James Lawton: <i>Il Capo's</i> strict realism can protect England against repetition of the Munich delusion

The England coach must ensure his players sidestep the premature preening that was the downfall of the so-called Golden Generation
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The Independent Football

Theo Walcott made it his night and one never to be forgotten, but of course it was leased to him by Fabio Capello, as it was to such revived team-mates as Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard and the ever-willing Emile Heskey.

They were given leadership, a game plan, and, wonder upon wonders, at no point during or after an excellent performance did a single English player give anything other than the brilliant impression that he was fully aware that this was a very early stage of the business of making the nation's international football truly respectable again.

It meant that the ensuing flood of praise for Il Capo and his charges was, give or take the odd excess, as well founded as it was inevitable.

All of it, that is, except for the chilling suggestion that what happened in Zagreb was – apart from being the best possible confirmation that Capello is indeed a man of front-rank coaching ability and discipline and that the talent of the 19-year-old Walcott is both hard and clearly identifiable to anyone who understands that raw speed is one the most vital of assets at any level of sport – another Munich Moment.

A Munich Moment, did we say? Let us pray that it was not because if England's 5-1 triumph over Germany in the Olympic Stadium in 2001 was a brief invasion of our senses, it was also a terrible illusion.

It persuaded so many, and not least the promptly christened Golden Generation, that England could march into the 2002 World Cup among the favourites as a matter of right. Maybe it was only this week, and under the tough imperatives of Capello, that England effectively outran the debilitating effects of such self-delusion.

If it was indeed a Munich Moment, this, sadly, will not be so. It will be another diversion into the trees and bushes in which England are lost so regularly. However, if it proves to be nothing of the sort, if it was indeed the serious starting point of a regime which is teaching the superstars of the Premier League not only to look but also perform like professional representatives of their nation, there will be no temptation to look back in anger or frustration.

There will instead, and at last, be a compelling reason to consider the future with optimism.

That, yesterday, was certainly the conviction of one of England's nine surviving World Cup winners, the full-back George Cohen. He was in Munich seven years ago and watched the game with his World Cup team-mate, the late Alan Ball. He recalls, "After 10 minutes, Bally turned to me and said, 'This is unbelievable. The German defence is the worst I have ever seen.' Of course, England did well to score five goals, Michael Owen had a great hat-trick, but you came away shaking your head and thinking, 'Well, let's hope England keep their heads after this because we may have to look back and say this was a freak result.'

"I have to say I didn't have that feeling last night. Croatia didn't play as well as we feared they might, but a lot of that had to do with England... The team played strongly and with balance and young Walcott reminded us of the oldest truth in the game. If you have width and genuine speed you are halfway to beating anyone."

Back in 2001 the misgivings of Cohen and Ball were given weight soon enough. In the next match only a brilliant individual strike by Robbie Fowler lifted pressure against the no-hopers Albania in Newcastle, and in the final qualifying game, against Greece at Old Trafford, it took David Beckham's best England performance, his late free-kick, and Germany's failure to do better than a goalless home draw against Finland to rescue automatic qualification.

It is also true that, less than a year after the slaying of Germany, England failed to produce a single serious second-half strike on the goal of a 10-man Brazil in a World Cup quarter-final. That, surely, was a nightmare legacy of what was supposed to be a landmark in the history of the English game and, given the form and the style of Fabio Capello, it is surely reasonable to hope for rather more in the wake of Zagreb.

No, Croatia weren't so great but then it had always been legitimate to ask how much of their European Championship qualifying glory was to do with their own brilliance, and the heavily praised coaching of Slaven Bilic, rather than the manifest inadequacies of Steve McClaren's England. Certainly, on Wednesday night those encouraged by the natural authority of Capello, the evidence of his confidence and his balanced view of England's somewhat plodding but ultimately untroubled outing against Andorra, felt a small gale of reinforcement. Croatia, for all their fluency against England on their way to an indifferent performance in the European finals, plainly held no terror for Il Capo. "Yes," he said, "I am very confident in my team. Why not?"

Why not, indeed? Capello's England made Croatia look not only mediocre but also tawdry when the pressure came. English authority had been stamped thoroughly on the psyche of the Croats, who should have lost Josep Simunic for his brutality, along with the appallingly cynical Robert Kovac, by the time Walcott added to his first goal – and he moved to a hat-trick which was Capello's supreme reward for investing in the pace and the growing confidence of the Arsenal man. Sven Goran Eriksson's selection of Walcott for the World Cup two years ago, alongside the plainly unfit Rooney and Michael Owen, was absurd. This week the choice carried the bold but perfect timing of a rapier thrust.

All Capello's selections worked at near to optimum levels. Heskey was splendidly troublesome, Rooney grew beautifully into the player who has launched so many dreams, Lampard's confidence rose inexorably in the absence of his dominant but not always effective shadow, Steven Gerrard, and among the supporting cast no one looked more composed, or effective, than Wes Brown.

Capello's now better than token English also served him well at his first moment of vindication."Yes, of course, I'm proud of my team. They played without fear. This is the start."

It is a beautiful thought for all those who have been cast down by the folly of English international football for so long; indeed, almost a dream when you think about it. Not, necessarily, a dream of world conquest, but the acquisition of respect, of some sense that the national team is being given genuine leadership, that knowledge and experience and strength of character are truly in place.

Before the game, which sheer habit had persuaded so many might provide a funeral pyre for the new coach, Capello said that Croatia was just one challenge on a long road; a road which, inevitably, would change its shape and surface and even its direction from time to time. But surely, he suggested, it was one that could be negotiated by someone who knew what he had to do and where he was going.

That Capello is such a man is surely now at the very least a thrilling possibility. It is, he reminded us in Zagreb, the first reward of competitive courage.

The cap fits: Fabio's full England record

England 2 (Jenas 40, Wright-Phillips 62) Switzerland 1 (Derdiyok 58) (6 February 2008, Wembley)

England (4-4-1-1): James; Brown, Ferdinand, Upson, A Cole (Bridge, 73); Bentley, Jenas (Wright-Phillips, 57), Gerrard, Barry (Hargreaves, 74); J Cole (Crouch, 58); Rooney (A Young, 87).

France 1 (Ribéry 32 pen) England 0 (26 March 2008, Stade de France)

England (4-4-1-1): James; Brown (Johnson, 64), Ferdinand, Terry (Lescott, 46), A Cole; Beckham (Bentley, 63), Hargreaves, Barry, J Cole (Lescott, 46); Gerrard (Owen, 47); Rooney (Crouch, 47).

England 2 (Terry 38, Gerrard 59) US 0 (28 May 2008, Wembley)

England (4-4-2): James; Brown (Johnson, 57), Ferdinand, Terry, A Cole (Bridge, 82); Beckham (Bentley, 46), Hargreaves, Lampard (Barry, 58), Gerrard; Defoe (Crouch, 68), Rooney (J Cole, 78).

Trinidad & Tobago 0 England 3 (Barry 12, Defoe 16, 49) (1 June 2008, Hasely Crawford Stadium)

England (4-4-2): James (Hart, 45); Johnson, Ferdinand (Jagielka, 46), Woodgate, Bridge (Warnock, 84); Beckham (Bentley, 46), Barry, Gerrard, Downing (A Young, 57); Ashton (Crouch, 47), Defoe (Walcott, 69)

England 2 (Brown 45, J Cole 90) Czech Republic 2 (Baros 22, Jankulovski 48) (20 August 2008, Wembley)

England (4-4-1-1): James; Brown, Ferdinand (Woodgate, 58), Terry, A Cole; Beckham (Jenas, 80), Barry, Lampard (Bentley, 79), Gerrard (J Cole, 57); Rooney (Downing, 69); Defoe (Heskey, 46.

Andorra 0 England 2 (J Cole 49, 55) (6 September 2008, Olympic Stadium)

England (4-4-2): James; Johnson, Lescott, Terry, A Cole; Walcott, Barry, Lampard (Beckham, 79), Downing (J Cole, 45); Rooney, Defoe (Heskey, 45).

Croatia 1 (Mandzukic 78) England 4 (Walcott 26, 59, 82, Rooney 63) (10 September 2008, Maksimir Stadium)

England (4-4-2): James; Brown, Terry (Upson, 88), Ferdinand, A Cole; Walcott (Beckham, 84), Lampard, Barry, J Cole (Jenas, 55); Rooney, Heskey.