James Lawton : England were rock bottom and you landed the hardest Wayne

An open letter to the errant striker from our Chief Sports Writer
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The Independent Online

Dear Wayne,

Do you really want to know the story, how it truly is, or was your statement "Nice to see your own fans booing you. If that's what loyal support is... for fuck's sake," merely another cry of self-pity from a leading English footballer?

If it was the latter, maybe you ought to know that the time when it might have been granted a moment's tolerance, still less compassion, is over. It's gone, finito, all washed up.

It's the same with reports that John Terry, of all people, might be trying to rally dressing-room opinion against the methods and the style of your coach, Fabio Capello.

Do yourself a major favour on this one, Wayne. Get your head down – and let Terry work his way through his own agenda, because we have an idea whose interests and prejudices dominate this particular list of priorities.

In your case, the problem for those of us who have long seen in you qualities that might just have give England a chance, an outside one admittedly, of ending 44 years of futility, is that you have now painted yourself in some depressingly familiar colours.

You have defined yourself not as a superb footballer desperate to achieve the goals that so many times you have suggested are within reach. No, in the last few days you have become a much less uplifting figure. It is of one who, like so many before you wearing the English shirt, seems to enjoy everything about his hugely privileged status except the need to deliver something special, something single-minded, something that might begin to justify all the praise and all of the rewards.

Something, let's get right down to it, that separates winners and losers, men of action and character and, well, posers, big-heads, those who believe that what talent they have is a resource that can be tapped at least to sufficient degree to maintain extraordinary life-style and celebrity.

For some of us on Friday night in Cape Town the worst aspect of the most pitiful England performance anyone could remember was that no one had crossed on to the wrong side of that line more profoundly than you. You have to try to understand the shock and the disillusionment this has created, even to the point where some are now saying you should be dropped.

The proposition is not entirely absurd, Wayne, because if you are obviously one of the most naturally gifted performers at this 19th World Cup, you also appear to be one of those least comfortable in their own skin – and thus prone to heaven knows what disaster.

It is one positive, in a taut and troubling way given your disciplinary record and red mist exclusion from the last World Cup, that you do seem to carry a rage to succeed, but this is no good if it results in the kind of performance you put in at the Green Point Stadium. This one was so much worse than that in Rustenburg against the United States six days earlier, when in some corners, including this one, the heavier criticism seemed misplaced.

In Rustenburg you were still demonstrably one of the world's best players, creating at least three chances that should have been converted as the team overcame the passing hammer blow of Robert Green's tragic error.

On Friday night, though, you might have struggled to form a defence team from the most desperate bunch of ambulance chasers in legal history. England were rock bottom, Wayne, and you were the guy who landed hardest. There is all kind of talk that you are unhappy with the tactics laid down by Capello, that they do not quite suit the specifics of your game.

This, too, is not cutting the slightest shard of ice among most of those who have believed in you since you first exploded at Goodison Park – and, as a teenager, utterly transformed an England European Championship qualifying performance against Turkey in Sunderland's Stadium of Light. You certainly produced some shades of hope that night and it was just one jarring recall in the midst of Friday's appalling breakdown.

We are told that you want the freedom to play your own game, Wayne, but then you should know by now that such hopes are always at risk of compromise. When Cristiano Ronaldo was on a flood tide at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson didn't fret too long over asking you to do something that was not ideally suited to your talent. He did that in the belief that he was making the best of his resources.

Whether he was, and whether Capello has got all his selection decisions right here in South Africa, is obviously a matter of debate. What isn't worth a moment's conversation, though, is that a team with the track record of your own should linger for a second over whether to issue Capello with a new set of priorities.

The worst suspicion is that as a competitor you too have been contaminated by the culture of Premier League football, that the boy who lit up the sky over Goodison Park and then Old Trafford has been drawn into the widely held belief that all else pales beside the rewards and glitz of the world's richest league. And that as a consequence the weeks marooned on the high veldt, separated from the mansion and those other gratifications of the rich life, is a challenge too hard to maintain.

It is a mind-numbing possibility for most inhabiting the real world but the demeanour of the England team, and the one you have displayed especially, is suggesting that this may indeed be so.

This, certainly, is the most potent source of the boos, Wayne, this belief that England's footballers have long inhabited a world insulated from self-criticism and, indeed, any proper level of self-analysis. Sven Goran Eriksson cultivated that belief with his constant defence of poor performance but now the public rage of Capello throws up a possibility that has maybe been avoided too long.

It may be true England's most debilitating weakness is not attitude but an untreatable shortfall in the required level of ability – and character.

This is something you and some of your celebrated – and equally under-performing team-mates – should consider in the light of the latest speculation that you may indeed be hatching rebellion.

We are, remember, talking about the coach who so recently turned the team away from the status of a laughing stock of world football, one who has a record of deep and sustained achievement and learned almost everything he knows in a culture which has won four World Cups against England's one.

You and your team-mates may believe you know better than Capello but where is the inkling of this in the record of your generation of players? Did he inherit a going concern, a team who had proved their ability to meet the toughest of challenges, or a collection of "superstars" incapable of finding their way into the finals of the European Championships?

And then when your former boss, Steve McClaren, was so widely lampooned as the Wally under the Brolly how many of you stepped forward to say that perhaps the distribution of blame could have run a little wider?

It is rather amazing, isn't it, how England players so regularly escape the sharpest edge of criticism, how it is always a Hoddle or a Keegan, an Eriksson or McClaren, and now a Capello who has to be rescued from his own folly?

It's changing, though, Wayne, and if you and your team-mates are smart you will grasp, at the latest hour, you have to change too.

You have to pay more than lip service to the idea that you are here on a kind of national duty and remember, when everything seems so impossible, it is one that is it unlikely to leave you dead or in some army hospital, where they will try to rebuild your body and your life.

It's a good life, Wayne, isn't it, and the reason it is so good is because you have announced a special talent, one that has led so many of your supporters to believe not just in your ability but your passion to succeed.

They booed not because of one bad performance, which can happen to anyone, but the terrible sense that you were incapable, or worse still, unwilling to step outside of your own frustrations and play as they know you can in these days which may be the most important of your professional life.

This is what the booing is really all about, Wayne. It is not disloyalty or mere peevishness at having travelled so far to see such wretched performance.

It is about the hard, sure conviction that what you and Steve Gerrard and Frank Lampard and the rest produced in Cape Town last Friday night was worse than unacceptable. It was a disgrace.

You reneged on your duty to England but then, if you think about it, perhaps you will see that you betrayed no one more than yourselves.

Yours sincerely,

James Lawton

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