James Lawton: McClaren finally casts Beckham in an appropriate role - as the supporting act

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Some might say that Steve McClaren ended an era yesterday when he entrusted another hour of England need to the young legs of Shaun Wright-Phillips, rather than the atrophied talent of someone who, at times, walked into the team for no better reason than his name was David Beckham.

But they would be wrong. The Beckham period, such as it ever was in terms of real achievement, was over some time ago. What McClaren closed down when he picked his team for the pursuit of at least the one point which would ensure European Championship qualification against Croatia at Wembley, was as an illusion, a showbiz artifice and one that he had bought at some considerable cost to his own dwindling credibility.

Now there is a glimmer of an argument on behalf of McClaren's ability to go beyond the likelihood of success tonight, and make more of a fight for his £2.5m a year job than some of us could have imagined in the debris of performances against Macedonia and tonight's opponents.

It is almost as if McClaren is saying that he would rather die on his feet than live on his knees – or at least in the shadow of a player whose weight of celebrity had for so long carried an absurd degree of influence on what should have been workaday football decisions.

Given the sentimental climate he has created for himself, no doubt Beckham's Goldenballs aura will be eked past the 100-cap mark – probably with number 99 coming as a substitute if the issue becomes safe tonight.

It didn't happen like that when Peter Shilton, Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton and Billy Wright became centurions. They played to their limits and then they walked away. They didn't finish on a number. They went, according to the immutable laws of competition, when they could give no more of the required value. Still that was another age, another life, and McClaren deserves some little credit for the strength of his decision. Brave might be putting it a touch high; practical might be the better description.

It is certainly not a cause for drum beating by football rationalists – indeed, if you take the big view it is the merest formal brushstroke when compared to some of the agonising that afflicted England coaches of the past, Glenn Hoddle's for example when he felt obliged to send home Paul Gascoigne on the eve of the 1998 World Cup in France or Bobby Robson's worries about the fitness of the inspirational Bryan Robson in Italy eight years earlier.

Agonising is what happens when you don't know what to do and if it is true that McClaren had settled on his team at the weekend, it may be that he had borrowed some of the conviction Alf Ramsey brought to the conflict between form and the claims of a national hero when he elected to go with the heart and the sinew of Roger Hunt rather than the quicksilver, but questionably fit, feet of Jimmy Greaves going into the 1966 World Cup final.

Whatever is said about McClaren's overall judgment in a campaign which appeared to have drifted beyond his control, it is no hardship in recognising now that in his final selection he has followed classic rules.

They were once put into words by the great Bill Shankly, who always told stars like Hunt and Ian St John that they had one overwhelming obligation whenever they went out on to the field. It was to "justify your selection". Could Beckham really do that after months of injury, some transatlantic commuting and the quasi-competitive rigours of American soccer? What credence did he really have, after deciding to leave the serious game for the hard money and the soft tinsel of movieland. Of course, he could still kick the ball sweetly with his right foot but this was an aspect of a game not a whole entity.

Could he do anything much more than produce the regulation corner-kick which allowed Peter Crouch to flick in the only goal in last Friday's meaningless friendly in Vienna? Could he run with anything like the vigour and the optimism of Wright-Phillips, could he provide that kind of width and pressure on an opposing defence? No, and nor had he for several years.

McClaren's revoking of his first decision to build a future without Beckham was hard not to see as evidence that he had lost his way. The brave new world of England had reverted to some mere satellite of Planet Beckham.

Now there is something of a shift and it is reflected beyond the preference for Wright-Phillips. Scott Carson plays despite a fraction of Paul Robinson's big-match exposure, but then so much of the latter's experience has been shot through with a palpable growth of indecision. Like his predecessor, David James, Robinson is a man of impressive talent, but goalkeepers need more than that; they need a presence, a self-belief and they have to know their own minds. Carson has shown plenty of that knowledge in some brilliant performances for Aston Villa and now, with a reputation to make, he is unburdened by either his own doubts or those of his defensive colleagues.

In an ideal situation, McClaren would not have to go to tactical tinkering in the absence of his main strikers, Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen; he would not have had to pack his midfield and leave Peter Crouch, at his best a foil for sharper scoring instincts, to forage for himself. But England do not have the certainties of Ramsey's England, they do not have a rolling 4-3-3 which, according to key operators like Nobby Stiles, Alan Ball and Bobby Charlton was so easy you could adapt to it in your sleep, and in the circumstances you have to believe that again McClaren has made the best possible compromise.

Short up front, he has added the striking instincts of Frank Lampard to those of Steven Gerrard, while retaining the steadying influence of Gareth Barry, surely the proper reward for a significant contribution to the best phase of the campaign by the Villa man. Joe Cole, a frittering recidivist in his most recent performances, has the chance to remind McClaren that he can provide both width and relevant trickery.

Croatia's camp had been claiming that they feared most the crossing and deadball ability of Beckham, and you could see why they might say that. Of course there is a possibility that cannot be discounted utterly. It is that Beckham might just be brought on for reasons other than the merely ceremonial.

Imagine it, the impasse that existed at Old Trafford when England struggled so desperately to get the goal against Greece that would take them to the 2002 World Cup – and Beckham connecting sweetly with a free-kick.

The scenario has been an inevitable part of the build-up to this decisive match. It has carried the weight of much musing about the past and the possibility of history repeating itself. But what kind of history?

We know what happened in the World Cup that followed, in the European Championship of 2004 and the World Cup in Germany that Beckham washed with his tears.

Yesterday McClaren all but closed the door on that past. Yes, it is still ajar, but for the sake of England, and for McClaren's immediate future, the hope must be that at no stage tonight does it need to be any more than that.