James Lawton on England's performance: A qualified failure

England may have reached the World Cup finals but to win it they must change the coach, and captain, now
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The Football Association will surely be avoiding its responsibilities if it does not question seriously, while there is still time to do something about it, the quality of England's leadership both on and off the field.

After the run of mediocrity, and worse, to a desperately disquieting 1-0 victory at Old Trafford over an Austrian team so far from the heart of football power, Eriksson's claim that some of England's play was "brilliant" was almost as dismaying as the incoherence of so much of their work.

It had to provoke those biting questions. Question one: can Eriksson be expected to draw from arguably the most talented collection of England players since Sir Alf Ramsey led his 1970 team to Mexico any more than he did in the ultimately hapless campaigns of World Cup 2002 and the European Championship of last summer? Question two: can there any longer be any serious doubt about David Beckham's temperamental failure as a captain?

All current evidence says that in both cases the answer is no.

This is the reality amid the optimistic talk that because of the talent of such as Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Michael Owen, and Beckham himself, England must be among the favourites to win the great prize in Germany next summer.

It is a contention mocked both by England's current form, including pulverising defeats by Denmark and Northern Ireland, and any serious charting of Eriksson's efforts in the two major tournaments qualified for under his command.

That Eriksson has the knack of gaining entrance to the big football parties, however raggedly, understandably created much initial gratitude in an FA headquarters desperately conscious of the financial penalty that accompanies any failure in this limited ambition. But at £4m-plus-a-year, Eriksson is plainly failing in the prime purpose of his job: it looks quite beyond him to make England look like serious runners for the prize they last won 39 years ago. What, it has to be asked, is the point of crashing the party if you make a fool of yourself once the band strikes up?

Any move to pre-empt another crushing anticlimax when serious football nations like Brazil and hosts Germany dispute the outcome of another World Cup, will no doubt be resisted by talk of the extreme cost of ending Eriksson's contract, which runs to 2008, and the difficulty of replacing him. But then what is the alternative? The evidence from here could not be less muted: it is another march to futility. Better surely to airlift in a troubleshooting man of the football world, someone like the Dutch veteran Guus Hiddink, who did such a magnificent job with South Korea three years ago, or Terry Venables - yes, Terry Venables, the best England coach since Ramsey - or even the FA's director of football, Trevor Brooking.

Brooking is not a career coach but he understands the international game and would be guaranteed to produce a more pro-active performance than Eriksson, who was so bizarrely praised for his leadership at the weekend when he bowed to the overwhelming dictate of form and made Rio Ferdinand the first of his "untouchables" to be dropped. Some might say we are too near to the finals to disrupt the rhythm of the team, but then where is the rhythm or even a vague upsurge of assurance?

The scandal is that while such as Rooney, Lampard and Gerrard, and again Beckham in his last few matches for Real Madrid, can look giants of club football, they invariably shrivel when they find themselves decorated by three lions.

Nor is an explanation at all difficult to find. Eriksson has utterly abandoned the concept of team-building. His feckless approach to friendlies, in which Ramsey built a world-beating force, reached an appalling denouement in Copenhagen last month - one which had its precursor several years earlier on the psychologically shocking night the Australian Socceroos won at Upton Park. Now the harvest is repeated in one competitive match after another.

The breakdown against Denmark was harrowing. A poor Welsh side exposed a poverty of creativity and force in Cardiff. Northern Ireland provoked both despair and anarchy in the English team. Against no-hopers Austria, in the penultimate game of one of the softest groups in European World Cup qualifying, the margins were gut-wrenchingly fine, especially when Roland Linz lobbed the ball against England's crossbar.

In the World Cup quarter-final Eriksson and his staff stood mesmerised as 10-man Brazil went by them after Beckham jumped out a tackle and then watched Rivaldo equalise. At the same stage of the European Championship, after the cruelly injured Rooney had promised to carry England all the way on the back of his superbly emerging talent, Eriksson was again becalmed as his opposite number, Luiz Felipe Scolari, showed the nerve to replace the great Luis Figo and revamp his side. Does anyone, in or out of the FA, not see enough evidence to fear a similar fate in Germany?

The doubts about Beckham as captain should not be softened by the legitimate argument that at least one of his yellow cards was harsh. His crime, and in a captain it was unforgivable, was to yet again lose his head in a critical situation.

A born captain, a Bobby Moore or a John Terry, never loses his sense of team and responsibility. In Beckham's case it appears to be an unbreakable habit. The fact that he is now the only England player to be twice sent off is less important, given the pettiness and the petulance of his offences, than the reality that this Wednesday's final qualifying game against Poland, which but for the Dutch could have been so hugely important, will be the third he has missed in as many years.

It is not the track record of a leader, no more than the countless times England have looked unsuccessfully for persuasive leadership from the man wearing the armband.

On Saturday Eriksson agreed that Beckham had been "angry" after the first booking, that a lack of composure was indeed evident, but this, he said, was no reason to reconsider his captain's role. Beckham, Eriksson added mysteriously, wanted to win. So what does disqualify a captain? Eriksson wouldn't say. But then what disqualifies a coach? Here on Saturday making the list was the bleakest of chores. World Cup euphoria? It is a bad joke only the FA can now possibly avert.

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