James Lawton: FA and McClaren real villains of piece after Venables puts England in friendly firing line

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When Terry Venables, one of the brightest football men bred in these islands and a rare England coach not utterly dwarfed by the legacy of Sir Alf Ramsey, tells us that it would be a good idea to abandon friendly internationals, it is official. England's national team is not a work in progress but accelerating disarray.

His premise - as far as one can make out - is that the kind of game which England lost so dismally at Old Trafford last week interferes with such essential business as preparing for next month's potentially decisive European Championship qualifying game against Israel in Tel Aviv.

The trouble, says the beleaguered head coach Steve McClaren's No 2, is that when you are planning for a meaningless game against Spain you should really be working on the problems posed by an Israeli team with a superb record at home. The difficulty is compounded, Venables complains, by the disruption caused by injury to key players. Nor is it helped, he might have added, by the absurd restriction England placed on themselves by playing Steven Gerrard for just 45 minutes in that last chance of meaningful work before the challenge in Israel.

It should not have been matter for negotiation. England have the right to play who they like for as long as they like. It is written down in the regulations of the game and the nonsense of "half-matches" for players deemed more important than others is no more than a legacy of Sven Goran Eriksson's pathetically failed attempt to snuggle up to Premiership managers who, essentially, don't give a damn for England's fate.

Venables' apparent resignation that the club-country issue can never be settled satisfactorily, and his devastating suggestion to the Football Association that it surrender a huge source of match revenue is depressing for many reasons, not least the historic one that it was in a friendly in Madrid against Spain, our casual conquerors last week, that Ramsey first unfurled a brilliant blueprint for the World Cup success which came at Wembley less than a year later.

Yet if Venables' thoughts are dismaying, consider the weekend reaction of the FA chief executive, Brian Barwick, to the fresh evidence that he and his selection committee meandered into disaster when they plucked McClaren out of a field which included such outstanding candidates as Martin O'Neill and Guus Hiddink.

Said Barwick: "We have to look forward. Steve has settled in well, he's brought interesting players into the squad and there's an upbeat spirit to that squad. Steve has worked really hard, he gets around the clubs, he gets around the managers and the players and he has used his time really well between games." Between the goalless home draw with Macedonia and the catastrophically clueless defeat in Zagreb? Between the ho-hum draw in Amsterdam and the disintegration against Spain? Who, in heaven's name, is kidding whom? Unimpressed, surely, will be the fans who trooped out of Old Trafford last week understandably aghast at what they had seen.

McClaren, we are told, is getting around the clubs and the managers. He didn't get around Rafa Benitez sufficiently to persuade him that England's requirement was to have Gerrard proving himself as a potential captain over 90 minutes rather than in a walk-on, walk-off cameo. Barwick's point that it is harder for a national team manager to restore the mood of his team than a club manager going quickly back into battle is right, but then it becomes quite impossible if the value of friendly games is discounted. Venables says that key players were missing against Spain. He omits to say that so was any semblance of shape or coherent purpose.

Where else but in a friendly can players like Joey Barton, who had a farcical 11 minutes against Spain, have the chance to suggest that they might just bring something valuable to the chemistry of the team? What does McClaren gain by touring the clubs and glad-handing managers? He did that without, it has to be said, conspicuous success, in his reign as Middlesbrough manager.

He is not paid to be a politician, no more than Ramsey, which was just as well considering his reaction to a Scotsman's probably ironic question about how pleased he was to be north of the border. "You must be fucking joking," said Alf. In more statesmanlike style, when it was suggested to him by his FA superiors that he drop Nobby Stiles in the middle of the World Cup, he said, "Certainly, gentleman, if that is your wish, but I must tell you that if he goes you will also be looking for a new manager."

Why is it that in any discussion of England's decline as a first-class football nation, on the international stage and in the number of home-grown players it develops for its own league, some of us find ourselves inevitably drifting back to the meaning of Ramsey? Maybe it is because when someone like Barwick says we should move on, not just down the decades but from the last egregious example of ineptitude by an England team, we have to say, "Yes, but to where?"

To the removal, for one example, of those friendly games which will always be the best method of developing a sense of team and rhythm, of seeing the growth of leadership and confidence? To a willingness to dispute the evidence of your own eyes and say that McClaren is settling in well? Ramsey had the full-blooded phrase for it. Indeed, Brian Barwick and Terry Venables must be joking.

Will Capello and Beckham share in great escape act?

It would be ultimately ironic if David Beckham, fired partly by resentment of his treatment by the Real Madrid coach, Fabio Capello, goes out in a blaze of honour at the Bernabeu.

Beckham's application in training recently has been such that Capello, a desperate man, felt obliged to bury his pride and return the departing galactico to the team. The result is that Beckham's impressively committed performance, and trademark free-kick, at the weekend was widely seen as entirely his triumph.

But if Real profit from his zeal to prove Capello wrong, the Italian coach will have scored something of a triumph himself. He can say he recreated the passion of a player who was drifting off to the lotus land of Los Angeles and, with Barcelona stuttering and Real just three points off the pace, who knows where it might end?

Irony is certainly in with a shout. In the best scenario, Beckham (above) would finally have touched silver in Spain and Capello would have collected still another major title. The coach, at a critical point in his damaged career, would have rescued a touch of credibility at the top of the game. And Beckham? At the age of 31 he would be heading over the football horizon.

Maybe this is more than ironic. Maybe it is just plain sad.

Republic must beware ides and idiocies of March

Here is a football story that should be apocryphal but, we are assured, is absolutely true.

Certain members of the Irish team, smarting over the somewhat underwhelming reaction to their heroic last-minute win over the might of San Marino, are letting it be known they will retire from international football if Steve Staunton, as now seems inevitable, is sacked some time over the next few weeks. They are the same players who also threatened to quit if Staunton's predecessor Brian Kerr wasn't fired.

Staunton has made his own contribution to this mind-pummelling debate. Despite being the author of three of the poorest performances ever seen from the team, a 4-0 slaughter by the Netherlands, a 5-2 defeat by Cyprus, and last week's shambles, Staunton insists that his team will pick up well in forthcoming qualifiers with Wales and Slovakia. Why? "We always play well in March."

Perhaps Irish fans should beware not just of the ides but also the idiocies of the turbulent month.

Jewell wrong to rant but right to cry foul on official

Paul Jewell may have let himself down with his rage at the Emirates Stadium and punishment from the FA is no doubt inevitable.

But if the Wigan manager, whose record in such matters has generally been exemplary, was less than professional in the manner of his criticism of the referee Phil Dowd, his complaints should be examined no less closely for that.

Certainly, if it is true that Dowd, having clearly made significant and result-changing errors of judgement, was speaking to Wigan players in contemptuous language, he has a serious charge to answer. To err is to be human, but to do it as a referee, it too often seems, is a discountable crime.

This will go on, with much damaging effect, if match officials have any more encouragement in their belief that they are the only ones in football who do not have to explain themselves.