James Lawton: Capello must be Machiavellian enough to insist on survival of fittest for England
Beckham's 99 caps provides a distinction surpassed by only four other players
Tuesday 29 January 2008
The advice to Fabio Capello could hardly have been more seductive. It said the smart move was to hand David Beckham his 100th international cap next week, not as the condoning of imposing some incorrigibly woolly sentiment on the proper criteria for picking an international football team but the conferring of a right of achievement. A no-brainer, no?
It certainly passed the pragmatism test. Having deferred to the majority view, Capello could then get on with the rather more serious question of making a competitive England team, something that, for one reason or another, has been postponed for the best part of 40 years.
Even those most inclined to welcome the appointment of Capello as a portent of more rigorous demands on the celebrity culture of the team had to be impressed with the practical value of such an argument. Indeed, the coronation of Beckham at Wembley in the friendly match against Switzerland had become a fait accompli – until, that is, the surfacing at the weekend of the word being passed around those football circles in Italy and Spain most familiar with the thoughts and character of Capello.
The new message is that Il Capo is finding it increasingly hard to stomach the idea of playing, in a team that is supposed to be making a first statement about England's new order, someone who hasn't kicked a ball competitively for more than two months.
Of course such an idea is a nonsense for anyone who believes that one of the most hopeless aspects of the Sven Goran Eriksson regime was his almost total neglect of the idea that friendly matches were the irreplaceable building blocks of team development.
But then, if Capello is half the politician he is winning football coach, you didn't have to be Machiavelli to point out the public relations value of a gesture towards Beckham. How profoundly would the spotlight – and the pressure – switch from the £6m-a-year coach to the man experiencing potentially his last hurrah in an England shirt. Talk about a built-in alibi for anything less than an England soaring out of the ashes of that defeat by Croatia. You could almost scrawl it now. "It was Beckham's night, not mine, capice? It was unfinished business. Now I can begin my work."
Capello's predecessor, Steve McClaren, went about it quite differently, of course. He dropped Beckham and it was made to seem not a logical consequence of the teary meltdown in the World Cup in Germany – when, if you remember, Beckham handed in the captaincy without bidding and told the world he sobbed relentlessly in the taxi taking him to the carefully managed press conference – but an act of defiantly iron will. Unfortunately, but not unpredictably, Beckham's shadow grew to a point where not even his decision to play minor league football in America could check the rate of McClaren's back-tracking.
For Capello the requirement is simply to give Beckham one more cap in a match that is only as significant as anyone, and most relevantly, Capello, wants to make it.
Another word from Capello's chattering circle is that the coach has been impressed by such likely lads as David Bentley and Aaron Lennon, who so brilliantly spoon-fed Robbie Keane his goal against Manchester United at the weekend, and that delaying their first opportunity to play under his direction while deferring to the inactive Beckham, who will be 35 come the World Cup in South Africa, would be pushing public relations to an unacceptable level.
The most regular argument on behalf of Beckham is that he deserves his 100th cap for England in a way that would make its denial a result of some kind of outrageous meanness of spirit. A counterview, which in all honesty is somewhat harboured in this quarter, is that 99 caps provides a distinction of its own in that it is a mark surpassed by only four other players – Peter Shilton, Bobby Moore, Sir Bobby Charlton and Billy Wright – and that perhaps in terms of achievement and consistent performance a certain natural division might occur here.
A discussion point, at the very least, is that Gary Lineker, second only to Charlton in scoring for England, had to settle for a mere 80 caps – and the ignominy of being hauled off the field one short of Charlton's goals record. He has managed to get through a substantial part of the rest of his life without much hint of moping. Sir Tom Finney received 76 caps, Jimmy Greaves, arguably the best striker ever produced by the nation, collected a mere 57.
The point that Capello may just be in the process of making is that when you play for your country it is not because of accumulated prestige or any other reason other than that at the relevant time you are best equipped to receive the honour. When Beckham is fit and playing again, who knows, he might convince Capello that performing in America is not an impossible handicap in his pursuit of a 100th cap. However, until that time some at least will be reassured by evidence that Capello is at least debating the difference between the smart move and the right one.
Ashton can expand horizons beyond past glories by preferring Cipriani
Having survived the acrid aftermath of the World Cup, England's rugby union coach Brian Ashton is now said to be facing his most serious test of courage. Does he have the nerve to invest in the superb potential of Danny Cipriani at the expense of national hero Jonny Wilkinson when England meet Wales at Twickenham next Saturday?
Yes, if he is true to his best intincts – and the brilliant defence of his role made by Jeremy Guscott a few months ago. Guscott's intervention may not have been crucial in Ashton's survival after the attacks made on his performance in France by such heavyweights as Lawrence Dallaglio and Mike Catt, but for the health of England's future it would be encouraging to think so. The plea was striking in its depth and its passion. Guscott declared that if England discarded Ashton they would be turning their back on their best chance of pushing back the horizons of their rugby.
Immense resolution and power, and Wilkinson's infallible kicking, had brought the World Cup triumph of 2003. Four years later an absolute refusal to be chased out of the tournament brought astonishing progress to another final.
But then England surely had to move on. They had to develop new lines of attack, new vision, a new feel for how the game should be played. Ashton was the man to do this, claimed Guscott. Now perhaps, in a single act of selection, Ashton can make good on such promise. Of course Wilkinson can never be lightly discarded. But there are times in the course of a career when a moment has to be seized. Just as Wilkinson demanded from Clive Woodward the recognition of extraordinary talent, Cipriani is surely making such a call on Ashton.
Such a player offers more than high individual performance. He points to new directions. He is a talent around whom a coach can make an abiding statement. Cipriani is the future that Jeremy Guscott was talking about – and which Brian Ashton can now enact.
None the wiser at St James' Park
There was always going be a time when excessive attention to the meanderings of Newcastle United was liable to be hard on the brain lining. Perhaps it has arrived with reports that Kevin Keegan has picked out a key role for Dennis Wise.
Wise's achievements at Leeds United have been considerable but to say they make natural components in the dreamy aspirations of Keegan pushes us beyond even what passes for logic at St James' Park. Whatever you think about King Kev's managerial track record, or Newcastle's hold on reality, both he and the club's followers have stood, however impractically, for certain football values.
They have talked, eternally, of a beautiful game. Maybe Wise is seen as the antidote to such romanticism – but have Keegan and Newcastle really studied the directions on the packet? Maybe not. Perhaps they just want someone who can talk the same language as Joey Barton. What next? The recall of Lee Bowyer?
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