".

That's always assuming one can accept the veracity of Beckham's declaration. Most players who genuinely desired to incur a caution would have, say, kicked the ball away when a free-kick was awarded against them. Notwithstanding any damage Beckham may have inflicted on the opponent - the FA's response would have been intriguing in such circumstances, with Roy Keane's assault on Alf-Inge Haaland at Old Trafford still in mind - the assault on Thatcher could well have been adjudged a red-card offence.

It is not as if there aren't alternative worthy recipients of the armband. Owen, the existing No 2, is the obvious contender, although a forward possessing a monomaniacal eye for goal, as he demonstrated on Wednesday night to execute the winner, has never struck this observer as the ideal replacement. Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Gary Neville and Rio Ferdinand are others.

That's always assuming, of course, that Beckham still merits his place as a player. His potency from range is much-vaunted, though it is as well to reflect on the statistic that his stunningly struck goal against Wales was only his second (apart from penalties) in 17 games. As the pundit Alan Hansen commented on his contribution recently: "You look back three, four years ago, and if he had an average match, he'd be the best player you've ever seen in your life. Now he has the same average match, and he's the worst player you've ever seen in your life."

What is disconcerting about the Beckham imbroglio is that neither Eriksson nor the FA has handled the matter adeptly. There was sufficient fudge to stock a Devon tourist shop from the FA chairman, Geoff Thompson, and the England coach, while poor Owen was placed in an invidious position when questioned about his fellow expat. The striker desperately attempted not to malign Beckham while remaining the angelic face of football, an image the fraudulent claiming of Frank Lampard's goal last Saturday had only marginally creased.

What this required from the coach and his employers was a swift, meaningful response. Instead it has been allowed to fester, and from his England team-mates were detected dark rumblings of a mutiny on board Group Six's most bountiful ship, led presumably by Gary "Fletcher Christian" Neville. Except here it was because of threats emanating from the authorities that Captain Beckham could be set adrift - although the likeliest conclusion of the request by the FA for Beckham's "observations" on the incident is that he will eventually receive a finger-wagging and perhaps a one-game suspension. There is an ominous feeling of Rio-gate revisited.

It has been suggested that, apart from not wishing to irk Beckham's team-mates, the FA would want to avoid damaging their relationship with Eriksson. What relationship would that be? Surely not the one that, not a matter of weeks ago, many would have elected to sever, had it not been financially imprudent to do so?

The fact is that, if the England coach does not address the matter in a suitably mature manner, then the FA should assume that responsibility. For that appears to have become the hardest word: the acceptance of responsibility for your own actions, and that of your team's.

Eriksson's reaction contained the following classic: "More or less everything is OK - but don't talk." This crass response comes close to bringing the game into disrepute itself, never mind Beckham's transgression. If that is not a call to arms to the con-men and tricksters in the sport, then it is difficult to know what is.

In truth, it has been a week in which cheats have been over-zealous in their attempts to prosper. Poland may have merited victory against Wales, but the histrionics and feigning of injury can only be condemned. It was suggested in some quarters, generally to the left of Offa's Dyke, the following day that Wales had been "too honest". Unfortunately, any team who boast a Robbie Savage and a Craig Bellamy, both of whom constantly attempt to influence officials by word and deed, can hardly be said to occupy the moral high ground.

That is a position that Beckham has desperately attempted to recover in the past week. He has succeeded only in a further descent from grace. All he can depend on now are mighty expressions of regret, while taking comfort from Tennyson's words: "Tis held that sorrow makes us wise."

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