James Lawton: Manager gets out of jail but team stay on probation

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The Independent Online

England head coach Steve McClaren did not exactly hit the road to redemption but sometimes in life you just have to take what is on offer. Here it wasn't so bad. At least he got out of jail.

Even when Rafael van der Vaart drilled home an equaliser with just four minutes to go, McClaren had to be pleased that on this occasion England looked like something more than straggling strangers down some byway of international football.

Wayne Rooney's goal is unlikely to be picked out from the rush of his precocious achievements, but it was something which gave his team a sense that, for the moment at least, they have achieved a degree of respectability.

It seemed that the very ground was disappearing beneath their feet in Old Trafford and Zagreb recently. But here the team was shored up against the worst of fate. They showed a certain familiarity with each other's intentions. They had ceased to be a side playing in blindfolds.

This was an achievement in itself because the need for a restatement of English competence, let alone poise or adventure, was underscored with some force even before the kick-off.

McClaren's dismay at media criticism following the inept performances against Macedonia and Croatia suggested a hard path to a proper degree of self-belief in the managerial dug-out, and when the results came in from the active qualifying front the unease was inevitably deepened.

Croatia, such comfortable conquerors of England in Zagreb, strengthened their position as the likeliest qualifiers by outshooting Israel away from home and Russia, moving into second place, gave a strong hint that the influence of Guus Hiddink might finally be taking hold in a 2-0 win in Macedonia.

This left England in third place in the European Championship group - and the limbo of the kind of friendly match which McClaren's predecessor, Sven Goran Eriksson, had turned into an endangered species with his ever-changing chorus line of substitutes. This one unquestionably mattered, however.

It was about a team needing to do nothing less than establish some of the fundamentals of their game.

In this McClaren lent a hand by using a 4-3-3 formation which, while no doubt not best suited to the instincts of Andrew Johnson, who was again required to play wide, was almost a comfort zone after the bizarre imposition of 3-5-2 in Zagreb. If England's football was less than exultant, it did have a shape - and a capacity to disrupt the easy but less than deadly passing patterns of the Dutch.

Marco van Basten's team are, by the coach's own admission, a young force probing for the kind of authority which not so long ago generally accompanied the simple act of pulling on an orange shirt. Their confidence was enhanced early on by the ease with which Arjen Robben slipped by 18-year-old debutant full-back Micah Richards, but this did not appear to be a side hell-bent on adding to England's recent misery.

The result, quickly enough, was England's sense that at the very least they might be able to emerge from the gale of doubt which has buffeted them since their failure to beat Macedonia at Old Trafford.

This possibility received a significant injection of hope when Rooney scored after 37 minutes. It was not one of his more spectacular raids on the psyche of a defence. He merely stuck out a leg when Joe Cole wriggled free on the right and put in a searching cross. McClaren's exhilaration on the bench was fittingly subdued, but we can only guess what was going on inside.

No doubt it was that surge of the spirit that comes to anyone, in and out of football, when it seems the ball might just be running in your favour.

Certainly the England fans were also relieved. They no longer wore the expressions of helpless witnesses to an inevitable road crash. These were, relatively speaking, moments of sweet serenity after the breakdown in Zagreb.

If the Dutch had not seemed too intent on destroying England's drive for rehabilitation in the first half, Van Basten had plainly been less compliant at half-time. Clarence Seedorf went close soon after the interval and one run by Robben stretched the English defence. Fortunately, though, the pressure was applied mostly neatly rather than ferociously and Paul Robinson, who was also seeking personal redemption after Croatia, was still mostly a spectator.

Above all, England had a sense that they might just be achieving a degree of damage control. It was not something with which to paint the sky. It did not ripple with enterprise or conviction.

But it was a decent, workmanlike effort and in the circumstances no one, and least of all the embattled McClaren, could complain too much.

Around England's qualifying drive hopes menacing tides continue to roll, but here they managed to buy a little time, a little bit of lost reputation.

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