James Lawton: Hargreaves at centre of restored order

'The beauty of him is that he looks so at home in a big match'
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The Independent Football

Sven Goran Eriksson may be the best-heeled "remittance man" in the history of English football but, as they say, some things money can't buy.

It certainly cannot fund a restoration of the reputation he brought to these shores five years ago and, if he still cares, the reality is that for some time each piece of progress, however modest, made by the team he left in so much disrepair will inevitably be seen as a personal rebuke.

That first reaction in the heat of the impressive start made by the new McClaren-Venables regime could only be intensified by the most positive reaction to the 4-0 defeat of Greece.

This centred on another highly competent, at times even inspiring, performance by Owen Hargreaves, an utterly marginalised operator under Eriksson but hailed by Steve McClaren now as no less than the man with the answer to the midfield confusion in which Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and the deposed David Beckham floundered.

This is a remarkable development in the career of the 25-year-old, who was so recently derided in English stadiums, along with Peter Crouch, who performed so well on Wednesday night when he was, with huge logic, given a fit and lively partner at the front in the previously shamefully treated Jermain Defoe. But it is maybe also something else, perhaps the most withering indictment against the former coach of all the charges that have to be taken into consideration.

As fresh tributes to Hargreaves poured in yesterday, it was understandable if many travelled back to the San Siro five years ago when Bayern Munich beat Valencia in the European Cup final and one of the most impressive performances came from the 20-year-old Hargreaves.

Surely, here was a sure-fire candidate for a permanent place in the new England. Not a spellbinder perhaps, not a celebrity leader of the fabled golden generation, but a young player of wonderful tactical nous and fine nerve, a comer who inspired this tribute from his gnarled team-mate Samuel Kuffour:"The boy is ready now, he showed that out there... you just have to look at some young players and see that they have it, the understanding of the game and the nerve to do what they have to do. He is a pure team player in that he isn't looking for chances to shine a light on himself, just to produce for the team. It is a great attitude and he will be a big asset to any team at the highest level. The beauty of him is that he looks so at home in a big match... it looks like his natural terrain."

Bayern's coach, Ottmar Hitzfeld, was also consulted. Not given to rapture, one of Europe's top football men said: "Before the game I just told him to go and show the fire and the light he gives us whenever he trains with the first team. I said he had nothing to lose. His performance was fantastic tonight when you think that up to now he has been mostly playing for our amateur team in the Bavarian Regional League. I know he is an England squad member but I cannot say whether he will play for them. This is a matter for the England team manager, but all I can say is that he has surely shown what he can do."

He had, of course, but who of the guardians of the golden generation were looking? Not Eriksson, as he spent the next five years fiddling with his midfield, endlessly weighing the value of the diamond formation as Gerrard and Lampard, such stirring performers at club level, relentlessly lost their lustre on the international field and the frustrated Paul Scholes, still arguably England's most naturally penetrative midfielder, gave up in frustration. Until these last few months Hargreaves has been the makeweight, the discountable pawn on a chaotic chessboard. England's best performance in the 2002 World Cup came when he was injured, while playing on the wing, a blow which persuaded Eriksson to send on a winger and give the team some balance in the group match defeat of Argentina.

Now, with massive irony given his generally subdued profile, Hargreaves is hailed as a key element in the new England, a performer to be relied on in the wake of the Beckham years - and maybe a linchpin of revived hope for Manchester United. Substance, of a certain professional kind, replaces a fantasy image of a naturally world-conquering England.

Inevitably, those who argued for so long that England under Eriksson had detached themselves from so many of the game's fundamentals, will be subject to a touch of jaundice at suggestions that this deeply proven professional has suddenly announced his credentials, including an overpowering ability to sweep away the ludicrously tortured debate about how to get the best out of such as Lampard and Gerrard.

The heavens were not split by England against Greece, but they did show a little light, a hint or two that at last the potential of the nation's best footballers might be properly tapped. McClaren was faultless in his reaction to an opening statement of some promise. He insisted that the attribute England needed most was consistency - of purpose, of performance, of understanding what was required in all the different circumstances they will face in a European qualifying campaign that could throw up dangerous challenges in the shape of Croatia, Guus Hiddink's Russia, and perhaps even Israel.

One huge requirement is the nourishing of the best of Wayne Rooney, who remains the ultimate key to England's ability to compete with the best in the world. Eriksson steadfastly refused to admit that Rooney's discipline was a matter of concern, no more than the relentless sense that Beckham carried too much influence and privilege.

Those particular birds came to roost on a sweltering, despairing day in Gelsenkirchen. Now another kind may just have taken flight. Meanwhile, Eriksson continues to collect his money and, no doubt for quite some time, the vivid evidence of his years of neglect.