James Lawton: McClaren remains in state of denial but England manage to return to real world

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The Independent Online

Within minutes of England's escape from what had looked as perilous as outright bankruptcy at Old Trafford and Zagreb, something far more magical than anything we had seen at the Amsterdam ArenA was happening.

The head coach, Steve McClaren, was proclaiming a collective effort of character and technique which had put his team back among world football's more serious operators. It wiped away, he suggested, one bad result, one bad performance.

Wasn't it convenient to think this of a 1-1 draw with the Netherlands which even at its most compelling can barely have brushed the pulse rate of an average aficionado? Unfortunately, reality lay elsewhere and most notably in Tel Aviv and Skopje, where Croatia and Russia were moving into the qualifying places in England's Euro 2008 group. If McClaren had anything to celebrate it wasn't anything more than a return to mere competence against a Dutch team very much like his own: a side searching for the conviction and rhythm which went absent without leave in last summer's World Cup.

For England now there is surely one imperative and it is not one to be served by the kind of evasions which marked both McClaren's approach and his reaction to a game which was important only in what it said about the mood of a team which had collapsed so profoundly against both Macedonia and Croatia.

Before Wednesday's action McClaren railed against criticism which he claimed had been "out of order". Then, when further disaster had been avoided, we had the bout of revisionism. One bad result, one bad performance, had been the extent of England's crisis, he claimed. Where had he been when the rest of English football suffered Old Trafford and Zagreb? What we had was, of course, two shocking results - one point from a possible six at a pivotal stage of the qualifying process, and two performances that reeked of very deep confusion.

Now McClaren tells us that what he asked for in Amsterdam was not a result but a performance. Good.

This is a sea change from the days when Rio Ferdinand was declaring, with support from Sven Goran Eriksson's then assistant, that what mattered most was results. It didn't matter if you played like drains, it was the result that counted.

We had the fruit of such thinking in the World Cup: a series of rank performances - and an inevitable result.

Now McClaren has been criticised for going with 4-3-3 against the Dutch. As the game unfolded, it didn't seem like the most disastrous of options. It was a system which may have hindered the style of Andrew Johnson, but he had his opportunities and did not let himself down in his first serious run at recognition as a potential option to play in the company of Wayne Rooney. Compared to the dismay created by the absurd imposition in Zagreb of 3-5-2, a fad which has been discarded by every major force in world football, what happened in Amsterdam was bathed in enlightenment.

Certainly it precluded, with the possible exception of Johnson at some later date, any whining in the ranks. Steven Gerrard was granted the freedom which is apparently the key to his incipient greatness and if he scarcely seized the night, along with an inviting chance to put England into an early lead, his performance was not without some workaday merit. Frank Lampard was given his favourite modus operandi and while he remains for England a mere shadow of the hero of Stamford Bridge, he, too, edged a little away from the worst of his futility in the World Cup and Euro qualifying meltdown.

Rooney scored with nonchalant efficiency and almost conjured a winner with a trademark run and turn which briefly traumatised the Dutch defence.

At 18, Micah Richards had every reason to crumble after Arjen Robben waltzed by him so effortlessly in the early going, but he didn't and he, too, was able to believe that he had emerged from a night of some trial with his reputation undamaged.

Collectively, and individually, it was that kind of night for England. It was not the turning back of a menacing tide but the stemming of it. What was left on the sand, you had to hope, was a new sense of England's place in the world, a new awareness that success is not a right. It cannot be assumed, especially in the new mood of unforgiving criticism which has maybe inevitably entered the hearts of those who gave Eriksson's last World campaign even a breath of credibility.

McClaren's protests at such scrutiny are worrying in their apparent lack of understanding of what is demanded from his role. It is not public relations, for which he tellingly hired the services of the damage control guru Max Clifford. Nor was it, in the view of even some of Terry Venables' warmest admirers, to appoint an assistant who would inevitably draw far more attention that any previous occupant of such an advisory post. Already there are predictable stresses in the head coach's public relationship with a football man of both high profile and commitment to a set of hard-won beliefs about how a team should be prepared and organised.

There is no place for duality in the work of a head coach of any national team. There is consultation, reflection - and sometimes a need to step back from the worst of mistakes. But, ultimately, it will always be a one-man show when it matters.

That McClaren is apparently in denial over the extent of the misadventure of the early campaigning for European Championship qualification is a concern which was never going to be removed by events in Amsterdam. Here there was a pause in the most serious of the action, a chance to return to a few fundamentals like graft and personal responsibility in a team of shocking underachievement. That much, at least, was not wiped away by the late equaliser of Rafael van der Vaart. Indeed, it might have been a strange blessing. This, after all, is a head coach and a team still plainly in need of close links with reality.

We did a reasonable job despite injuries, says Van Basten

Marco van Basten was satisfied with his under-strength Netherlands side's 1-1 draw with England at the Amsterdam ArenA on Wednesday night.

"We did a reasonable job when you look at the whole game," Van Basten said. "Urby Emanuelson was free a lot of times, but he was used less than expected.

"In the second half we did create many good chances, certainly in the last phase of the match. England came to Amsterdam at full strength and we missed a few players like Edwin van der Sar, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder. The others have done a good job as their replacements."

One of those who stepped in was Clarence Seedorf, who won his 78th cap more than two years after his last. The Milan midfielder came in for muted praise from Van Basten, who had snubbed him since taking over as coach in July 2004.

"Clarence did a good job with the tasks we gave him," Van Basten said. "He did lose the ball every now and then, but he also had his strong moments. We were satisfied with him. I cannot say if he will be part of the team again next time."

For his part, Seedorf was delighted to have been handed a start and is now keen to cement his place in the coach's future plans.

"It wasn't easy as we only had one training session with all the players," the 30-year-old said. "Of course I was excited to start again. I knew that it would be an emotional game. I hope that I will be part of the selection in the future, too."

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