As England lurched so unpromisingly towards the last World Cup a single statement from a key player became for some the ultimate evidence of futility. Rio Ferdinand was the author. With the support of Steve McClaren, the man whose shiny new regime, we are told, is already on the way to wiping away the painful legacy of Sven Goran Eriksson, Ferdinand asserted that results were everything.
Performance was not the key to all possible progress - a bad display, whatever the inherent problems it revealed, could be discounted if points were acquired. The consequences of such thinking spread across the football fields of Germany like a stain.
Rejected in the farcical friendlies - the midfield tinkerings which led to the self-imposed exile of the excellent Paul Scholes, the droning complacency - was the principle that teams grow organically. They are not fiddled and fadded into significant existence.
Now Ferdinand is injecting alarm into some old football bones once again. In still another revision of recent English football, Ferdinand has turned on Eriksson, the beloved leader of a tight and self-regarding club just a few months ago, for his refusal to give the team its head. The new England, Ferdinand declares before today's European Championships qualifier against Macedonia at Old Trafford, is bolder, more self-confident - a team off the leash. He is especially delighted to have been handed a "free role" in defence.
More freedom for Rio? It is a bit like filling a diabetic's lunch-box with cream cones. Few leading footballers can ever have been in less need of extra licence than the man who only a few weeks ago almost single-handedly sabotaged Manchester United's return to Champions' League action against Celtic. There has been one almost constantly recurring challenge in Ferdinand's career since he emerged as a youngster of exceptional promise at West Ham United. It has been the acquisition of a genuine defensive discipline, an understanding of his essential duty to prevent rather than create goals.
Yet this week he was talking about the value of the 3-5-2 option and the increased fluency it would create. "I think we've been overcautious in our play - not just in the last World Cup, but in most World Cups. Other teams have thrown caution to the wind a bit - and got good results."
This, frankly, is gibberish. England did not perform so pathetically in Germany because they were too cautious. It was because they were too inept. Because they could not pass the ball from A to B. Because their team tactics might have been drawn up in a cave. Nothing in their two-year preparation for the tournament had suggested that lessons had been learned from the débâcle in Portugal in 2004.
Now the talk is of the 3-5-2 alternative we are bound to ask the point of Plan B if Plan A, as displayed in the recently troubling performance in Macedonia, is so far from being mastered. Systems do not make successful football teams. Players are the key; players who are helped from game to game into the sense of being a real team. This does not come from tactical flirtations but the conviction that the best players are on the field and have achieved a degree of coherence. In all of Eriksson's critical failures at the quarter-final stages of major tournaments, one huge fault-line ran through the team. It was that failure to conjure anything like a convincing rhythm, to pass the ball with competence, let alone burning insight.
Let's consider for a moment Ferdinand's claim that a bolder approach might have brought England a better dividend in Germany. It is one that dwindles to nothing when you remember the nature of Italy's triumph.
It was built on the superb commitment and concentration of Fabio Cannavaro. There was no free role for the Fabulous Fabio - he was the heart and sinew of his team's success. If there is such a thing as a free role in football - and some good judges never tire of disputing it - it most certainly does not belong in defence.
Franz Beckenbauer and Franco Baresi never had free roles. They were superb defenders who had a natural eye for progressive football. Ferdinand cannot be mentioned in the same breath as such titans because he has never touched anything like the same degree of understanding of his basic responsibilities. These are to dominate his opponents, meet every header, make every tackle. A run across the halfway line? By all means if that is the requirement of the moment, the secure option.
The dressing-room approval of McClaren is meaningless at this point in the operation. No one had warmer support than Eriksson for most of his reign; he was the president of the club and naturally the most secure members, led by the untouchable captain David Beckham, led the applause. From Ferdinand this week we got maybe the first self-regarding salvo of the new club, the new hierarchy, and if no one is saying that England should still be wearing sackcloth and ashes after the denouement in Gelsenkirchen, victories over Greece, Andorra and Macedonia provide no reason not to strangle the first hint of hubris.
In the new talk of tactical changes, once again we are obliged to go back to the lesson of England's World Cup success 40 years ago. This is sometimes referred to as the triumph of Sir Alf Ramsey's system. It was nothing of the sort. It was the result of the most basic of football common sense.
Ramsey simply played his best players. He would have had designated wingers if they had proved themselves in the build-up and the early stages of the tournament; but instead he decided that the classic value of wide quick players was not so great as to leave out superior players in the shape of Alan Ball and Martin Peters. Ramsey's reward was the ghost-like probings of Peters and Ball's ability to destroy one of the world's best full-backs, Karl-Heinz Schnellinger.
Ancient history, sure, but it is a reminder of the old truth that if you don't understand what happened yesterday, you're not going to have much of a clue about tomorrow.
Ferdinand talks about a new dawn, but then you have to wonder once again if this extravagantly gifted footballer will ever wake up.
Rooney will only rediscover the fun if he applies himself to the fight
Steve McClaren wraps his arm around Wayne Rooney and tells him to go out to enjoy himself against Macedonia tonight.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if life was quite as easy as this? In the current climate of new England, though, we shouldn't be too surprised by such cheerful platitudes. We are told there is a new wind blowing through the camp. Enjoyment is in the air. Sometimes you have to pinch yourself in recalling that McClaren spent the best part of six compliant years as a key man in a regime which is now, nudge by nudge, hint by hint, being exposed as utterly moribund by some of its key participants. If the upsurge in optimism is so profound, what precisely was his contribution through all those wasted years?
Certainly, the Rooney problem provides a first serious examination of the basis for new hopes. The reason for the youngster's currently tormented expression may have psychological roots that go deeper than a mere loss of form, but McClaren's challenge cannot be met by the bland command for him to enjoy himself.
Rooney is not a boy on a day trip. He is a fabulously rewarded professional of truly outstanding talent. For various reasons, and one of them surely is that in the past his needs and potential as a player have been flagrantly ignored in the tactical disposition of the England team, he is not delivering. This will not be changed by some quick flip of mood. It will come from a major effort of will. Football, played professionally, is not detached from the rest of life. Sometimes it has to be suffered rather than enjoyed.
For Rooney the imperative now is not enjoyment but the professional satisfaction that comes when you have fought your way through a problem, when you have proved yourself worth everyone's patience and belief.
Only a fool would doubt the prodigy's ability to deliver such a result - maybe starting this late afternoon in Old Trafford. The advice, here, though is not to enjoy, but to fight. That's what the great ones always do.Reuse content