In the home dressing room at Wembley, just before 10pm on Wednesday night, Steve McClaren attempted to speak to his England players for the last time. His speech was not exactly the address of a great wounded general bowing out with one more rousing address. "You did great to get back in it at 2-2," he said. "I'm just so disappointed." And then, as a heavy, awkward silence hung in the air, McClaren said: "I just don't know what to say." He tried again to express his feelings. And words failed him.
It is understood that more than once in those desperate, dark couple of minutes McClaren trailed off with the wretched admission, "I don't know what to say". He was going out with a whimper, shell-shocked and unable to make sense of what had happened; for his players it was a few minutes of toe-curling embarrassment. Like everyone else, they knew that their manager was to be sacked. No player stepped forward to make a speech or to thank McClaren for his efforts. After a few minutes he was hustled outside to face the media inquisition. The players changed and left in virtual silence.
Upstairs in the suites where the Football Association board members, councillors and their guests have dinner, a small group of men gathered together. Brian Barwick, the FA chief executive, and the FA's lawyer, Simon Johnson, rarely away from Barwick's side, chatted intently to Sir Dave Richards, the Premier League chairman, and the FA chairman, Geoff Thompson. The discussion was evidently about the imminent sacking of McClaren. Thompson had earlier mistakenly referred to McClaren as "Steve McQueen" in an address to around 1,000 guests before the game, including the delegation from the Croatian football association.
As FA chairman, Thompson has made sure his own responsibilities are conveniently vague but one of the few things required of him is that he is asked to say a few words before his free dinner on match day. On this occasion he could not even get the name of the England manager right, an indicator, if ever there was one needed, of the calibre of some of those in the FA hierarchy. One person in the room said that it came out of Thompson's mouth so naturally – albeit inadvertently – that perhaps the "Steve McQueen" line was an in-joke at the FA, one in reference to McClaren's (failed, as it turned out) "great escape". "People were laughing in disbelief," the source said, "it took him 10 minutes to get the room back."
These stories are not related out of malice towards the hapless Thompson, or, in McClaren's case, to make a painful failure even worse. Instead, they are offered as proof, if ever any were needed, of the bankruptcy of the English national football team in the year 2007. A year in which the £757m Wembley was completed, in which the FA's turnover rose to £200m and the Premier League, on which the whole merry-go-round is based, began a television deal that is worth £1.7bn over the next three seasons. An especially rosy garden that cannot, for all its wealth, overpower the pong from the team which is supposed to represent it.
The English public cannot be fooled. For all the Sky Sports hype, for the in-house club television stations preaching a blind faith and the fact that you cannot do an interview with a player today without having to pay lip service to his attendant charitable works – this lot stinks. The England football team and their humiliating failures are the insistent, bleeping alarm which, amid all the usual Premier League euphoria, is the signal that something wrong, horribly wrong, is taking a grip at the root of our game.
In the rain and the muck on Wednesday night at Wembley, the staggering incoherence of the England team seemed to go deeper than just McClaren's team selection. He got it wrong even if some – and I offer a mea culpa here – thought that in theory a 4-5-1 formation was a realistic approach. A brief tactical diversion before we look to the future. Some details emerged yesterday of McClaren's pre-match briefing, in which he had told the midfield Shaun Wright-Phillips and Joe Cole should support Peter Crouch in attack, thus leaving Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard unsure as to their scope to get forward.
Not even that kind of misunderstanding can explain the complete chasing given to our two central midfield luminaries by Luka Modric and Co, but it would explain why poor old Crouch spent much of the evening winning perfectly good knockdowns for his imaginary friend, the non-existent strike partner. Gareth Barry, Lampard and Gerrard played in a straight line in midfield and Croatia allowed Joleon Lescott and Sol Campbell as much time as they wanted on the ball safe in the knowledge that, for their defensive qualities, neither of those defenders could pick out a pass to a midfielder if they were still playing at Wembley this morning.
Tactics board put away, the next question is where does the England football team go from here and how much do we trust those involved with finding McClaren's successor?
There is no doubt that the Premier League's Richards is a powerful man in football, but when you recall that he left as chairman of Sheffield Wednesday just before they plummeted, debt-laden, into the third tier of English football, he becomes a bit more difficult to take seriously. So, too, Thompson, the Mrs Malaprop of the FA, who retires soon and whose unwillingness to express an opinion has stood him well in eight years of being re-elected by the FA's anonymous county representatives. Barwick seems a decent sort but he has had to kowtow to these two men in order to get anything done.
There is some hope. The plain-dealing Football League chairman, Lord Mawhinney, is evidently a serious character if you can stomach a former Conservative government minister at the heart of the people's game. By far the most experienced and capable of any on the board is David Gill, the Manchester United chief executive. His interest in the FA suggests ambitions beyond his club but there is no doubt that, in four years in charge of United, he has established a reputation as a straight talker and a smart operator. The "Hate Glazer" lobby have railed against him but he has done as much as he can to keep that particular ship on an even keel.
And so to the new manager who looks, as things stand, like he will be Martin O'Neill, 55 years old – intelligent, driven, single-minded, volatile and nobody's fool. As one who has barely dealt with O'Neill at all, the observations are that he is a hard man, uncompromising in his beliefs and certainly an alpha male in the way that McClaren could only dream of being. If he does come, then it will surely – rightly – be on his terms, with the loyal back-room staff of Steve Walford and John Robertson who have followed him in his managerial career. And his first major task will be a tour of North America this summer for which just about every big Premier League club will do their best to have their players excused.
So we come full circle on the England manager's job and all that it encompasses. A job in which a manager as tough as O'Neill would be forced to stay on the right side of the big clubs, who, even in England's direst hour yesterday, were not, the cantankerous Richards explained, in any mood to take the blame. It reminded you that the Premier League does not want to smooth the way for a new manager to do the job with the maximum help from the clubs.
Instead, and now more than ever, English football wants a miracle worker as national team manager who will allow the clubs to continue doing whatever they wish to do and still produce a successful national team in spite of those conflicting interests. A man who can deal with the adversity of a league gradually given over to foreign talent, and academies slowly dominated by foreign teenagers, and still produce a winning team. Any other football nation would ask its national team manager just to conquer the world; in England he is required to conquer his own country's self-interest first.
Midfield muddle and fudged formations 10 key mistakes McClaren made
* Axeing David Beckham, Sol Campbell and David James may have been the right thing to do at the time – opinion remains divided – but to do so in such a self-congratulatory way was ill-judged, especially when he had to recall them one-by-one.
* Not playing three at the back against Macedonia. It could have eased the side into the formation, and defeated a team who came to defend in depth and who stole a point against an England side lacking wit and penetration.
* Playing three at the back in the following match, against a Croatia coach who foresaw the ploy and took it apart before England's slaves to 4-4-2 could get to grips with the system.
* Allowing Terry Venables to continue writing an exclusive red-top newspaper column. Not only did he contradict some of McClaren's assertions, it gave rival papers another reason to turn on him.
* Pussyfooting around the Frank Lampard-Steven Gerrard conundrum. First he picked them both, then, for the trip to Andorra, he let it appear Lampard was injured. Then he brought back Lampard, disrupting the promising partnership between Gareth Barry and Gerrard.
* Hiring, then losing Max Clifford. Booking, then cancelling a trip to the Seattle Seahawks. Generally trying too hard to please, and focusing too much on image.
* Messing Jamie Carragher about until the Liverpool defender decided to quit. McClaren chose to play Wes Brown ahead of Carragher in one match.
* Persisting with Paul Robinson after the Germany game, when it was obvious his confidence was shot. A change then would have given Scott Carson, David James, or the form goalkeeper, Rob Green, time to bed in.
* Not starting with Peter Crouch against a Russian defence which is hopeless in the air. Playing Joleon Lescott as a third centre-back-cum-left-back in the same game.
* Picking Crouch against Croatia, but not Beckham to supply him or a partner to feed off him.
Glenn MooreReuse content