Soft centre at heart of England's demise

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Amid the parks and spires of dreamy old Vienna, the crisis of England's football was maybe inevitably a little blurred and misty. Sven Goran Eriksson served up another massive dose of bromide. "I see no crisis," he said in that soporific way of his which can make urgent questioning seem like nothing so much as a lapse in taste.

Not so in the industrial moonscape and worked out coalfields of Silesia. It is not for nothing that Poland always play their most important matches here. There is passion and grit; football is a reflection of the hardness of life, and if the Poles can only mourn the passing of great stars like Lubanski and Boniek and Lato, they can still demand evidence that wearing the nation's shirt is a matter of pride and fierce commitment.

They do it with a vodka-fuelled vociferousness. Given that guaranteed intensity, and the encouragement of the 3-0 win in Belfast over the weekend, it is far from the softest landing place for an England team which has just sold their jerseys against one of Europe's weakest teams.

This, do not doubt it for a moment, is the real question mark against Eriksson's England. Despite Steven Gerrard's assertion this week that English talent is of an order that makes quarter-final finishes in major tournaments about as much as we can expect, the fact is that there is a growing sense that Eriksson's regime has created a team which is essentially soft-centred.

The recent performances of captain David Beckham can only deepen this worry that England's acceptance of a reduced place in the hierarchy of the world game is a direct result of a breakdown in leadership - one which became shockingly visible when the Austrians were allowed to get up off the floor in the Ernst-Happel stadium last Saturday night.

Technically, there wasn't much wrong with England's performance over 70 minutes - albeit against feeble opposition - but when suddenly serious questions were asked about morale and resilience the answers were familiar and depressing.

What was missing most - as it was against Brazil and Portugal in the quarter-finals of the World Cup and the European Championship and in the group game against France - was any convincing evidence that this is a team showing signs of competitive growth. It is simply not happening, and here tomorrow night Beckham, if he is fit, must know that he is required to lead his team in one of the best established traditions of English football.

It is to come to one of the toughest corners of Europe and get a result, not by the splendour of their football, but a dogged belief that they have the means and the will to get through.

Up the road in Poznan, Gary Lineker got England to the European Championship in Sweden in 1992 with a last-minute goal of a frozen night which had seen the Poles dominating most of the play. Here in Katowice, Alan Shearer scored a goal of brilliant counter-attack that ensured passage to another major tournament. Peter Shilton once made a save that still throbs in the memory. Nobby Stiles, who shares with Sir Bobby Charlton the honour of being the only Englishmen to win both a World Cup and European Cup, fought tigerishly here on behalf of Manchester United on their way to that latter triumph.

Before the ultimately palsied performance in Vienna, Beckham invoked the names of his predecessors Shearer and Bryan Robson. He said that like them, he would lead by example. His example against the Austrians? A yellow card for a foul as gratuitous as the one which cost him his place on a World Cup field against Argentina six years ago and a performance which most charitably could only be described as deeply mediocre.

Eriksson's rejection of suggestions that Beckham's captaincy - even his place in the team - might be in question is, you have to believe, the most telling evidence of the culture of complacency that is now so evident around the England team. When Sir Alf Ramsey's England were the world champions no one's place, he never tired of saying, was guaranteed. The mantra of the great manager Bill Shankly was that every player every match had a challenge. It was simply that, "You have to justify your inclusion, laddie".

How is that Eriksson so lightly dismisses the need for genuine competition in the England squad? Maybe it is because of his background in Italian club football, and especially his scudetto-winning season with Lazio, when his key players were handpicked and expensive and had to be humoured as much as driven.

What is surely evident now is that despite saddling itself with its coach's preposterously extravagant contract, the FA is seriously questioning the drift of the national team - and its great cash cow. How else can we explain its apparently serious consideration of the potential contribution of England's rugby union World Cup-winning coach Sir Clive Woodward.

This, despite Woodward's brilliant work within his own game, is also manifestly absurd. What Woodward did for England is not some arcane mystery. He created a professional structure in a still essentially amateur game and created authentic competition within his squad. Ramsey did the same for English football more than 40 years ago.

One of Woodward's most talented players, Lawrence Dallaglio, felt a cold hand on his shoulder when his performance slipped, and, briefly, he was out of the team. Ramsey placed the passports of such great men as Bobby Charlton and Bobby Moore on their pillows when they broke curfew quite mildly and warned them that if it ever happened again they would have played their last game for England. These are the basic stepping stones to competitive performance at the highest levels of the game, and they make a mockery of the old theory - back in force again after recent publicity surrounding Eriksson's private life - that managing England is an impossible job.

It is only impossible if the ground rules are neglected, if players like Beckham and Michael Owen and the prime advocate of the status quo, Gary Neville, believe they are untouchable members of a most exclusive private club.

Some will say that victory here tomorrow night will sweep away the exaggerated, doom-laden reactions of the last few days, that what England suffered in Vienna was a fleeting lapse rather than the disturbing consequence of too much wrong-headed self-indulgence. The trouble with this is that it will ignore a long-developed pattern of celebrating small victories and failing to see major defeats for what they are - irrefutable evidence that the fire in our international game has burned disturbingly low.

Beckham talks ceaselessly of his love of responsibility, and the spirit of the team. Eriksson tells us that we have hugely gifted, irreplaceable stars who, one day, will reach the mountain top. Meanwhile, the big tournaments come and go, and such ambitions looks increasingly misplaced.

Here tomorrow night we have more than another football match. We have an inquiry into the spirit and the determination of our national team. The least of them are millionaires several times over. Here, in a part of the world where mere subsistence is a daily battle, they are obliged to prove that at the heart of their talent there is indeed a hard centre.

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