James Lawton: England should have followed route '66 to avoid threat of defensive breakdown

Defence is the bedrock of all the highest football ambition and it is here we have to worry most about Fabio Capello's resources ahead of the World Cup
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Historical perspective is no doubt a valuable commodity and probably should not be ignored – except, maybe, when you are trying to avoid that familiar sinking feeling that England's World Cup hopes are heading to hell in a handcart.

With the great show less than a fortnight away, there must certainly be more encouraging exercises than comparing England's horrible warm-up performances against Mexico (ranked 17th) and Japan (45th) with the one that crowned preparations for the nation's only triumph in 1966.

This was in the Polish citadel of Chorzow, a formidable place indeed. It is in the Silesia coalfield where the Poles play all the games they particularly want to win. Ninety-three thousand fans turned up and liberally passed around the vodka before glumly watching the putative world champions coolly achieve a 1-0 victory. This was the final game of a four-match European tour which saw England also win in Helsinki, Oslo and Copenhagen by an aggregate margin of 11-1, with four of the goals coming from an apparently resurrected Jimmy Greaves.

The real point of the comparison, however, is that England fielded 10 of the players who a few weeks later beat West Germany in the World Cup final, including the entire defence in which the nearest thing to a selection controversy had been the occasional hint from the coach, Alf Ramsey, that in the end he might decide on the ferocious tackling of Norman Hunter rather than the majestic poise of Bobby Moore.

Insiders saw through this outrageous fiction, correctly concluding that the coach was merely making sure that the still youthful Moore, who made the game look so outrageously easy on the international stage, kept his feet as near to the ground as possible for a man possessing such a celestial grasp of defensive requirements.

Defence is, of course, the bedrock of all the highest football ambition and it is here we have to worry most about Fabio Capello's resources as he prepares for the opening game against the United States in less than two weeks' time.

Capello's assertion that he knows the identity of his goalkeeper is all very well but, if Robert Green appears to have nosed ahead of David James, it is still essential surely that both players are able to concentrate on the needs of their status, whatever it is.

Defence is Capello's biggest concern, despite the fact that England's failure to score a goal on their own account against Japan made ridiculous claims that before the end of the game in Graz there was some clear light at the end of the Alpine tunnel.

It certainly still looked pretty murky to George Cohen, one of those World Cup heroes who reports that, in the match in Chorzow, when he was winning his 24th cap after a successful challenge to England's former captain Jimmy Armfield, the understanding he shared with fellow defenders Moore, Ray Wilson, Jack Charlton and withdrawn midfielder Nobby Stiles had become utterly implicit.

"Alf knew his defence about nine months before the World Cup – and we all knew it. That helps a lot. I admire Capello, he has avoided a lot of the mistakes made by Sven Goran Eriksson and Steve McClaren, but there is no doubt about the fact that it was alarming to see England defend against Mexico at Wembley.

"I know John Terry and Ashley Cole were missing, but they could be out for one reason another in South Africa and what was left, well, it wasn't adequate – not against the Mexicans, who are a nice little team going forward, but should never have been allowed to create so many chances. They hit the woodwork and Green had to make two really excellent saves. It could all have ended in great embarrassment.

"The trouble is that there is no doubt Capello has called on the best available players. But then how many English players can he pick from in the Premier League? Glen Johnson scored a lovely goal against the Mexicans, but you have to worry that he hasn't learnt the real business of defending. The other concerns are that Rio Ferdinand has played so few games this season, John Terry is getting a bit slower and with Ledley King's injury background he is not going to get through a tournament. He too was caught out too easily by the Mexicans."

It probably needs to be said that Cohen is neither fatalistic nor jealous of the chance that the place in the sun he has enjoyed for so long with his Wembley team-mates might just be invaded in a few weeks' time. "Maybe things will click in South Africa," he says, "and any team that contains Wayne Rooney has to have some belief. This time, too, we can hope that Capello will get the kind of performances from senior players that have been lacking in the past."

This possibility is, of course, assisted by the fact that Capello is expected today to do what he always said he would, sign the contract that should have been presented to him some time ago. Given his experience and competitive nerve, the optimum team of Green, Johnson, Ferdinand, Terry, A Cole, Walcott, Lampard, Gerrard, J Cole, Crouch and Rooney is, of course, not without hope. However, in view of recent events caution seems the adult reflex.

Apologists for the return of Richards leave sickly taste

No one wants to send a pack of sports vigilantes down to Worcester, where Dean Richards is being allowed to resume his involvement in rugby union scarcely a year into the three-year ban which came with his conviction for cheating while coach of Harlequins.

No, the former England legend didn't kill anyone and he does have to get on with his life. However, the fact that he is being allowed by the Rugby Union, on a legal nicety we are told, to work as a consultant is another pitiful statement about the sport's grasp on what is right and what is wrong.

One argument in favour of the restitution of Richards' right to earn a living from the sport he so dishonoured, in such a basic way, is that as sport is awash with malpractice already his crime was relatively minor. Here, for example, is the opinion of one serious Sunday newspaper: "Much of the criticism of Richards has been self-righteous blather. Boiled down, his crime was a minor one, even if was breathtakingly audacious."

Let's do a little boiling of our own. Richards induced one of his players to feign injury with a fake blood capsule and worked assiduously to cover up the offence. He incorporated into the strategy of one of the nation's most distinguished sports organisations a system of bypassing the rule on substitutions. We are told that this action, and the subsequent lying and masquerading that threatened the medical career of a distraught club doctor, was quite a minor infringement of the laws and the morality of the game.

We are also advised that not only is the Rugby Union right not to fight Richards' legal interpretation of his sentence but that it should also acknowledge that he has served it for far longer than he should.

Of course, it is necessary to worry about every form of cheating in every sport – and ask what is the point of any of it if it can be subverted without provoking universal outrage? In the case of Richards, his apologists insist that his crime was minor. He cheated and he lied. It was no big deal.

The exposure of Richards seemed shocking enough when it happened. Bloodgate dragged us through the entrails of cynicism in sport and in life. But it didn't quite prepare us for some of the reactions this week to his reappearance. They have been soulless, nihilistic, and they make you want to retch.

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