James Lawton: Capello the liberator sets Gerrard free from self-serving tradition of the past

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The Independent Football

Steven Gerrard can only blame himself if England's expectations are running a little riotously before today's friendly against Slovakia at Wembley, but what is there to regret? Not since the golden generation was scratched once too often and revealed to be something rather less than 22-carat has an individual player hit such a vein of form and if that piles responsibility on the shoulders of a 28-year-old who will be winning his 71st cap, so be it.

Surely it is time for England's players to set themselves standards of performance out on the field rather than in their own imaginings. That Gerrard has achieved this more dramatically than anyone since Wayne Rooney threatened to take over Euro 2004 in Portugal is certainly no reason to retreat from the meaning of what he has done. It is a matter for celebration that he has stood up so far beyond the rest and delivered something against which he will now always be judged.

No doubt a hatful of reasons can be advanced for Gerrard's superb eruption of confidence and force over the last few weeks.

One is certainly the space and inspiration being provided by his clubmate Fernando Torres. His manager Rafa Benitez's gift of a permanent role operating just a little behind Torres, and a settled team, is surely another significant factor.

Maybe it is also true that as he will now face just one charge, of affray, when he appears in Liverpool Crown Court some of the clouds that took up residence above his head when he lingered too long in the Lounge Inn in Southport, at Christmas time have dispersed.

But then perhaps there is a deeper running pattern which predates all those other favourable developments. As we were reminded this week when he briskly dealt with the recidivist tendencies of Wayne Rooney and Ashley Cole, Fabio Capello has handed a clear imperative to his leading England players. He has demanded both discipline and consistent evidence that they are responding to his requirements.

Gerrard knows that England expects this afternoon – but then no more intensely than does Capello.

Michael Owen, who claimed after the match that denied England a place in the European Championship finals that not one member of the winning Croatia side was guaranteed a place in Steve McClaren's team, was the first to learn of the new manager's disdain of established reputations. David Beckham grasped quickly enough that his continued dalliance in North American football would be a death knell to his hopes of surviving all the way to next year's World Cup. When Rooney and Joe Cole rescued England from an embarrassing plight against Andorra, as Gerrard had done the previous year, their heroics were discarded in favour of a blistering commentary on their failure to work harder in support of their team-mate Emile Heskey.

When Gerrard did it for McClaren we were promptly reminded that 'Stevie G' was a world class player, but then did it take all of that status to get the better of a glorified pub team?

What Gerrard is benefiting from most, it seems beyond debate, is the wholesale raising of expectations. His form for England is a distinctly raised line on the graph and it has carried him so beyond the debate in which both Sven Goran Eriksson and McClaren could only make routinely feeble answers to the question of why it was impossible for such stand-out club performers as Gerrard and Frank Lampard to make anything much of themselves while playing for England.

So when the stage is given to Gerrard today nobody has to apologise for expecting a performance some way along the lines of those he produced against Real Madrid, Manchester United and Aston Villa. And if that is indeed accomplished against the modestly rated Slovakians as a prelude to a fifth straight competitive victory when Ukraine are the opponents on Wednesday night, we can certainly trust in the reaction of Capello. If Il Capo was disappointed by his team's failure to match the touch of Spain in Seville he will no doubt have welcomed the chance to remind his players of quite how much work is to be done if a serious challenge is to be made in the World Cup finals.

Equally certain is that Beckham's good natured bromide on the subject of Rooney's serial anger, how it was necessary not to curb too severely his warring instincts, will have been received with just a small sprinkle of that salt Capello sometimes finds necessary in order to spice up the taste of an English bread roll. However well meant were the comments of the former captain, and however elaborately he was cajoled into making them, their fate was surely preordained. They went straight into the ragbag of euphemism and excuse that was used to justify England's failures for so long.

Gerrard's apparent liberation from such a self-serving, and self-defeating tradition is not the least exciting aspect of the clear sense that England have found new horizons – and new standards.

So of course it is true that if we do not expect the world from him today, we do anticipate quite a lot. He has invited us to do so and for that alone we are entitled to quicken our stride along Wembley Way – and without apology, of course.

The lies, Damned lies and box office statistics

Given all the advance publicity, perhaps it is necessary to say that the film The Damned United is not entirely an unalloyed banquet of sparkling entertainment. It has its moments, especially when Michael Sheen is filling the screen with his brilliant impersonation of Brian Clough, but like the book on which it is based, it invites you to wonder about quite how much invasion of the truth can be reasonably accepted, even in the cause of art – and in this case its eager bedfellow, box office profit.

Certainly it is not hard to understand how it was that John Giles, the only key character in the story still alive, was able to successfully demand the wholesale rewriting of his part in the story of Clough's 44-day disaster at Leeds United.

Giles, with a battery of witnesses, was able to prove that fiction had intruded to a level offensive to anyone who was aware of the facts. He also regretted that the late Clough, Don Revie and Billy Bremner were unable to join him in court and marshall similar arguments, which he believes would have been equally successful.

The Damned United is a tautly written, page-turning book and a movie which often superbly evokes near-forgotten times and places. But then when you think of how roughly it has handled the truth it is hard not to conclude the price is rather too high.

Oscar Wilde did, of course, say that life imitates art far more than art imitates life. Unfortunately, no-one passed this on to Clough and Revie and the rest of the cast in a story that makes commercial plunder of real lives.

Hamilton's chance to show character worthy of world champion

Mournful noises are being made by world champion Lewis Hamilton. They come after broad hints that the less than perfect adjustment of his team, McLaren, to the new requirements of Formula One may soon create an acute case of itchy feet.

Let's hope the wunderkind takes a little time to reflect on how sweetly his career has flown so far.

Of all corners of sporting life, the effects of the recession were bound to cut most deeply into budgets that even at pinnacles of boom were often deemed extravagant to the point of obscenity. It's tough, all round, Lewis, but you know what they say about hard times. They produce the best in hard men.

Certainly his stock in this quarter will rise sharply if he shows the kind of resolution that is required of so many racers who are not fortunate to land into the most successful and best financed of teams.

Some believe that on a more level racing track, such young drivers as Robert Kubica and Nico Rosberg would have shown up much more favourably in competition with Hamilton. It is also true that the great Frank Williams once said that picking the best driver was something akin to pinning the tail on the donkey.

It is time then, for every racer to get his head down and do the best he can until, hopefully, the rich days roll around again. Or, to put it another way, join in with the rest of the world.