England's footballers ended their 2003 programme at Old Trafford on Sunday as they had begun it, with a home defeat. Unlike February, when Australia's win at Upton Park was followed by peremptory calls for Sven Goran Eriksson to resign, the critical response was muted.
England's record in the six intervening European Championship qualifiers, five wins and a draw, has restored Eriksson's reputation to pre-World Cup levels, albeit without the mystique. It is the Football Association who are now in the dock after their shambolic vetting of Eriksson's squad.
Eriksson cannot, though, be complacent. The silver lining of the Australia defeat was the apparent promise of the understudies, notably debutants Wayne Rooney, Francis Jeffers and Jermaine Jenas, plus fellow novice Ledley King. With the exception of Rooney their performances now appear to have been misleading. The Everton teenager has become a first choice, the rest struggle to make the squad.
Throughout the year, Rooney apart, the dominant theme has been the value of experience. As Eriksson may have noted when watching the rugby on Sunday morning, in the big tournaments, when the pressure is on, there is immense value from having been in similar situations before.
Eriksson has tended to pick youthful teams. There is always a suspicion, with managers who do this, that they have difficulty dealing with players who may question their authority, preferring young ones they can more easily influence. While recent events have shown there are still plenty of players with strong opinions in the squad several thought to be awkward or non-conformist have been marginalised. In their place has come a constant stream of new caps, 27 so far.
While there must always be room for a Rooney, and Glen Johnson could yet have such an impact, it is now time for evaluating rather than experimenting. There are four friendlies left for Eriksson to hone his squad for the summer. There will, inevitably, be injuries, so replacements must be given experience but whenever possible the "first XI" should form the basis of any team. The only uncapped player who should come into contention is Chris Kirkland, and then only if he can regain his place in the Liverpool goal.
Among the sub-plots, Eriksson will want to give Johnson the opportunity to prove he is a better choice than Danny Mills, and see enough of each to choose between Kieron Dyer, Danny Murphy, Scott Parker and Jenas. He will also want to give Joe Cole more field time. Cole, he suggested, will be in the squad but must keep learning.
"His quality is incredible," said Eriksson of Cole. "He can change the game offensively. But football is not only about attacking. You have to take positions which deny opponents the opportunity to counter-attack. People say you have to accept these things in players like him but if you want to be a complete international player you have to learn. Counter-attacks are now a good way of scoring for all teams."
The one other factor which may affect selection is player indiscipline. Firm guidelines urgently need to be established. However, the prospects of Mark Palios, the beleaguered FA chief executive, achieving this in conjunction with the players is already being undermined by FA officials briefing against him. It seems Eriksson is not the only senior figure in the FA who will need to pick his team carefully.
PROBABLE ENGLAND EURO 2004 SQUAD: *James, Robinson, Walker or Kirkland; *G Neville, Johnson or Mills, *A Cole, Bridge, *Ferdinand, *Campbell, Terry, Southgate; *Beckham, *Gerrard, *Butt, *Scholes, Lampard, P Neville, J Cole, Dyer or Murphy; *Owen, *Rooney, Heskey, Vassell. *Probable first choice XI.Reuse content