James Lawton: McClaren's casual style could turn into emperor's new clothes

Click to follow
The Independent Football

John Terry has provoked an intriguing question in the formative days of the Steve McClaren regime: would the masterful Italian Fabio Cannavaro have made any greater contribution to the last World Cup had he travelled to Germany in a tracksuit rather than one of the designer-cut suits of the winning Azzurri?

Terry and his team-mates now have that option. It is, according to the captain, one of the "loads of little things" which has improved the mood of the squad who, under their former coach Sven Goran Eriksson, at times seemed to be preparing, with their WAGS womenfolk, for an episode of Big Brother rather than the most important challenge of their football lives.

Other innovations: mini-bars in the players' rooms, surprisingly verboten under Eriksson, so that if a player wakes up at midnight feeling like an orange juice, or even a glass of wine, he can exercise his rights as a freeborn "adult" Englishman; film shows by team psychologist Bill Beswick featuring action and soundbites by such sports icons as Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan; and round-the-clock humour from masseur and amateur comedian Billy McCulloch.

Some will no doubt find this refreshing. Others are bound to wonder what McClaren is running: a renascent football team or another version of an exclusive little holiday club which in the extremely recent past seemed to have cornered the market in self-indulgence, and self-delusion.

The first concrete evidence, either way, will come at the Gradski Stadium tonight when McClaren's team for the first time go against opposition with some kind of potential to fight back. Macedonia are not exactly behemoths of the European game, having failed to score against Andorra twice in World Cup qualifying, but under their new coach, Srecko Katenec, they may just be able to reimpose some of the trepidation they inflicted on Eriksson here and in Southampton when, respectively, losing 2-1 and drawing 2-2.

Under Katenec, a tough Balkans operator who after whipping Slovenia into shape marched away following a dispute with a player on whom he found it impossible to confer star status, Macedonia have picked up three successive victories over Ecuador, Turkey and Estonia, the last one away in qualifying. While their record against Andorra screams rebuke, it is also true that they managed to twice hold the Netherlands to a draw.

None of this should represent a serious problem if we are indeed discussing a new England rather than a more casually dressed edition of the old one. But then it is also true that, after the meaningless encounters with Greece and Andorra, the Gradski Stadium certainly represents an opening salvo of more serious interrogation. The last time England were here their flag was burnt, the terraces were infected by racism and Macedonia played football of both fire and some imagination.

Terry and McClaren suggested yesterday that England will seek the high road of aggressive, confident football and, if some of the captain's broad philosophy on building team spirit seemed alarmingly woolly, here at least we do have a man who can say legitimately: "Forget what I say, do as I do."

Among some of Terry's more discardable moments yesterday was that claim that being able to wear a tracksuit on a plane somehow spoke of a new age of reason - and his report that he couldn't recall one nugget of wisdom from Beswick's short and undemanding tours through the winning psyches of men like Woods and Jordan. His confession provoked a gale of laughter, but then those looking for a bit of substance might have felt a chillier breeze.

McClaren directed a barrage of statistics against worries that, if Frank Lampard and Stuart Downing cannot manage to look good against Andorra, the peaks of the international game might ultimately prove beyond them. We were told Lampard received and passed the ball 100 times against Andorra, which perhaps begged the question of how he managed to hog all that possession against putrid opposition without doing anything memorable.

Downing crossed the ball nine times. A vital contribution, said McClaren, who, you can't help suspecting, will soon have to machete his way through the stats and deal with the essential point: are Downing, and Lampard on his current form, truly international class?

One mercy yesterday was that it came long after Sir Alf Ramsey had gone to his rest. Once Sir Bobby Charlton petitioned the great manager on behalf of his team-mates. He asked if it was possible to wear casual clothes, rather than team suits, on an intercontinental flight. The manager said: "I'll think about it and let you know." Before Charlton reached the door, Ramsey said: "Bobby, I've thought about it. Wear the suits."

That was a long time ago, of course; so long ago, that England were the reigning world champions.

Comments