James Lawton: Gerrard would be best advised to let his feet do the talking

Click to follow
The Independent Football

England, we are told, have confidence and belief. But in what? In Steven Gerrard's case apparently it is the insight of the formerly besieged and derided head coach, Steve McClaren, who one fine day walked to a mountain top for a unique vision. It was of Gerrard waxing strong in the central midfield terrain so often denied him by McClaren's predecessor, Sven Goran Eriksson, and Liverpool's Rafa Benitez.

No, wait a minute. Football's equivalent of the burning bush may have been on a mountain top, at Barcelona's gloriously located Olympic stadium, but we need to remember also that it came before a grisly outing against the glorified pub footballers of Andorra.

Most will remember the occasion for two reasons. One was a stomach-churning performance by some of the more rabid England fans. The other was the rank quality of the England effort.

Gerrard, who did rise above the general torpor and the feeble opposition to score two goals, has a more stirring recall. This week he fuelled the euphoria which came with the 3-0 defeat of Israel last Saturday by citing the Andorra travesty as some kind of turning point, saying, "This was the first time I had been given my favoured midfield role for the national team. It was a difficult time and a big three points were needed [after a dismal draw in Tel Aviv]. There was a big rallying call from the manager and senior players. Teams need to go through situations like that to improve and move forward and we are definitely a lot stronger from that rallying call."

Yes, you do have to remind yourself. Gerrard was talking about the challenge presented by Andorra – after providing, more or less, the basis for a screaming headline that took us precisely where we didn't want to go after the win over an Israel team who stopped short only at waving 11 white flags.

"This Lot Are Our Best Ever," said the headline of the squad who were entrusted with the job of rescuing England's European Championship qualifying chances seven games into a quite wretched campaign.

How much better if Gerrard, who played well if not dazzlingly at Wembley despite the inconvenience of a hairline fracture of a toe, had merely said that, given the lack of quality and resistance displayed by the opposition, the merest deposit had been paid into what was dangerously close to being a disaster fund.

Tonight the Russians come to town under a manager who would have sorted out who he wanted in central midfield – do not doubt for a second it would have been Paul Scholes had he still been available – after the briefest examination of his resources.

Guus Hiddink has been accused of talking up himself and his team before tonight's pivotal game. It is a strange reaction to some realistic conversation with the BBC. Hiddink builds teams, not hubris. He doesn't talk about golden generations without scratching the surface and waiting to see if his finger turns green. If the FA thought he was being arrogant when he suggested that it should judge him on his record rather than any interview razzle-dazzle, it was its, and our, problem rather than his.

It could be that what proved on Saturday to be England's fortuitous jumble of circumstances, with Shaun Wright-Phillips providing genuine width and pace along the right and Gareth Barry showing that it is possible to relate to and augment Gerrard's power in midfield, might just have created enough momentum for England to inflict Russia's first defeat in this qualifying campaign. Worryingly, though, the talk of sudden belief and confidence, cranked up yesterday by McClaren and captain John Terry, again sends out the wrong signals.

An old football man once remarked of a goalkeeper who tended to make every save look as though it had been authored by a combination of Gordon Banks and Lev Yashin, "That bugger could make a banquet out of a cheese biscuit."

That must be the familiar fear attached to another England team who have performed no better than adequately against second class opposition. Whether Russia have gained a superior status, or whether they remain Hiddink's latest serious work in progress, will be seen soon enough. However, it would be a staggering gift to England if the man who won a European Cup, lost a World Cup semi-final to Brazil on penalties with the Netherlands, took South Korea to another, and whose Australian Socceroos last year were mastered by eventual world champions Italy only with the help of a classic piece of chicanery, sends out a team anything less than three times more resolute than the Israelis.

England played well enough last time out. But they didn't make any bushes burn, any more than they threw a scare into Guus Hiddink. England need to remember this as they return from some rather dubious mountain tops.