England's attempts to commemorate the 40th anniversary of winning the World Cup by repeating the feat in Germany next summer will be carried out with the same unapologetic emphasis on results that characterised much of the revered Sir Alf Ramsey's reign.
In case anyone who has followed the comparative failure of Sven Goran Eriksson's sides at two major tournaments is still in any doubt, that message was made clear in the personal philosophy expounded at the squad's Manchester hotel on Friday by Steve McClaren, Middlesbrough's manager and Eriksson's senior coach in two spells over the past five years. As he remains one of the most obvious candidates to succeed the Swede, who could well step down after the tournament, English football had better get used to the idea.
Responding to criticism that the national team have often looked defensive-minded, especially in critical matches at the major tournaments, McClaren said: "The team is set up each game to win that football match, it certainly does not go out to draw it. How you win is sometimes irrelevant. You talk about the Greeks, who won Euro 2004, can you say they were the most attacking team? It's all about winning, that's the crux now. A winning team is what I would like to call it, I don't like that word entertainment."
The current crop of players, none of them even born in 1966, are thinking along the same lines, if Rio Ferdinand's comments last week are anything to go by. "If I win the World Cup, I don't care if we play rubbish every game," he said. "I'd love to play well, but I'd rather have a trophy."
Having earned the Carling Cup for Middlesbrough during a season in which only three Premiership sides scored fewer goals, McClaren is of the same mind. He agrees too with Ferdinand that the current World Cup campaign offers England's best chance to end the years of hurt: "I have worked with this squad for a number of years and I have seen it develop from a very young, inexperienced squad to have three major tournaments to gain the experience, to suffer the failures, to suffer the criticism, because I think you have to go through that to get the maturity and experience you need in a tournament to eventually win it.
"I remember at United when they finally won the European Cup and Sir Alex [Ferguson] said that all those years of failure, all those years of misery and going out in quarter-finals and semi- finals, you have to go through that grief to finally achieve. They are ambitious enough to know that there's a very, very good chance of them doing well in Germany. I'm not saying we'll win it but we have a very good chance."
Whether wearing his England or Middlesbrough training kit, McClaren believes that the successful campaign for a month's preparation before the finals can only help. In fact, he says a winter break, if one could ever be built into the overloaded fixture schedules, would be of even greater benefit.
"The four-week break was an absolute must and for it to go through was the best news we've had for a while. For any big tournament, preparation is the key, the most important thing, and I know from experience that the three weeks of preparation has not been enough.
"And when you look at players and amount of games they are playing and the teams who have had a winter break and how they're playing, I think it's time we looked after them, especially the top players who are playing 40, 50 games a season and then coming to a tournament expecting to produce the form they've been producing all season.
"Playing internationl football is an extreme challenge, it's totally different than anything else and tournaments are so wearing and tearing that you are seeing so many players now cutting their careers short just so that they can maintain their club football, and that will maybe add one or two years on to their career. And you know in financial terms what two more years can mean."
So where might Steve McClaren be in two more years? Time for a straighter bat: "I'm very ambitious as everyone knows, but my ambitions lie no further at present than helping Middlesbrough Football Club and then everything else comes from that. My other ambitions are for England to qualify and do well in the World Cup."
Azerbaijan should not threaten those hopes too dangerously on Wednesday, even if England were made to work hard for a 1-0 win amid the raging storm of Baku last autumn. "The conditions on the night were atrocious, some of the worst that I've ever experienced," McClaren said. "The opposition were dismissed before the game but after it we had a great deal more respect for them."
There will be many up in the North-east hoping to see something of Middlesbrough's Stewart Downing, though his club manager argued successfully against a debut for him against Spain in November, preferring to wait until last month's ill-starred friendly with Holland.
"It's an interesting situation but I'm honest enough and truthful enough to give my opinion to Sven. What we've done at Middlesbrough is nurture him slowly but surely. This year he's probably played more games than we wanted, purely because of the injuries we've got. The approach with Stewart has been very good so far, introduce him to the squad, take a look around, see what he's like in training, what he's like with the group and make sure that when he gets the opportunity, he's ready to take it. I've always said to Stewart that if he wants to play for England he's got to play well for Middlesbrough and if he continues to do that, and continues the rise, he's got a very good chance to make the 2006 World Cup."
That date again. It is looming larger by the match. Just do not expect the England squad's World Cup record to be "That's Entertainment".Reuse content