James Lawton: Capello must run out Beckham on 99 to hit England's celebrity culture for six

Let's be sure it is for a more serious purpose than another orgy of publicity
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The Independent Football

Fabio Capello could today be spending the last of his holiday in various agreeable ways. He might be lounging on the terrace in Marbella or maybe nosing into the hills of Andalucia, where the rose blooms in winter. Instead he will be in Birmingham. Even at 6m a year this surely suggests impressive dedication to his new challenge as manager of England.

Better still is the solid wave of well-sourced speculation that Capello has found the Aston Villa- Manchester United third round FA Cup tie quite irresistible for the insights it will provide in the vital matter of assessing the competitive potential of such young England contenders as Gabriel Agbonlahor and Ashley Young and the current appetite of key figures like Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney.

Capello could have spent another 24 hours at least flicking on the odd video his England predecessor Sven Goran Eriksson, after all, fashioned a new Manchester City in this way, though to be fair with far more success than ever accompanied his efforts on behalf of the national team. But, no, he wants the indispensably raw experience of the real thing.

So, bravo Fabio. In all, that is, but one respect. If the word is strong that Capello is absolutely determined to make a new England cut free from all the old presumptions and vanities, if he has made it clear he wants every young player of serious talent in this land to believe that the doors to international football are not firmly jammed in their faces, why on earth is it also being seen as a fait accompli that David Beckham is an automatic selection in a new squad against Switzerland at Wembley next month?

Talk about a rogue message in a tide of encouragement. Beckham, currently resting from the minor league demands of America's Major League Soccer, has announced that he is abandoning his role as consort to the revived pop queen Mrs Beckham, in order to get fit. Fit enough, remember, to be able to train with Arsenal's first team squad. That's right, he's getting himself in shape so as to avoid embarrassment not on an international field, but one devoted to training.

It would have been hard enough to make this up in the celebrity regimes of Eriksson and his hapless successor Steve McClaren. In the new iron order of Capello, it is beyond reason.

Capello is putting aside the rose in winter for the mailed fist of a lord protector of English football a couple of days early. But for what? The installation of new hard thinking or some feeble statement that the new England will re-emerge some time after due homage is paid to a former captain who in his time has appeared in five major tournaments, three World Cups and two European Championships, accumulated 99 caps but failed let's be honest to get within a mile of any significant success.

This is not to say he should be denied his 100th cap because of some theoretical notion that it is vital to inject a new face on the England team. What is vital is for Capello to assess talent and arrive, as quickly as possible, at his sense of what represents his best team. This is presumably why he has been in such a rush to clock on. If in time Beckham performs the unlikely feat of proving in MLS or perhaps some more serious theatre of action that he is competitively sharp for football at the highest level, by all means recognise this fact. Give Beckham his 100th cap, but let's be sure it is for a more serious purpose than another orgy of personal publicity and the possibility of swelling the Wembley crowd.

Maybe it is worthwhile mentioning the circumstances in which Sir Bobby Charlton, one of the four centurions Beckham is so anxious to join in the pantheon of England's international football (Peter Shilton, Bobby Moore and Billy Wright are the others), won his 100th cap. It was against Northern Ireland in a home international in April 1970. Charlton scored in a 3-1 victory. Two months, and six matches later, his international career was over. He was, disastrously as it proved, substituted while England, the reigning champions, led Germany late in the quarter-final of the World Cup in Leon, Mexico. Manager Alf Ramsey decided that he would keep Charlton, who was 32 Beckham's age today fresh for the semi-final against Italy. After the game, Ramsay expressed his regrets and both men agreed that it was time to start building a new England. One other, perhaps pertinent fact, was that Charlton had been masterful against the Germans and it was only when he left the field that the great Franz Beckenbauer emerged as the match-winner.

The point? It is that even the greatest players are obliged to acknowledge the realities of their situation; Charlton's was that he would play three more years for Manchester United. Beckham's is that he has accepted a sweetheart deal in minor league football. You do your stuff, you win the caps that are your due, and you move on.

If you are Fabio Capello you certainly do not have any obligations in any of the ceremonials of a football celebrity culture. You do, in reality as well as show, your business and you get right down to it. What is most important to him now propping up the image of a faded superstar or giving such as Agbonlahor and Young and David Bentley the recognition that the future is now and that they may indeed be involved in it?

Anything less than an unequivocal answer will say that the man who wants to save English football might just as well have lingered in the hills of Andalucia for at least a few more days.

Bad boys of rugby and football lead to moral dilemma

Rugby union and football are now required to wrestle with the tricky moral dilemmas presented by allegations of criminal violence levelled against England centre Olly Barkley and Newcastle United midfielder Joey Barton.

In the case of Barkley, particularly, it seems the sports authorities will walk at least one step behind the course of justice. England, of course, played Barkley in the World Cup despite the shadow of charges of assault during a friend's wedding celebrations last year and the word is that he will be involved in the Six Nations Tournament at least until the date of his committal hearing, 11 February. Barton's immediate prospects are less certain but then football does have a record of extreme tolerance when their stars from time to time fall under one kind of suspicion or another.

The Solomonesque solution is probably to be found in the most violent of all sports, boxing. A professional fighter is licensed to practise his trade but it is one that can be withdrawn or suspended at any moment.

No one is saying that anyone is not innocent until proved guilty or that any one crime is irredeemable.

However, professional sport should bestow responsibilities as well as privilege and sometimes astonishing rewards. In this context, allowing someone to represent his country in an extremely physical sport, while being required to answer serious charges in a court of law, suggests a degree of expediency that is hard to justify.

Dallaglio rides off into the sunset leaving a great void

So Lawrence Dallaglio clatters off into the dark night of a warrior's soul, that recognition that possibly the best of his days are over.

It is a hard journey and whatever you think of Dallaglio's treatment of his last England coach, Brian Ashton, or his rather less than statesmanlike behaviour while exuberantly occupying the office of an inspiring captain of England, it is no hardship admitting that rugby union will be a less stimulating place in his absence.

At a time when the nation's sport is so conspicuously short of all-out performers at the highest level, men who share the noble if impractical aspiration of the great Welsh scrum-half Gareth Edwards, "If we lose today dig a hole out there and bury me," Dallaglio is undoubtedly a grievous loss.

A few years ago, before Grand Slam champions England pounded a promising Irish team at Lansdowne Road, Dallaglio (pictured) stuck out his chest so far and bellowed the national anthem so fiercely he was almost a parody of good intentions. But then within a minute or two he was charging over the Irish line. Dallaglio has generally had a lot to say for himself, but before the first dying of his light there was never a question of his words overtaking his deeds.

This is how he wrote his most eloquent epitaph.