James Lawton: England's bankruptcy based on the wages of complacency

It was more than a defeat. It was a humiliating undressing
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Paul Robinson, the goalkeeper who was a fingertip away from a glorious mark in English football history, will take years, and maybe a lifetime, to forget the embarrassment that engulfed him here in Zagreb last night. However, he should not feel too isolated.

The air-kick that allowed Gary Neville's gently rolled back-pass to trickle into the net was a personal nightmare that might just qualify for one of those TV video shows which feature grandmother's wheelchair hurtling into the swimming pool. Yet no level of the England operation, from head coach Steve McClaren to the team psychologist who was supposed to release the "golden generation" from their inhibitions, has reason to hide behind the angst of the most conspicuous casualty of one of the national team's most misbegotten nights.

It was simply not a time to channel the mockery that poured down from the terraces on to one man's shoulders; more, perhaps, an occasion, to remind the Football Association that when it appointed McClaren, the long-time right-hand man of the ultimately moribund Sven Goran Eriksson, they were refusing to detach themselves from six years of waste, six years of accumulated missed opportunity.

Last night the wages of complacency - and the easy option - were all round us. The idea that a move to 3-5-2 would provide an instant injection of coherence was always on the Pollyanna side of fanciful and the reality was almost casually imposed by the quick-passing Croats. Indeed, it was only the fine reflexes of Robinson, which at the time provoked the now ironic reaction that they were worthy of a goalkeeper just one game away from drawing level with a record run of clean sheets by the great Gordon Banks, which prevented a swift descent into darkness.

Robinson, who had twice denied Niko Kranjcar quite superbly in the first half, was again required to produce the same level of resistance in the first minute of the second half when he got two hands to a stealthy header by Mladen Petric.

With Ashley Cole, who arguably had been England's outstanding player in their year-long tour of mediocrity, reacting to the new system with an apparently total collapse of his defensive instincts, the prospects were far from uplifting - and still less so when Rio Ferdinand was obliged to foul Petric crudely and earn a yellow card after one of his trademarked moments of forgetfulness.

Inevitably, the gloom closed in. Robinson was indecisive and wandered off his line and Eduardo da Silva looped in a header. Robinson conceded his tragicomic own goal. The Croats got on the ball as if it was their friend and not an embarrassment. McClaren brought off Jamie Carragher, England's best pure defender, and abandoned the system that was supposed to bring salvation. It was more than defeat. It was an undressing, as relentless as it was humiliating, especially when you remembered that Croatia, for all their combativeness before their own fanatical crowd, are ranked well outside of what represents the upper echelon of world football.

The abandonment of 3-5-2 had the effect of another door clanging shut on the England illusions that have become not so much contentious as pathetic. For those who have long despaired at the failure of a team which was supposed to be one of the most gifted since the days of Bobby Charlton and Bobby Moore, it must also have carried the force of poetic justice.

After the evidence of bankruptcy, moral and technical against Macedonia at the weekend, the possibility that a system of play discarded by all the recognised powers of the game might somehow magically restore poise and conviction was always remote. But in practice, as the Croats surged into the game almost at will, it became something more than a long-shot tactical lunge. It became an escape from the reality of England's plight, and one conducted at a stuttering snail's pace.

As the Croats cruised home it was hard to forget the words of sweet and simple optimism uttered by the captain, John Terry, 24 hours earlier. Terry had talked of how he would rally his troops - and how confident he was that 3-5-2 could be picked up as easily as a new parlour game. No problem, he asserted. You see England had five or six world-class players and the new system, which had been worked on for all of two training sessions, might make it that much easier to get "into" Croat faces.

You could see the weakness of the argument from the first passages of play. England's world-class players, if they indeed exist, were in hiding again. Rather than enhancing the reputation of a defence which had been, ironically, an area of the team largely above reproach, the new plan produced only a series of halting, laboured moves and a general meltdown of defensive priorities.

Frank Lampard remained a striving mediocrity, and what can we say of the dismaying wunderkind Wayne Rooney? He ran with great effort but without a hint of inspiration, still less genius. He has been laid low by his own crisis and the poverty around him.

England now have a bleak winter without another competitive challenge. They may say that this is unfortunate in that it puts back any possible point of redemption. But they should think about that.

They should think about a lot in the long pause. One conclusion is hard to ignore. It is that at present they seem incapable of doing anything more than embarrassing the nation - and themselves.