James Lawton: Neville shows the dangers of player power

Eriksson and the Football Association could learn much from the example of Clive Woodward's team
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Today it is the Eternal City in the wake of Clive Woodward's conquering legion. Tomorrow night it is Faro, Portugal, and something rather more passing: Sven Goran Eriksson's under-achieving, over-pampered version of what a national team should be about.

Though you wouldn't wish injury on any professional sportsman, it is hard not to see the current one preventing the increasingly insufferable Gary Neville from travelling as something of a convenience. If ever a team needed to get hold of itself and impose a few standards, it is surely one that in its last competitive situation meandered to the edge of a strike.

The instigator of that bizarre possibility was, of course, Neville, who in his column in The Times yesterday delivered a staggeringly complacent assessment of the behaviour at the weekend which led to his dismissal from Manchester United's Cup tie with Manchester City after he dived for a penalty and head-butted City's Steve McManaman.

This was the key passage in Neville's version of the "Little Sparrow" Edith Piaf's "Non, je ne regrette rien": "I am annoyed with myself because I will be suspended for some important matches but that is the only reason to regret what happened. It was out of character and I'm convinced that it was a one-off." The "Little Sparrow" pulled at your heartstrings. Neville, if you care anything about the level of thought and character to be expected from one of the nation's leading sportsmen, is more likely to make you feel as bilious as the proverbial parrot.

You have to be in a certain mindset not to feel even a touch sheepish about the travesty of professionalism which Neville produced. You have to believe you are beyond the judgement of ordinary men and women. You have to feel that in the normal course of events you simply cannot do wrong. The mindset can be identified easily enough. It is one that passes for thinking in most corners of English football.

Somewhere along the line Neville picked up some illusions about his potential as one of the game's statesmen. One of the first manifestations of this came after Euro 2000 when, before a World Cup qualifying game with Albania in Tirana, he announced that the England dressing-room was benefiting hugely from being in the control of a new generation of pros.

This was a thinly disguised reference to the end of the dominating influence of Alan Shearer. One of the fruits of this came last October in Istanbul when Neville was the chief spokesman for the faction arguing for strike action in protest over the dropping of Rio Ferdinand, another lion of the New England who, a few weeks earlier, had failed to take a drugs test because he had gone off to do some shopping. Shearer was in Istanbul as a spectator, which was just as well for Neville and his crew. The old pro's influence might have been exerted at the point of his boot.

The difference between Woodward's team in Rome and what we have come to fear from Eriksson's England is, there cannot any longer be much doubt, fashioned by a wholly contrasting set of expectations.

While the Football Association do not see any inherent problem in flying off to Madrid to "discuss" disciplinary procedures and team selection with David Beckham, Woodward makes it clear that Lawrence Dallaglio, an inspiring battle commander at the Stadio Flaminio on Sunday, is only as good as his last piece of leadership ... and 80 minutes of play.

Eriksson talks endlessly of his core of world-class players. Woodward drops Neil Back and Matt Dawson less than three months after they played key roles in winning the World Cup, Dawson's last-minute contribution to the drive which allowed Jonny Wilkinson to land the decisive drop goal already having entered the legends of the game.

England's football team, having trailed out of their World Cup so miserably, having lost to Australia at West Ham, and laboured with bone-chilling mediocrity against the likes of Macedonia and Slovakia, and, finally, having discussed seriously strike action on the eve of that vital European Championship qualifying game in Turkey, have no such underpinning. Their achievements lodge most persuasively in their own minds and Neville, it seems, is the most passionate of the converted.

A competent, much-capped international, he has been around the top of football for a long time now, but you have to wonder about how much professional wisdom he has accumulated. Certainly it is impossible to imagine, say, the great Paolo Maldini considering the rejection of the shirt of the Azzurri because one of his team-mates had behaved as unprofessionally as Ferdinand, or dismissing all criticism after an episode as shoddy as the one at Old Trafford.

Some talk of Neville's suitability as a long-term successor to the Professional Footballers' Association chief executive, Gordon Taylor. On recent evidence the possibility is quite dismaying, though it is long odds that we will hear a whisper of criticism over Neville's latest performance from Taylor. Though quite prepared to tear into the embattled Eddie Gray over his dispute with his Leeds player David Batty, the PFA leader is not much inclined to chastise his own high-profile members.

Neville's lack of contrition for events at the weekend is just one example of a leading football professional making his own rules without a hint of censure from his own union. Consider the contempt with which Louis Saha, Jermain Defoe and Scott Parker held their contracts with Fulham, West Ham and Charlton respectively, note the lack of criticism from their professional body, and then compare that silence to Taylor's voluble attack on Gray's decision to exclude Batty from the Leeds team - a decision which did nothing to reduce the player's wage packet and certainly came within the manager's professional remit.

Gray has also run a gauntlet of criticism from the League Managers' Association over his lack of a Uefa coaching licence. A hugely talented and entirely professional player in his own time, Gray has now spent 40 years in the game. Disgusted with the self-enhancing growth of the game's bureaucracy, Gray has announced he will not be running off to some coaching course if he just happens to preserve, against all odds, Leeds' Premiership life.

Meanwhile, Gary Neville trumpets to the world: "I made a mistake on Saturday but I'm not going to beat myself up about it. After 500-odd senior games, my red card was only the second dismissal of my career, and the first, against Tottenham Hotspur, five years ago was for two bookable offences. Hardly a crimesheet for a defender to fret about." As things go in football, no doubt this is true, but perhaps a little moment of reflection was due after a flagrant dive and head-butting posturing that even drew criticism from his own manager, Sir Alex Ferguson.

What, you have to ask, would provoke a little fretting in Gary Neville? Not his uncritical support of a team-mate who had behaved as stupidly as Rio Ferdinand. Not the possibility that he might have provoked England's concession of the world's second most important international tournament.

Self-analysis just doesn't flourish in Eriksson's England, and perhaps the most telling evidence of all was when David Beckham was allowed to give a pep talk to errant fans before the game with Slovakia in Middlesbrough last spring - a match for which he was suspended after drawing an utterly gratuitous yellow card in the previous game against Turkey, and then, after scoring a penalty, running into a crowd well in the process of threatening their team's place in the competition.

Such unchallenged player power would not be countenanced in Woodward's England. When the coach faced his own insurrection a few years ago - created by the well founded suspicion of the players that they were being short-changed by their bosses at Twickenham - he said that if the strike happened he would scour the land for replacements.

In similar circumstances Eriksson allowed himself to be summoned from his dinner table by Beckham following a players' meeting and then insisted that he would make no public comment on the crisis that could so easily have eliminated his team and wiped away more than a year's work.

In Rome, another England left rather different imprints yesterday. La Gazzetta dello Sport ran the headline: "So much to admire about England - the world champions. They gave us a lesson." It is one also available much closer to home, but Gary Neville, we can be sure, is not about to enrol. He has no regrets. But then in English football, who has?