There is a small but crucial difference between being caught with your trousers down, and putting them on your head. And, for the time being at any rate, it might well be sufficient to prompt neutrals, asked to name a composite XI from both dressing rooms at Wembley this evening, to pick Mirko Vucinic before Wayne Rooney.
Even to those who have long enjoyed the Vucinic show in Serie A – as condensed against Switzerland the other night when, without a hint of a smile, he celebrated a delectable goal with that shorts-pulled-over-the-ears celebration – that might have seemed a pretty far-fetched suggestion only a few months ago.
Had Fabio Capello stuck with his original precept, that he would only select players who are fit and in form, he would certainly have dropped Rooney during the World Cup. Capello was hired, after all, partly on the basis that he would be frigidly indifferent to reputation, his predecessor having sometimes given the impression that he might pass round an autograph book during his team talk. On the other hand, the very fact that Capello has called up an uncapped 33-year-old for tonight shows the poverty of his alternatives.
No slight on Kevin Davies, whose unexpected chance has warmed the cockles of many fans, pundits and fellow professionals. It's just that when everyone abruptly turned on Capello during the summer, very few could suggest any remotely credible improvements to his squad. You certainly didn't see too many banging the table, demanding to know where Davies was spending his summer.
There seemed to be a consensus, equally, that Gareth Barry is only just eligible as an international midfielder. But Capello himself will trace the disintegration of his World Cup campaign to the day Barry got injured. In view of its notorious technical inadequacies, the one surfeit he must have anticipated in the English game was in holding midfielders – blokes who could break up play, nudge a safe pass. For his club, it must be said, Barry himself seldom looks primarily a holding player. In the event, however, Capello was so mystified by the lack of options that he started against the USA without a holding midfielder – Aaron Lennon, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and James Milner started. We can only assume that Graham Norton was busy that evening.
Or maybe he was simply unfit, or out of form – unlike Barry, presumably, when wheeled out in a bath-chair against Algeria. Even his relatively modest capabilities remained painfully beyond reach and, against Germany, he was memorably left for dead by Mesut Ozil. Some were deceived that Barry had been terminally exposed, there and then, as out of his depth. Restored to fitness, however, Barry will be just about the first name on Capello's teamsheet tonight.
England had dominated a qualifying group in which only Andorra did not owe their place in the competition to glasnost, and now here we are playing a nation of just 650,000. But those who view this encounter with apathy do both Montenegro and England a disservice. Since their collapse, the teams that represented the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia have been shown up as far less than the sum of their vassal parts. And venerable football powers are learning that even nations with little obvious pedigree, nourished by renewed national pride, can represent a genuine hazard.
Slovakia and Slovenia, for instance, have both qualified for World Cups since independence. Montenegro themselves arrive here top of the group, with nine points from three games, despite only scoring three goals. Aside from the menace of Vucinic, they clearly know how to defend.
Disaffected England fans can't have it both ways. You can't say that games like this are meaningless, that nations like Montenegro are mere punch-bags, and in the same breath lament our decline and fall. You need only consider the recent travails of France and Italy to sense the shifting sands in international football. And the lack of time and continuity available to national coaches, to establish identity and rhythm for their team, can be exploited by rivals who confine their ambitions to stifling class. That's how Switzerland beat Spain at the World Cup. And that, in a shameful betrayal of their own stature and legacy, is also how the Dutch tried to win the final.
In tandem with the sort of dark genius by which Internazionale stopped Barcelona in the Champions League, encounters between emerging and established football nations can represent significant tests for the future direction of the game. Even Liechtenstein and Andorra, remember, nowadays seem to embrace a negativity that is not so much cynical as homicidal.
By the same token, it is as wrong to yawn over England's bright and purposeful performances since the summer as to imagine that Capello forfeited some divine right to the World Cup. Scandalously, the 2016 finals will be contested by 24 nations, making a nonsense of qualifying. But this time only 14 will qualify alongside the hosts, Poland and Ukraine. Switzerland away was a tougher task than was, say, Northern Ireland away for Italy last Friday. England won in great style; Italy were held to a goalless draw.
In the likes of Adam Johnson, Joe Hart and Jack Wilshere, meanwhile, Capello is blooding players whose chances of helping England do better would be greatly helped if we both understand and respect our limitations. Montenegro may have a smaller population than Birmingham, but it isn't the setting for some Tintin adventure. And while Barry is the cornerstone, Davies strains at the leash, and Vucinic is whipping off his shorts, it would be graceless to disparage positive achievements for either side.
Cipriani's banished talents deserve to ripen in warmer sporting climate
let us hope there are no bleak portents in the fact that Jack Wilshere could win his second cap for England on the very day when another precocious talent leaves these shores – banished, he may well suspect, by a sporting culture with an endemic dread of risk.
Danny Cipriani flies out to Australia today in the hope of discovering a more congenial environment for his coruscating but precarious talent. Exile with the Melbourne Rebels completes a journey in which Cipriani has himself, no doubt, made the occasional wrong turn – albeit perhaps the one that did him most harm, when hastening back too soon from a grotesque ankle injury in 2008, itself confirmation that his glamorous veneer conceals a deep grain of dedication. But the way he has since been frozen out by Martin Johnson, as he takes England into a World Cup year, measures a worrying gap from the judgement of a man with vastly more coaching experience in Sir Ian McGeechan, who put Cipriani on standby for the Lions last year.
Still, we are where we are. And, whether chicken or egg, Johnson would be within his rights to say that Cipriani did not force his way back on his attention in his club game. But he is still only 22, and the embers of that unforgettable debut against Ireland could yet be stoked into new flames on the fast pitches Down Under.
There have been curious stories in recent weeks, almost inevitably, that may fuel the suspicions of those who wonder whether he is simply running away. Cipriani has scoffed at reports that he was tempted, after training with various soccer clubs this summer, to turn professional. And he has apologised to his new team-mates for a brief delay in his departure, attributed to some visa hold-up. In both cases, regardless, there is a hint of the evanescence that defines the best and worst of Cipriani: a fleeting inspiration, a moment of inattention. But his admirers will persevere in the view that his emigration primarily discloses an undiminished instinct for adventure – and in the hope that some day both Cipriani and England can share the dividends.Reuse content