James Lawton: McClaren happy to smile his way through adversity

The England manager was keen to strike an aggressively defiant mood
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The Independent Football

No one got round to asking him what he might like for his last meal and the defendant was emphatic that he would sleep well, not blissfully perhaps but with a certain confidence that in another 24 hours the jury would be looking at him in a rather kindlier light. "I always sleep. I know what the job is after being around Sven for five years," added the England head coach, Steve McClaren.

Part of his knowledge is that only a striking improvement in his team's performance here tonight will spare him a long winter of doubt about his ability to move England away from the ruins of the Eriksson regime.

But then if it is a situation guaranteed to test the nerve of a football man wearing rather more battle ribbons than McClaren, anyone expecting to find a rattled, even crumpled figure in the pale sunshine of late afternoon had plainly underestimated the resilience of the coach's self-belief.

"I know I'm the man for the job," he declared. "It's why I was appointed and why I accepted it. I talk to everybody, including the players, and I'm open to advice. Terry Venables is my assistant, my No 2, and he has fantastic football knowledge, but I'm the one who makes the decisions. Here it is quite simple. We're playing a team unbeaten at home in 12 years - a talented team. That means one thing. I need a big performance."

McClaren has a smile that is both relentless and beyond analysis and yesterday it burnt away a flurry of attacks. Candour is another of his weapons. It may not be his first option - he would be a rare operator in the football jungle if it was - but he knows its value in controlling some of the damage inevitably sustained in last weekend's bankrupt performance against Macedonia at Old Trafford.

"My biggest regret was that we didn't score, didn't win, but then anyone could see that we didn't pass the ball well enough. That was very disappointing and it tells me that we have to do a lot of work before we can move on," McClaren said.

It was contact with football reality that could only be welcomed by those who believe that it had gone missing from English football for a decade - more or less since Venables left the job, when you think about it - and it was especially valuable than it followed immediately upon a classic piece of Sven-age hubris from captain John Terry.

Terry talked blithely of England's hard core of "world-class players", said that if the team did come out in a 3-5-2 formation it would present no problems of adaptation; indeed, it might just give the boys a better chance to get "into their faces". This was something of a leap from the palsied efforts to subdue 51st-ranked Macedonia. Croatia, 27 places higher in the ratings, have developed the belief that they are invincible on home soil - a conviction which is fanatically endorsed by an element of their fans who unashamedly stand somewhat to the right of Genghis Khan - and could not have been loosened by Terry's claim that he wouldn't mind if England performed badly for the next 15 games but got the right results.

This plainly is a piece of football illiteracy that is encouragingly high on McClaren's hit list. "If you get a performance, normally you get a result." This was a fact which finally slipped completely off the Eriksson radar screen in the middle of the last World Cup and it may, who knows, just have returned in time to prevent that prospect of a winter of angst and scorn - a painful interlude that McClaren accepts could congeal into a deadly loss of confidence for everyone in the squad. Certainly, he was keen to strike an aggressively defiant mood yesterday.

Had he had private consultations with the troubled Wayne Rooney? No, Rooney was part of team talks. He knew what he had to do. Yes it was true, the 20-year-old had not been playing well and he knew the weight of expectation on him: "It's the burden he carries." It was time for his team, all of them, to play like men.

Earlier, Croatia's coach Slaven Bilic, for whom the injunction never to give anyone an even break - whether he is a sucker or one of the greatest defenders in football history, France's Laurent Blanc, whom he cheated out of a place in the 1998 World Cup final - has been incorporated into his psyche as an article of religious belief, had been working some relatively low-grade mischief.

He said if he was McClaren - and by implication Real Madrid's serial winner Fabio Capello - David Beckham would be be very much part of his plans. Beckham was a world-class player, asserted Bilic. This was put to the England coach, who was also asked if he had considered recalling the former captain in view of injuries to Owen Hargreaves and Joe Cole and the suspension of Steven Gerrard. McClaren did not linger over his answer: "No."

Beckham, plainly, is McClaren's statement of independence - his will to make his own team, his own empire.

For many hard judges, the flames are already licking away at McClaren's legion and after the damaging heat applied by little Macedonia, they are expecting a full-scale conflagration tonight. It is a possibility that plainly cannot be dismissed, but McClaren has made a not unimpressive stab in that direction at the scene of his first serious trial. For Croatia, certainly, he has presented at least one formidable challenge. If they can dislocate Steve McClaren's smile, they may just believe that nothing is beyond them.

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