James Lawton: Another tall story comes to the rescue of McClaren

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The Independent Football

No rehearsals were required for the England coach Steve McClaren's latest victory speech. He got what he wanted here in the Balkan football ambush country, three points towards European Championship qualification and an all-winning record preserved against opposition who suggested they might just have the nerve, and the skill, to inflict a little damage of their own.

Fortunately for the idea of a renaissance of English international football under the new coach, the suggestion remained veiled and ultimately unfulfilled as it was swept aside by the extraordinary consistency of Peter Crouch's ability to arrive at the right place at a vital time.

Crouch's strike at the start of a second half which had promised all kinds of pressures and discomforts for England gave them just enough ballast. Crouch, accelerating towards outright cult status after turning back the mockery of most of the football nation, is becoming as much talisman as striker, and if England failed to produce anything that smacked of genuine conviction - or control - after he did his crucial work, he did inspire a rugged refusal to submit to the menace of Macedonia's best player, Lazio's Goran Pandev.

Yet certain realities could not be side-stepped too lightly here last night. Macedonia, for all the vigour of their work under their new Serbian coach, Srecko Katanec, and opening qualifying victory in Estonia, are still ranked a mere 67th in the world. They often had more purpose than England, and the rhythm of their passing was superior. It meant that England were required once again to rest on what should be seen as the slender satisfaction of a job done - if not well done.

Certainly they should not linger too long over that classic and eventually self-destructive euphemism that it is the result that matters. Performance matters because in the end it is only that which delivers the results that separate the true contenders from the merely wishful thinking and if England believe they can return to the front rank of world football they will have to accept last night was much less than an inspiring harbinger.

What it revealed, indeed, was more evidence that England are still a team who lack the kind of coherence which sustains those with genuine credentials for the major prizes. Critically absent, still, is the sense of a player who can shape a game, dictate its course and always have the potential to cow the opposition with more than the odd moment of fleeting brilliance.

This, sadly, is again the cue for the nation's most gifted footballer in the enforced absence of Wayne Rooney. Steven Gerrard once again came critically short when the challenge before him could not have been more explicit.

On a night which had all kinds of potential for serious misadventure, Gerrard was never the man on whom England could focus their best hopes. He showed moments of power, inevitably, but mostly they were lost in a seeping incoherence in the midfield. Indeed, when Katanec brought on the old hero Artim Sakiri and Pandev produced his last surges of creativity at speed, England were pushed almost the point of breakdown.

Ashley Cole's goal-line clearance brought deliverance but it couldn't dislodge the sense of a team still in search of true belief in their own powers. John Terry escapes responsibility because he is the captain of spirit, of a deep competitive integrity, and this at least was preserved.

Immediately before the game England's recently appointed team psychologist, Bill Beswick, had a touchline conference with captain Terry, vice-captain Gerrard and Crouch - the man whose recent flood of goals had caught Macedonian attention.

Few men in England seem less in need of psychological support than Crouch, however, and the need for psychology faded quickly enough against the imperative for decisive football thinking. This is supposed to be supplied by such as Gerrard and Frank Lampard, who, despite his contribution to Crouch's goal and one break and shot which carried an echo of some of his best work, had no reason to complain when replaced near the end.

His face was filled with displeasure but then maybe McClaren, who defended the recently much-criticised player with a barrage of statistics on the eve of the game, was making the point that there has to be a time where reputation matters less than performance.

England, and Lampard, may say that the job was done well enough but they will only be kidding themselves if they seek any extra validation. The truth is that this is a team which has existed - merely existed - too long on a diet of hope and speculation. We are supposed to be moving into a new chapter, but last night the leaves of a familiar page were as dog-eared as ever.