James Lawton: From Canada's iceman comes a lesson for Capello's troubled troops

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The Independent Football

Among the baggage being taken home from the 21st Winter Olympics is at least one imperishable item.

It was wrapped up in the early hours of yesterday morning and you just wish you could make it a gift to England's suffering football team – and any of their supporters who still cherish the idea that Fabio Capello will be able to lift them beyond the rancid residue of a failed celebrity culture.

What it was is easy enough to describe. It was what Capello has worked to achieve ever since he arrived in England to probe among the wreckage left by regimes of unsurpassable ineptitude. It was what happens when a group of professional sportsmen are able to work together without distraction, without division, towards a common goal.

Canada's Olympic gold overtime ice hockey victory over the United States was all of that. It was also more, much more.

It was individual brilliance when that had to be the decisive factor and Sidney Crosby, a 22-year-old upon whose shoulders a nation's vast yearning had been heaped, whipped in the puck in a way that the outstanding American goaltender, Ryan Miller, said was uniquely within his powers.

It was unbroken commitment by the yeomen around him, most magnificently maybe from Jonathan Toews, a 21-year-old from Manitoba who plays centre for the Chicago Blackhawks. Until Crosby (below) rose up to re-possess his reputation that he may be the greatest of all Canadian players, better than Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe and Guy Lafleur, Toews was arguably Canada's man of the tournament.

In the final, he scored the opening goal and he defended with a ferocity which on such a day for England in 1966 won for men like Bobby Moore and Nobby Stiles another nation's gratitude.

Above everything else, it was the humility of hard-hitting athletes who recognised that they were answerable not only to themselves but to so many who had invested so much faith and hope.

The hero Crosby, who comes from a tightly knit harbour town in Nova Scotia, suggested that the glory could have come to anyone in the dressing room, but he provoked a forest of shaking heads. Crosby said that the moment would take some time to sink into his consciousness, but he added, "You know what? Every kid dreams of the opportunity. Winning an Olympic gold medal, you dream of that a thousand times."

Unfortunately, sometimes the dream gets mangled and lost.

In a different age, it didn't at Wembley 44 years ago. England had a Crosby that day, and later he became Sir Geoff Hurst. They also had a Toews, someone who was ready to cover every yard and yelled to his team-mates, "Come on you bastards, run." That was the late Alan Ball.

Of course you cannot play tricks with time and the different attitudes and mores it brings but in the streets of Vancouver, if you had the age and the working memory, you could be reminded how it was in London in 1966, when it was said that the capital had its greatest celebration since the night of Victory in Europe.

In Vancouver, the streets were filled with red and white. Car horns honked relentlessly. You could remember Paris in 1998, too. You could recall how you couldn't move around the Arc de Triomphe and how they ran out of scotch and hotdogs in Harry's Bar and there was no café so obscure in some distant neighbourhood that a party wasn't going on to celebrate the World Cup victory over Brazil.

Is there still a ghost of a chance that England's football supporters will know again quite how it feels to have their team on top of the world?

For the moment at least Capello can only envy the sentiments of Canada's ice hockey coach Mike Babcock.

"The gold medal is great," Babcock says, "but you know the best thing by far? It is watching a team grow as it works together, seeing the separate parts grow stronger and becoming one. That is what a coach wants more than anything. That is what you work for, stay up whole nights thinking about and hoping for and when it happens, well, you feel the job has been done."

Everything Capello has done since he arrived in England has been directed towards that end. He worked, brusquely, on the manifestations of indiscipline displayed in the sloppy dressing, the poor time-keeping, the ubiquitous mobile phones, the clutter of agents and hangers-on in the team hotel, and he shook his head in disbelief when he was asked if there was a remote chance that under his command there would ever be something as grotesquely inappropriate as the base camp of "wags" in Baden Baden during the last World Cup.

When the John Terry affair exploded in his face his reaction was similarly emphatic. In 12 minutes he explained to Terry why he couldn't countenance a captain who had caused such appalling damage to his objective of making a coherent, single-minded team. Even as he said it, though, he no doubt feared that the odds against repairing all of the consequences were long indeed.

Certainly it was bleak to hear, as the Canadians strived so manfully for their gold, of the sad though perhaps inevitable scenario at Stamford Bridge, when Wayne Bridge couldn't find it in him to shake hands with the man he can only see as his betrayer, and Terry engaged in some surreal morality debate with Craig Bellamy, who of course is not the most obvious representative of the straight and narrow.

Where does England go at this late hour to find a Sidney Crosby? Wayne Rooney may not be a flawless candidate, but there is growing reason to say that he is by far the best bet. Why? Because there are times when he resembles nothing so much as a throwback to a time when a footballer knew so surely that he would always best define himself on the field, when he played as though the game was at the very centre of his world.

It was that which lay at the heart of the triumph that has so exhilarated the Canadian nation. It was the gift which, we can only hope, will not remain entirely unwrapped in English football.

Wilkinson is in need of a Catt to call the shots for him

It is no surprise that Jonny Wilkinson remains at the centre of the debate over the apparently moribund future of England's rugby union team.

The main reason, of course, is that he is a last link with a time when the team was a major force in the game. Not the most thrilling one, let's remember, but one which displayed a magnificent understanding of its own strength and, just as importantly, limitation.

Wilkinson, it should be said, lest we completely lose touch with the meaning of the past, represented strength and limitation.

His strength was to kick with consistently forensic brilliance and defend with astonishing commitment. He was never the shaper of a team capable of playing expansive rugby and if there was any doubt about this it was surely removed at the scene of his greatest triumph, Australia in the Word Cup-winning year of 2003.

Then, Mike Catt was drafted in to provide some overseeing coherence behind the scrum, most crucially when the prospect of a Welsh victory in the quarter-final was growing more tangible by the minute right up to the arrival of the veteran.

The great Gerald Davies left the stadium in Brisbane shaking his head and saying, "Bringing in Catt was the best decision Clive Woodward ever made."

None of this is to dispute the greatness of Wilkinson's contribution to English rugby and the character of the nation's sport.

It is just to say that any belief that he has ever been the man to help shape a new, and less dull-witted England, is detached from the available evidence.

Also, it underlines the scale of failure represented by the course of young Danny Cipriani's so far ill-starred career. Here, for all the problems of erratic performance – a feature of youth – and his liking for the celebrity lifestyle, was a creative talent which needed to be nurtured with some care. Instead of which, we have had what has often seemed to be wilful neglect.

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