James Lawton: Capello's rage at superstars' somnolence is a welcome wake-up call for England

Click to follow
The Independent Football

It may not be a great resurgent hope for the redemption of England's international football in Zagreb tomorrow night, perhaps it is no more than a desire for a hint of competence, but if you look hard enough there is a glimmer of encouragement.

It is to be found in the demeanour of coach Fabio Capello through almost every second of that ultimately workmanlike win over the Doomsday anti-football of little but unlovely Andorra.

Whatever the limitations of the England performance, and they were plain enough, it was surely reassuring to note that for once impatience in the dug-out was as intense, and as forcefully expressed, as that heard from any rabid, English-occupied corner of Barcelona's Montjuic Stadium.

Wasn't there at least a small surge of the blood each time Capello came off the bench scowling like some irate patron at La Scala at the news that a great tenor had cried off with a mildly sore throat?

More than anything, Capello's body language spoke of professional indignation.

Remember that of his predecessors Sven Goran Eriksson and Steve McClaren? Mostly, it had the blinking confusion and pain of powerless victims of a car smash.

It was also surely significant that when Steven Gerrard made a result-saving impact against the same opposition in the same city in European Championship qualifying last year a grateful McClaren talked about the world-class quality of England's saviour. By comparison, Capello had only the rough end of his tongue for Joe Cole after the Chelsea man lifted England's performance and secured their result. Wayne Rooney, who shook himself out of what can be described as deep somnolence to make rather beautifully one of Cole's two goals, also ran smack into a touch-line tirade.

According to Capello, the sweet flashes of Cole and Rooney did not begin to compensate for what he felt was nothing so much as dereliction of professional duty when they failed to support properly the lonely front man Emile Heskey in the closing stages of a match that, seen most realistically, was always going to be a matter of professional negotiation rather than unbridled or even meaningful triumph.

The hard evidence of competitive progress, of course, will come against Croatia, who have become both the measuring stick and the conscience of this England team, but in Barcelona maybe there was something of a sea change.

In 2007 the embarrassment that accompanied England home was only partly imposed by the low-grade attrition of Andorra. The rest was heaped upon England with their own hands. McClaren, as always, talked of the need to take "positives". "Stevie G" was dressed in the clothes of a hero rather than a professional of fabulous reputation who had managed to produce some of the best of his talent.

Last weekend it seemed that England, thanks largely to their coach's reaction, had come out of an essentially no-win situation with at least a degree of professional attitude. Capello did acknowledge the team's debt to Cole's powers of penetration and said that, though it had dwindled to nothing before he made vital second half switches, Theo Walcott's early contribution had been impressive – and potentially decisive.

Yet his essential message was realistic. While games against teams like Andorra can do little for the spirit and the development of football at any level, and for that reason demand some review of the qualifying system, they have to be engaged as small and exasperating hurdles capable of causing discomfort if not disaster. In this sense they are the football equivalent of acting with animals or children and we can be sure that Capello will not be slow to remind his players that they should know better than anyone that Croatia some time ago graduated at a much higher dramatic level.

Meanwhile, Gerrard is telling the world that his relatively low rate of success in 68 appearances for England is entirely due to the scarcity of his chances in his true position at the centre of midfield. What a wonderfully convenient explanation, what an effortlessly helpful distribution of blame ... and how perfectly representative of all the years of crashing underachievement by the England team in general.

Meanwhile, also, David Beckham announces yet again his availability for a crucial test of England's place in the football world. Self-servingly, you have to suspect, he points out that England are blessed with players of rich experience, over which, with his now swollen total of 104 caps, he presides, a man for all seasons and all ages. Yet experience, precisely, of what? It is of a failure of England to inflict themselves at the highest levels of the international game, one that has been more or less relentless since the rather streaky passage into the World Cup semi-final of 1990.

Fabio Capello has had just a handful of games to bring another, harder view of what might be expected from the nation's footballers, but tomorrow night there is no question that he joins his players at a new level of judgement. That he is aware of it could not be more evident. It is clear in what, at this pivotal point, is maybe his most obvious attribute. It is the degree of his rage when professionals do not do what he considers to be their duty. You may say it is elementary. But it is also encouraging when you think for a moment about what has gone before.

Hamilton anger loses credibility after espionage let-off

Maybe we are out of line here, but is it not true that along with his natural racing brilliance Lewis Hamilton has acquired in the eyes of many the enviable capacity of not being able to do anything wrong?

Certainly, in all the accounts of the FIA's decision to downgrade Hamilton from first to third after the illegal takeover manoeuvre that put his rival Kimi Raikkonen into second place, it was possible to note just one faint argument against the thunderous conclusion that Hamilton had fallen victim to another act of prejudice in favour of Ferrari.

It came, we are told, in the after-race maelstrom of the paddock where somebody apparently mused that Hamilton, blazing with that surge of confident aggression that has been such a remarkable aspect of his extraordinary emergence, may have allowed "adrenalin to triumph over the rulebook".

What is worrying for some – though not, it has to be allowed, the great Niki Lauda – is the widely accepted idea that, having stolen an advantage, Hamilton should then be in sole charge of restoring a fair balance – something that Raikkonen and the Ferrari team heatedly disputed after the Briton's slingshot recovery of the lead from a position of great momentum.

What isn't in dispute, however, is that motor racing has acquired working uncertainties of justice that might just have been despised in the old days West of the Pecos.

Ferrari would presumably make part of their rebuttal to the charge that the whole circus is being run for their benefit a reminder that, when Hamilton's McLaren team were found guilty of massive and shameless industrial espionage last season, both he and his team-mate Fernardo Alonso were allowed to drive on without penalty for the world title.

After such a huge, if squandered, gift Hamilton's outrage might just be a little excessive.

Defeat may be disaster for Khan but not for boxing

Promoter Frank Warren said he was holding up his hands and admitting responsibility for the Amir Khan disaster. What disaster? His and Khan's, no doubt, but surely not boxing's.

The trouble with so much of the sport, why even its most devoted admirers sometimes wonder if it continues to be worth the candle, is that so much promotional activity is geared not so much to making a fighter as building an unbeaten record, one that when it goes will at least see the disappointment cushioned by huge earnings.

This is what happened to a previous sensation of British boxing, Naseem Hamed. Unquestionably Hamed had better credentials for a pro career than the engaging Khan. He had great power and natural, if undeveloped talent. But he never learnt his trade, his reputation was fattened on hopeless opposition, and when he was eventually ordered in against a real opponent, by his American paymasters, Home Boxing Office, he was simply taken apart.

Marco Antonio Barrera was a 4-1 shot that night in Las Vegas. It was a gift for anyone who knew the difference between hype and the real thing but Hamed had the consolation of looking back on some lucrative years.

Khan has also had some good pay days but the golden eagle was shot down some way from the expected full height of its flight path. This was sad for him, and his promoter, but it didn't do any harm to the competitive honesty of boxing.

Comments