James Lawton: Display of strength and character begins to restore the national game to its people

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The most beneficial trick now will be restraint, a dogged refusal to make instant mythology out of a victory over a team who were somewhat less than Greek gods. But then who could deny there was reason enough for celebration?

Greece are, after all, still the champions of Europe and here last night they were picked to pieces by a side who so recently were masquerading as England.

Yet if the sense of new beginnings was obvious, if the imprint of football intelligence that new coach Steve McClaren was looking for in the appointment of Terry Venables blazed through the one-sided action, another emotion accompanied the relief that England were once again playing strong and coherent football.

It was perhaps as inevitable and fierce as the cheers that greeted the England break-out that brought the first-half tide of goals from new captain John Terry, Frank Lampard and two from Peter Crouch.

It was a still smouldering anger. Anger at the wasted years of Sven Goran Eriksson, the idiocy of his last World Cup campaign, the indulgences he granted certain members of his squad and, perhaps most of all, the sense that the nation's football had for more than five years been annexed not so much by a foreigner but by indifference, a shrinking willingness to face certain realities.

Of course, there was much delight in the ranks of the Football Association hierarchy, the men who sail on from one disaster to another while rarely being threatened by a place among the casualties. David Beckham may disappear over the horizon with his millions and his lost aura, but the old boys in the blazers do nothing more dramatic than eventually fade away. However, last night they indulged in premature triumphalism at their peril. This wasn't so much a carefully fashioned and well conceived victory; more the handing back of the national game to its people.

England again were a team of force and character, and it could be said without concern that this was not a game which would have so much bearing on the competitive challenge which comes on the qualifying road to the European Championship against Guus Hiddink's Russia and Croatia. There were movement and measured passing and life along both the flanks, where Steven Gerrard and Stuart Downing reminded us that, whatever the dead-ball virtuosity of a Beckham, there is nothing like width and pace to stretch an opposing defence and create the momentum of victory.

So yes, this was the start for which McClaren might have prayed but will be wise largely to discount.

What his regime opening marked was, no more, and certainly no less, a return to old horizons, ageless possibilities. These do not automatically include the belief that England, after the feebleness of their World Cup performances against lightweights like Paraguay, Trinidad, Sweden and Ecuador, are suddenly back on course to take the football world by storm.

No, that will take considerably more progress ... and the shaking of old habits of thought. However, what was apparent again was uplifting enough. It was a team which had escaped crippling inhibitions, some of them tactical, some of them psychological.

Jermain Defoe, so grotesquely ignored by Eriksson in favour of the football innocent Theo Walcott, was perhaps the most dramatic example of what can happen when faith and a little self-belief are restored to the margins of an establishment once so dominated by the all-consuming image of Beckham. Defoe ran with sharpness and bite and made two goals. He was a striker of touch and craft. He relit that anger which flared in Germany so recently and so bitterly.

The fact that the FA continues to be drained by the folly of its investment in the Eriksson regime was yet another source of angst as the reborn England stretched away from, it could only be hoped, the worst of their futility. But, of course, you cannot dwell with too much anguish on the past. You cannot forget its lessons but you can dismiss the worst of the pain.

Here, the process was helped hugely by the belief that England had remembered how to represent the best of themselves on a football field. It is with boldness and spirit and strength , the kind which once persuaded the great Dutchman Johan Cruyff to say that no nation in Europe could more easily generate a warrior spirit.

A few weeks ago in Germany that seemed one of the more forlorn asides of football history, but not last night. There is so much ground to reclaim, and belief to restore, but the sight of Owen Hargreaves, the one authentic English hero of the World Cup, being warmly embraced by a crowd which once sneered at his unshowy game and low profile was just one hint that a new reality may have been embraced. This was an opening shot, no doubt, but it was one that the football nation longed to hear.

England man for man: Who dazzled and who didn't at Old Trafford

Paul Robinson

Last spotted settling down for a picnic in the second minute. Not seen (or needed) after that. Subbed at half-time for Chris Kirkland. 5/10

Gary Neville

Busy but less than 100 per cent. His style can be a throwback to a more huff-and-puff era but, nevertheless, no errors, lots of plusses. 6

John Terry

Great start as captain, doing what it says on the tin. Led with passion, effective simplicity, and an opening headed goal. 8

Rio Ferdinand

A typically positive performance. Kept mistaking himself for George Weah with upfield forays, but calmness at back allowed it. 7

Ashley Cole

In arguably England's most fluid, cohesive team show since that 5-1 win in Germany, he was merely fine. 6

Steven Gerrard

Quality display from nominal right-wing berth, more often central or inside-right, from where passes and shots flowed. 8

Frank Lampard

Eager and effective. Showed he can hit a barn door, and more, with runs, goal and assists. 7

Owen Hargreaves

Superb show from England's man of the World Cup. What strikes you most is his peerless 90-minute stamina, range of runs, passing, deft touches and eye for openings. 8

Stewart Downing

Made a decent case that club mentor McClaren knows his onions, with steady shift, good crossing and jinking supply runs. 7

Peter Crouch

A super night, showing a defiantly delicate touch, stepovers, Weebles get-upability under constant targeting, and goals. 8

Jermain Defoe

Pacy in fits and starts (and numerous offsides). Dropped deep to try to get ball, but only partly successful as Crouch's foil. 6

SUBSTITUTES

Chris Kirkland

On at h-t for Paul Robinson. Top-notch saves in 54th and 84th minutes. 6

Kieran Richardson

On for Defoe in 69th minute. Keen to seize snap chances. 6

Aaron Lennon

Came on for Downing in the 69th minute. Effervescent in limited time. 6

Jamie Carragher

On for Neville in 79th minute. Little time for impact.

Darren Bent

On for Gerrard in 79th minute. Little time for impact.

Wayne Bridge

On for Cole in 81st minute. Cameo run-out.

Comments