The day before England played Austria in Vienna last month, their goalkeeper, David James, offered a hostage to fortune by telling Sunday newspaper journalists: "I've had a feeling coming into this season, much more relaxed, an enjoyable feeling about myself. I prepare right, my focus is right and I do the right training to minimise the chances of making mistakes in a game."
Sure as eggs are eggs, he was left with one all over his face the next night, somehow allowing a shot from distance by Andreas Ivanschitz, the 20-year-old "Austrian Beckham", to slip under his body for an equalising goal that immediately led to talk - such is the strange way of these things - of Sven Goran Eriksson being sacked.
The newspaper that brought you "Graham Turnip" then descended once more into personal abuse by asking readers to vote on whether they would prefer to see James or a donkey between the posts. Eriksson chose neither. Having said immediately after the game that James would stay in the team for the match in Poland four days later, he changed his mind and at lunchtime on the day of the game told the players concerned that Paul Robinson would be in goal.
So possession changed for the first time since David Seaman had in turn been replaced by James 18 months earlier. Now the chants of "England's, England's Number One", should legitimately be confined to White Hart Lane.
A few years ago, James might have sulked, become depressed or thrown a tantrum. He found being dropped by Gérard Houllier at Liverpool particularly hard to take, but used his ultimate departure from Anfield for Aston Villa as an opportunity for re-assessment in conjunction with a sports psychologist, and after occasional setbacks these days does the same thing.
"I used all my psychological tools," he said on Friday. "With the last game now and Robbo playing, the positions have changed. The way I look at it, I'm happy with my form, the game against Austria wasn't the best, hence the exit from the starting line-up. But I'm happy with my form since and my intentions are to maintain that level. It's not as if Paul Robinson is playing badly and is in the side. If that had been the case, I wouldn't be happy at all. In my opinion, that's the way football should be, on a reward basis, so I accept it for the right reasons."
Just as he eventually forgave and even thanked Houllier, so James thinks no less of Eriksson for the decision. "We had a conversation on the day of the game and the situation was explained to me. I've said all along about Sven that I like him and I've got a lot of admiration for him as a manager. The way he explained it made sense and I reluctantly accepted it. I suppose as manager it would have been difficult to have told me straightaway, but he explained himself in a way that made perfect sense to me."
Such is the way with the goalkeepers' union that there was abundant support from Robinson, who said last week: "David was brilliant. He came up to me and wished me all the best. We get on really well and if the roles are reversed, it won't change anything. It's a very difficult position to play in, one mistake as a goalkeeper and it is highlighted. There is a lot of pressure."
Backing from the rest of the squad took a rather unexpected form in the shape of refusing all interviews after the victory in Poland, in protest at the personal nature of the criticism, but if James was a little embarrassed at this show of solidarity, he believes it illustrated the togetherness of the group, which the returning Rio Ferdinand also described last week as the best he has ever known.
"Was it for me or the team?" James asked. "I think there was a lot of criticism aimed at a lot of players and I think the decision was for the team. Since Sven came here, the team ethos has come through, we really do feel for each other. In the past, having not been the No 1 myself, it's easy to get into these squads and look at other players and say 'Why is he there?' You're so individual about what you do. It was more about individuals, whereas now it's more about the team.
"I don't like not playing, not for one minute, because I'm a professional and I want to be out there doing it against the best, but at the same time, I appreciate the team ethos."
He claims not to read newspapers and only saw the donkey insults when one supporter helpfully sent a cutting: "I can play my game of football and as long as I can do that well, I'm not going to worry too much about what other people say. You could worry all day because not everybody's complimentary. I knew what I'd done wrong. What other people said about it, considering the amount of people in different quarters who are not even connected with football in any way, was bizarre."
On the other hand, the reaction of genuine supporters, not just from Manchester City, touched him. "Everyone around has been good, I've had a response from people I'd never have expected to contact me, and everyday fans disgusted with the way it was. You play the game for so long and think you've experienced everything and then just to read a letter from someone who says he doesn't write to anyone shows there's more to football than you knew. I haven't even answered them all yet."
And as for any intentionally insulting chants of "England's, England's Number Two"? "England No 2 ain't a bad place to be. Not that I want to stay there, but I was having a conversation with one of the other lads earlier, saying you look at football and there's this perception that if you're not No 1, you're nothing. We spend years and years not being No 1. I'm happy with the way I play football.
"I'm not 39 years old and struggling to maintain any sort of form. So if I never play, it's going to be because someone else is playing damn well." Until they let a 25-yarder through their legs.Reuse content