James Lawton: Cut McClaren loose

England's reprieve has not halted debate over the future of the national manager
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The Independent Football

Given the level of good luck enjoyed by the generalship of Steve McClaren these last few days – Napoleon would surely have called him to his tent and planted a kiss on both cheeks at the moment of Israel's victory over Russia – it is no great reach to imagine the scenario which will confirm his and England's participation in the finals of next year's European Championship.

Consider for a moment the possibility that David Beckham fires in the free-kick or the cross that delivers the clinching victory or draw against Croatia on Wednesday night. Think of the playbacks to the time when he performed a similar feat to get England to the World Cup of 2002 at the end of a bankrupt performance against Greece at Old Trafford.

Some would see much glory in this – and a stunning windfall for the former captain who made, if you thought about it, his own comment on the last of his viability at the top of the game when he agreed to swap what remained of his reputation for the fortune offered by Los Angeles Galaxy. Others, however, would see the ultimate distortion of an English qualifying campaign which has been mostly hapless.

They would, with agreement here, say that England's qualification, however fortuitous, confirms McClaren in his position – but not that it is right.

The point of raising the possibility of Beckham being involved in the moment of deliverance is that it would say, more eloquently than any other development, that McClaren has not only failed to move England on, he has entrenched all the weaknesses of the past. Sven Goran Eriksson at least got his team to the big show under his own steam.

By returning Beckham to the team in Vienna last Friday night– as well as Frank Lampard, at the expense of a Gareth Barry who had made such an easily measurable contribution to an increase in England's midfield coherence – McClaren revealed two weaknesses, both of them killing in any assessment of his potential to grow strong where he had been so dismayingly weak in the preparation for those disasters against Macedonia, Croatia and Israel which had made him such a desperate witness to the melodrama of this last weekend. McClaren's selection in Vienna showed two tendencies, one to panic and one to forget the lessons of his most recent past, and if you do not learn from what happened yesterday, what are you going to do tomorrow?

Because of injury McClaren was forced into team changes before the life-giving Wembley victories over Israel and Russia and a performance in Moscow which, while wrecked by the chaos which came in the wake of an unfortunate penalty decision, was certainly not without merit – indeed, might easily have been triumphant if Steve Gerrard and Micah Richards had taken advantage of chances swathed in gift wrapping.

Before Moscow the temptation – not an overwhelming one, it has to be admitted – was that McClaren might just have learnt something; he might have been given a flash of insight in difficult circumstances.

But when he went off to Los Angeles to check the fitness of Beckham– where he identified a saviour in the man who had tearfully abandoned the captaincy after his third straight failure in the role in a major tournament and had been assigned to the past in McClaren's most significant decision as the new manager of England – the message was as clear as it was bleak.

McClaren was floundering as he awaited the outcome of the match in Tel Aviv and, in something that suggested sport's version of Pontius Pilate calling for the soap and the water, the verdict that the Football Association had invited the fans to make at Wembley this week. His qualifying campaign had been a tangle of confusion, of unstated priorities – a scandal when you consider that in prospect it was so comfortable, especially when set against the challenge facing Scotland against France and Italy and World Cup quarter-finalists Ukraine, one which Ally McCoist might have described, as he did when he found that he was facing Germany, Uruguay and hosts Mexico in 1986 as a Group of Certain Death.

By contrast McClaren, failing some fresh catastrophe at Wembley on Wednesday night, might be said to have survived the Group of Perpetual Life. So of course he will go on – and for no better reason than that the FA simply cannot bear to contemplate anything like a repeat of the embarrassment which marked its attempts to replace Eriksson, and certainly not without the pressure of a nation – and a media – baying for blood.

McClaren will indeed survive for no better reasons than administrative convenience and an upsurge of good fortune. It is the way of English football. It is a way of living in a state of unending optimism starved of supporting evidence.

What, really, has McClaren, as one of the best paid managers in world football, brought to the England cause? Has he begun to sort out the midfield confusion? Well, he did begin but so soon the endeavour appears to have been abandoned with Lampard and Gerrard, who as individual talents would walk into almost every national team in the world, apparently licensed again to meander from one tactical impasse to another.

Have England shown progression under McClaren? Have they evolved to new levels of certainty? Does the return of a Beckham plainly far from true fitness, the playing of Michael Owen at any point other than outright invalid status, the protection of the increasingly vulnerable Paul Robinson, suggest that England have indeed covered any significant ground since Eriksson seemed to be presiding over an old boys' club rather than a team moving, as Jürgen Klinsmann's did so brilliantly towards the last World Cup, on a steadily improving graph of confidence and understanding?

No, the evidence, if you discard the rabbit's feet and the bolts from heaven, is simply not there.

McClaren urged the mob jury that is now much less likely to play a part in his fate to wait for the weekend outcome. He said he still believed in England's chances of qualifying. But what was this other than the hopeful projection of someone heading to the one-armed bandits with a bucket of coins?

No doubt the FA will eschew such scathing thoughts. It will do as it always does. It will ride the most favourable circumstances it can find, it will put on the best possible face.

It did this after Eriksson's failures in two big tournaments, his fate being decided not by an inability to seize the big moments but a misadventure organised by the News of the World; it has been doing it, more or less permanently, since Sir Alf Ramsey briefly made his own rules, his own values.

Now, no doubt, FA is primed to back its lucky general. It will dress it up as some steadfast belief in continuity. It will endorse a man who, it will claim, performed his first duty, who guided England, at the first time of asking to a major tournament. It will not reflect on how recently he properly owned the optimism of a man walking the plank.

But then who will if it should happen that David Beckham does for a moment reinvent the failed promise of something that a front-rank football nation would some considerable time ago have consigned to the past? And what is that? A refusal to grab at any old straw blowing in the wind.