James Lawton: Ramsey's golden rule makes short shrift of overwrought dithering about Gerrard

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Even though England's habit of plucking their dwindling number of superstars from among the halt and the lame and sending them into vital football matches has long been costly and absurd, Steven Gerrard's decision to risk the wrath of his Liverpool manager and paymaster Rafa Benitez at least suggests playing for your country might still just matter.

However, what is happening is not, contrary to some impressions, exactly on a par with strapping a dead El Cid on to a charger and sending him out against the Moors. Indeed, the whole elongated, overwrought drama should really have been reduced to a couple of simple questions.

One: is Gerrard, who has a hairline fracture of a toe, capable of making a significant contribution against Israel tonight without significant risk of breaking down, say, 20 minutes into the action? Two: if the answer to the first question is yes, can he achieve that result without risking more serious injury and, apart from inconveniencing his club, be able to assist England in what should be a rather more demanding challenge against Guus Hiddink's Russia next Wednesday? If both answers are yes, well, of course let him play and let us step back from what is turning into a debate of fools.

Someone better equipped than most to provide a valuable perspective is George Cohen, a World Cup winner who was permitted a close-up view of a decision which makes the England manager Steve McClaren's agonising over Gerrard seem like the most hapless dithering.

Cohen's manager Sir Alf Ramsey had the whole weight of the nation on his shoulders when he decided that Jimmy Greaves, his resident goalscoring genius, was not quite fit enough to go against West Germany in the 1966 World Cup final.

Ramsey knew that he would be delivering a terrible blow to a superb striker – and putting his own head in the noose if things went wrong.

However, Ramsey armed himself with two brilliant assets. One was knowledge gleaned from long experience as a player at the highest level. It said that however talented a player was, you simply did not play him if you were not sure he could go the distance.

The other was a Plan B. Ramsey had groomed Geoff Hurst as a possible replacement and the big man from West Ham did it so brilliantly, in a quarter-final against Argentina and a semi-final against Portugal, that the need to take a risk was, at least in Ramsey's own mind, reduced to nothing. Greaves's countenance was so terrible to see that some of his team-mates could not bear to look, but it did not disturb a manager who knew what he had to do.

Says Cohen: "Ramsey was a pro and never diverted from basic principles. You cannot play an unfit footballer, whoever he is. He just can't do the job; he puts everything at risk, including anything like a coherent game plan.

"When [Sven Goran] Eriksson took David Beckham and Michael Owen to Japan for the 2002 World Cup you couldn't help thinking what Alf would have made of it. Well, he would have been appalled – especially in the second half of the quarter-final against Brazil. When Ronaldinho was sent off, all it really meant was that Brazil's advantage had been reduced to one player, Beckham and Owen were so plainly unfit.

"What is so amazing, though, is we don't seem to learn," Cohen adds. "We went through the same thing with Owen and Wayne Rooney in the last World Cup, and then there was the absolute farce of having Beckham fly in from California for the friendly against Germany.

"This was somebody who had an ankle injury, so what does he do? Get in a plane for 12 hours, plays 90 minutes, then fly straight back to play a second game in 48 hours or so. You look at something like this and you think, 'Crikey, is the world going mad?' Is anyone surprised he has broken down?"

Extraordinary though it may be, Cohen believes that in the near 40 years since his career ended prematurely at the age of 29 – after some gruesome management of a cartilage injury – the vast increase in football wealth and, we are told, science, has left players valued at £30m-plus just as vulnerable as those of his contemporaries who shared his fate at the hands of surgery made to look primitive by the fine arts of today.

"What's gone missing," he says, "is some basic common sense. People are debating the question of whether or not to inject painkillers. The starting point should be whether a player is going to get through a tournament, or a game, and give the best of himself – without damaging the future prospects of himself and his team.

"As far as I'm concerned the good manager insists that all 11 players share one asset: fitness. That ultimately has to be more valuable than a few players whose superior talent is likely to be wiped away at some vital point in a game. However many assurances Gerrard gives, you can bet that most of his team-mates would prefer to have someone out on the field whose fitness they can trust. It is a fundamental part of making a team performance and no reflection on Gerrard's ability.

"Whoever McClaren might play in his place is a better bet if he brings the confidence that he can get through the match. If you are not fit, the chances are you cannot play, you cannot give to the team; you're protecting yourself, inevitably, and that's no good in a vital game."

Certainly the Gerrard saga and all its uncertainties would have brought the legendary manager of his club, the late Bill Shankly, to a serious frenzy – the kind created when another Liverpool and England midfielder, Jimmy Melia (two caps), had an injury back in the Sixties.

Shankly, like Ramsey, hovered over his players looking for hints of incapacity. Injury was not so much a problem as an insult to his ambitions, a fact which persuaded him to demand from the Anfield board a new wonder healing machine produced in Germany.

Shankly watched fascinated as the "awesome" piece of medical equipment was unveiled in the treatment room under the supervision of Bob Paisley, who was then known as "Mr Elastoplast" rather than one of the most brilliant managers in the history of the game.

Ian St John, the great striker, recalls every detail as though it happened yesterday. "When Bob took off the wrappings we had to step back. It had a black face and a battery of dials and wires poking out from half a dozen places. Bob was reading a manual of instructions and making all the connections and when he finished he said: 'Right boys, any of you got a bit of a knock?' Melia said: 'Well, Bob, I think I've pulled my knee a bit.'

"Bob told him to strip down and then picked up two leads with large pads attached to the ends, wetted the pads and placed them on Melia's knee. He then picked up another attachment, which looked a bit like a microphone, and said: 'Right, Jimmy, if you feel anything untoward just give me a shout and I'll turn it off right away.' For a little while Bob was twiddling with a knob to no effect and Shanks was becoming very impatient.

"'Jesus Christ, Bob, I thought you were reading the instructions,' said Shankly. 'The instructions are in German, boss,' he was told. By now Bob had turned all the knobs to maximum force and Melia, reasonably enough, was getting a bit tense. 'Is it full on now?' he asked. It was then that Bob noticed he hadn't turned on the power. When he did Melia's leg shot up in the air and then jerked back uncontrollably. Those of us who weren't bent double with laughter, screamed for the machine to be turned off."

It would be encouraging to think that English football had moved on to a rather more sophisticated level. Melia survived his experience, though some said he was never ever again quite so quick to own up to a twinge in the knee. But then what did the wider game learn down the years? Cohen makes a bleak conclusion. It is that it hasn't been much, at least not nearly so much as it forgot.