The old failings haunt heir to throne

The talk was of a golden generation. Now the issue is how long will the new coach last?
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The Independent Football

As he surveyed the England dressing room at Gelsenkirchen, its floor awash with the fallen tears of the vanquished, what can Steve McClaren have possibly found to salvage from the detritus of elimination? Can he really have shared the "huge optimism" that his principal employer, the FA chief executive Brian Barwick, claims exists at the start of the former Middlesbrough man's tenure? One suspects it is more likely that while the Yorkshireman was wandering priest-like and offering absolution to certain performers who had fallen from grace, he was actually girding himself for a challenge that had suddenly intensified in complexity.

The following day, the squad would be flying home on what was presumably the red-eye to Luton, and the departing head coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, would be making his bequests to his successor.

"To Steve McClaren, I leave the following: one suspended striker, Wayne Rooney, suffering from an absence of contrition and still liable to spit lava like an active volcano; another forward, Michael Owen, damaged, perhaps irreparably, at international level; four substantial defenders and a midfielder, Owen Hargreaves (below), whose status has been reconditioned in the public perception; several wounded hearts; some punctured egos; but overall an international reputation somewhat less than glowing, and, perhaps most disturbingly, a shallow reservoir of emerging talent."

McClaren knows in his heart that, as the wrath descended on Eriksson, who one feels will melt away in the English consciousness in the fullness of time until it will be almost as though he never existed, there is a general perception that England have lost Dick Dastardly and been left with Muttley.

That isn't a totally bad thing, because the chuckling mutt was always the brighter of the classic cartoon pair who planned all manner of machinations in an endeavour to win the Wacky Races, although it is not saying a lot, because they still tended to finish last, if at all.

McClaren knows that the clever money is not so much on what England will achieve under him, but on the longevity of his rule. The Football Association will talk unconvincingly of continuity, which is fine if the legacy is one that has enriched the English game. This one hasn't. Now, after Eriksson's stewardship of approaching six years, it would have surely been the occasion to take a hard-bristled brush, scour every crevice and start afresh with a new coach, be it someone of the stature of the enlightened Dutchman Guus Hiddink or the effervescent Martin O'Neill, and new thinking.

The last regime fell short not simply because it failed to galvanise England beyond the quarter-finals in three successive championships, but because it manifestly failed to harness the optimum from a squad possessing a genuine core of talent. Germany 2006 will be recalled not as a fascinating antique of England football but as a shop full of curiosities: odd selections, bizarre formations and perverse deployments, together with the perpetuation of the myth that has been David Beckham, as captain and player. In comparison with Italy's magnificence in last week's semi-final against the hosts, some of England's displays have been almost primitive.

True, Eriksson's men performed with considerable virtue, in a trench-warfare kind of way when reduced in numbers against Luiz Felipe Scolari's Portugal, who displayed in their semi-final with France just how modest are their abilities, despite the orchestrations of their coach. Otherwise there were some wretched exhibitions from an England who managed only six goals in five games. It embodies an era in which McClaren will always be damned by association with the Swede as much as his career was enhanced by his months with Sir Alex Ferguson.

The FA, in their wisdom, having had their entreaties spurned by Arsenal's Arsène Wenger and then by Scolari, have offered the job to the next chap in the line of succession, the problem being that there is a suspicion that the Peter Principle may come into play here: every employee tends to rise to his own level of incompetence. There is a suspicion that McClaren may have done that by being named as the England No 1.

Despite some attempts now to distance himself from the head coach's strategies, McClaren either lacked influence, and was as insubstantial as a ginger nut dunked in Eriksson's tea, or he concurred with poor decision-making at defining moments.

There is going to have to be an awful lot of reinvention of his status in the coming months, which may or may not be assisted by the possible installation of Terry Venables and Alan Shearer. Somehow, he must create an environment with no favourites, no "untouchables", in which talent is grasped from whatever source available and encouraged to flourish.

There are positives. McClaren starts at the lowest base. There is limited expectation of him. Also, he contemplates a European Championship qualifying group in which any England team would be criminally negligent if they failed to secure their place at Switzerland-Austria in 2008.

Those championships will determine England's progress. After this, perhaps they will no longer travel as potential victors; merely as worthy contenders. For too long, expectations have been absurdly unrealistic. Sheer fantasy, in fact. By tomorrow night, after events have unravelled in Berlin, there will be one squad of exultant winners. And 31 losers, including Brazil and Argentina. Statistically, the chances of England claiming a title in the future, under whatever genius we may suggest, let alone McClaren, are far from auspicious.

But the "new" man, from 1 August, is blessed with the opportunity to reshape English football, and the way in which it is perceived; to cultivate a green belt of opportunity within a wasteland left by Eriksson. McClaren's task will not be helped by a Premiership in which there are a declining number of top English players performing. Already, for all the individuals such as Aaron Lennon, there is no depth; not in the pool of quality forwards, midfielders and goalkeepers.

"Stevie who?" they said when he first arrived at Old Trafford from Derby; Stevie Wonder, he will have to be now, to survive. One can only trust the events of the last month have caused him to open his eyes. The concern is that it will have been merely a case of the bland leading the blind.


On Friday, Germany's striker Lukas Podolski was named by Fifa as their young player of the World Cup. His performances, including three goals, in tandem with Miroslav Klose made him a worthy winner, though many here would argue it should have gone to Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, if only for his exhilarating performance in the semi-final.

As far as we are aware, Wayne Rooney, who was not even on the shortlist, is still sulking over the justice meted out to him last Saturday, an attitude all but sanctioned by the Football Association with a statement to Fifa contesting the decision.

The mood all round will have lightened with yesterday's Fifa verdict of a two-match ban, but someone, somewhere must grasp the problem of Rooney's prickly nature before this glorious red rose of England's future withers on the stem.

On his final public day in office, Sven Goran Eriksson, who has too frequently indulged Rooney's volatility, uttered that hardy perennial of coaches with a difficult player: "You can't take away the temperament from Wayne Rooney. If you did, he wouldn't be the kind of player he is." You could only despair.

Eriksson also suggested that "the pressure he put on himself was because he missed some of his touch, the golden touch, because he'd not played for a long time", and that this accounted for Rooney's errant behaviour. It is probably more likely - as Michael Owen himself has now pointed out - that the Manchester United striker (above) was frustrated at again being asked to accept deployment in a lone striker role.

We assume that Steve McClaren will not make so cardinal an error, but that does raise the vexed question: who does Rooney support in his favoured role, behind the main striker? With Michael Owen's future in doubt, that leaves Peter Crouch. Yet surely the long fellow must revert to being "for emergency use only".

McClaren has perilously few options, assumingit may be preferable for Theo Walcott to gain some Premiership experience before being considered an international. Darren Bent, Jermain Defoe and Andy Johnson are all young, but do they possess the necessary attributes? Eriksson declared: "You forget one important thing when you ask if I regret the squad I selected: where are the other big strikers in England?" So, we'll take that as a "no". It will be a challenge for that trio, and maybe the powerful and impressive Dean Ashton to prove the outgoing England coach wrong.

That should be the priority now, for all concerned with the future of English football; not the puerile hurling of abuse, of the kind perpetrated towards Ronaldo (the country's best-selling paper charmingly suggestedwe may like to "Put a Dart in the Tart"), apparently for the heinous offence of winking inappropriately.

There is nothing unusual in the more xenophobic among the media targeting a dubious foreigner for England's failings. But isn't it time they grew up, together with the man, now nearing 21, whose stupidity provoked the whole affair?

Nick Townsend


Post-Diana, public exhibitions of distress are almost as important accessories for a male celebrity as his moisturiser. There was a mawkishness about the captain David Beckham's resignation address which, during a weekend when the 90th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme was being commemorated and young British soldiers were dying in Afghanistan, was not easy for many to stomach.

Like Sven Goran Eriksson, the coach with whom there had been an almost umbilical link, Beckham had long outstayed his welcome - he should never have received an invitation at the start - and, though he should not be made to shoulder all of England's failure to fulfil their potential, he bears some responsibility. In this tournament his contribution, other than with the dead-ball, was insufficient. Even then, his domination of free-kicks when there are others - Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Owen Hargreaves - equally capable of piercing an opposition's defences said much about his insecurity.

Beckham constructed a reputation around that memorable day - all of five years ago now - against Greece at Old Trafford. It was a zenith he never revisited, with the compliance of a coach in apparent awe of his cultural status.

While Beckham's position as a player will now also come under review, it is safe to assume that his armband will now go to a warrior, not an advertising icon. But to whom? Michael Owen is out of contention, certainly in the short term, and Gary Neville is not feasible in the long term. That presumably leaves Gerrard and John Terry (above). The tents have already been pitched, and both cases talked up, mostly by their club team-mates.

This observer has long been in Terry's camp. Overall, the Chelsea skipper enjoyed a fine tournament, if we excuse the occasional aberration, and in many ways he represents the old school of captaincy: he is a sleeves-rolled-up, Popeye-after-his-spinach kind of character, who establishes an example with his own play. And yet he has not been immune to the perils of off-field behaviour which lead to tabloid headlines. That scrutiny would only increase as captain of England.

Gerrard is a little more introspective in his style, but is not afraid to deliver some ear-bashings, as Neville discovered in the quarter-final. Though occasionally rash in the challenge, on balance the Liverpool captain should probably just edge it, though you suspect that Terry will probably receive the honour.

What do we expect from an England captain; how relevant is he in a game in which every player must assume responsibility? Well, he sets a tone, establishes a character for a nation which has boasted some extraordinarily strong characters down the ages.

An ambassador off the pitch? If the FA mandarins consider a smart, good-looking lad, who has a secondary role as a lucrative marketing force, to be important, then so be it. But both Gerrard or Terry, more authoritative and articulate public speakers than Beckham, are capable of fulfilling that role, too.

Nick Townsend