James Lawton: Pot shots at Europe's sitting ducks mean little as McClaren's men wait for bigger game

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Peter Crouch is an admirable young man with a talent that has survived and then prospered despite some of the cheapest mockery ever heaped upon an obviously good-hearted professional sportsman. When he hits the net it is still a victory over the smart-arse half of the nation. The fair-minded can only wish life was more often like this.

However, there was no earthly preparation, not even after the best part of 40 years of English detachment from international football reality, for the headline which screamed out a few hours after he scored two goals against Andorra - a team so inept they might have provoked a little dismay, even sympathy on Hackney Marshes.

"Peter the Great", the banner proclaimed. It put you a little bit in mind of the reaction of the wit Dorothy Parker when an hotel porter rushed into her favourite bar to announce that President Calvin Coolidge was dead. "How could they tell?" she asked.

She was making the point that the president had not been exactly awash with the juice of life. Heaven alone knows what she would have made of Andorra.

Crouch and company mostly rendered them fodder efficiently enough but discussing greatness, however casually, in this non-competitive context was inappropriate to the point of lunacy.

Nor are we just talking headlines. The head coach, Steve McClaren, declared: "Peter Crouch is phenomenal. He has an unbelievable record. He is such a handful for defenders but you also have to praise the service. The crosses from [Stewart] Downing and [Steven] Gerrard were exceptional and when strikers have crosses it makes it easy to score." Also helpful is a total absence of serious defence.

What needs to be said right away is that under their new leader England have performed as you would hope and expect of a team representing a major football nation, nothing less and certainly nothing more, and if this is refreshing after the calamities of Sven Goran Eriksson, it is certainly no reason to believe that a new era - and new competitive values - have already been installed.

No one and nothing is served by seeing the games against Greece, parodies of the champions who ambushed Euro 2004, and Andorra as anything other than opportunities for some preliminary window dressing by the new regime.

For Crouch to be lionised, along with Owen Hargreaves, and for Jermain Defoe to claim instant vindication after his humiliation by Eriksson, is surely a reversion to some of the old triumphalism. True, it will no doubt be some time before we reach such catastrophic levels again, but there had to be a certain uneasiness in the wake of a 5-0 winning margin that hardly began to define the class differences which were evident enough as early as the first minute.

The FA may think that the Eriksson chapter is closed but that can only truly happen after rather weightier reappraisal than that offered by the chief executive, Brian Barwick, when interrogated by my colleague Brian Viner at the weekend.

Said Barwick: "I think Sven's time here will be looked upon as nearly, not quite ... there have been some lazy words, pretty pernicious on occasion, written about Sven. In the end, my view on Sven is that he gave it a real shot."

Some shot. Some return for five-and-a-half years of waste of what Eriksson was happy to agree was a golden generation of English footballers. Barwick's towering euphemism provides the one valid reason to dig up the self-evident failures of the Eriksson regime, its lack of decision and method and any semblance of team development: disturbing evidence that the lessons have not been properly learned, that in place of the void left by the appalling World Cup performance some of the old delusions are already drifting back into place.

Is Barwick really saying that Eriksson represented some kind of noble brush with the highest success; is he suggesting McClaren, who was such a pillar of the Eriksson regime, is merely picking up the torch with perhaps just a little bit more vision on how to take away the "mystery" of the job? This is more than laziness with words. It is crass distortion of important, indisputable facts about the failures of the past. It is also public-relations opportunism built around two all-but-meaningless football matches.

So far the extent of McClaren's achievement is the not inconsiderable one that he has avoided major banana skins. He has been eager to convey a sense of renewal, which was a huge imperative after the scale of the disillusionment that came in the World Cup, and for the moment at least there is plainly a new current of optimism running through the team. How long it will survive is no doubt dependent on results in real matches and certainly McClaren might want to pause before repeating anything as risible as his fear of the "cynical" tactics of Andorra. He now says that Wednesday's game away against Macedonia, who are ranked 67th in the world, compared to Andorra's ranking at 132, is "another" test.

Certainly if the Eriksson experience in European Championship qualifying is a guide this at least is true. England were embarrassed disturbingly in Skopje in September 2003 before winning 2-1, and had stopped just short of outright humiliation when drawing 2-2 in Southampton in October 2002.

Skopje should offer less terror this week. McClaren, fortified by the nous of Terry Venables, seems intent on building belief around some basic certainties of shape and the confidence that comes when players are kept together for significant periods of any one game.

If, as Barwick says, Eriksson gave it a real shot there was never much doubt about his weapon of choice. It was a scatter gun.

McClaren insists that his armoury will always be stocked more traditionally, with balance and width, and players who are allowed to grow into their responsibilities as they are given every chance to show their ability on the international stage. It is an encouraging plan and, who knows, it might even prove more than that this week when at last it is aimed at a meaningful target. Meanwhile, everyone's duty is to hold the hubris.