James Lawton: Team-mates show Beckham meaning of leadership

You could feel the cut of the Caucasus in the wind that blew in the face of England in Baku this week. But the wild night also brought something more uplifting. It was the sight of a team working things out, a group of players maybe moving in a new direction.

It could still happen if certain sources within the Football Association stand firm in their belief that David Beckham still has to pay an additional disciplinary price for his grandstanding confession that he deliberately subverted the laws of the game.

This, though, would plainly run against the wishes of the FA chairman, Geoff Thompson, and the England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson.

Both seem to believe that the Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, and national football hero Sir Geoff Hurst were guilty, at best, of intruding into the affairs of a private club when they declared that Beckham's behaviour had shamed both his game and his country.

Neither Eriksson nor Thompson thought much of the outside pressure building around the diamond-encrusted head of the captain. Eriksson said he had not even considered the possibility of returning Beckham to the ranks, but then this was perhaps only to be expected. Eriksson, if he is nothing else, is surely the high priest of pragmatism and the values of Hurst, as far as he was concerned, might have been lobbed in from some distant planet.

Hurst said that his World Cup-winning manager Sir Alf Ramsey would have summarily dismissed his own beloved captain Bobby Moore if he had publicly admitted - let alone boasted of - the kind of behaviour which has thrust Beckham back into the headlines for five straight days.

Hurst's point is, heaven knows, a basic one. It is that if a team is truly to grow it has to have a set of common disciplines and beliefs which touch every corner of its efforts, and no part of that could be a leadership instinct that includes bragging about the brilliance of its sharp practice.

Beckham, as he proved before his latest temperamental implosion in last Saturday's 2-0 victory over Wales with a goal of exquisite flair, remains a potentially vital factor in the possibility of England one day proving themselves under Eriksson in a major tournament. But the evidence of the last few days surely underlines the reality of the 2002 World Cup and this year's European Championship. It is that Beckham is ultimately ill-suited to the role of captain.

The problem is that Beckham continues to make a monstrously extravagant deal of the job. The best captains have always exerted most influence on the field.

Moore and Billy Wright, two of Beckham's most famous predecessors, were almost always most visible out on the pitch. Moore had a mishap in Bogota, when he was accused of stealing an emerald; Wright married a pop icon of the Fifties. Both events brought publicity these inherently retiring men loathed. By comparison Beckham has turned the England captaincy into a personal industry and this is why England were besieged by the latest of his self-created dramas when they went out to tackle the difficult task of subduing the fiery Azerbaijan on a tumultuous night in Baku.

They did it well. They kept their eyes on the violently shifting, wind-tossed ball. Jermaine Jenas, Beckham's replacement, played his first competitive international with great conviction. The stand-in captain, Michael Owen, as he had done before, scored the decisive goal and delivered victory in a qualifying game that was more tricky than it had first appeared. Rio Ferdinand, who has had his own disasters off the field, played with immense cool and influence, as did his defensive partner Sol Campbell. The new goalkeeper Paul Robinson played nervelessly and produced his second clean sheet. Wayne Rooney, more seriously challenged by the swarming Azeris than the passive Welsh, produced a more uneven performance but he battled with great application and delivered at least two moments of pure football genius.

England will have deeper challenges if they're ever to match the performance of the team of Hurst, Moore and Bobby Charlton, but they showed considerable character and self-possession in the absence of the celebrity icon who happens to be their captain.

They looked like a team who had any number of potential leaders in the one place that truly matters - the field of action. A captain should not be a lightning rod for distracting publicity, his image should not overwhelm all that his team-mates do, and perhaps as never before in the Beckham era we saw this most clearly.

In Baku this week Eriksson had the chance to exert a time-honoured, winning principle. It is that a team always have to be a team in the purest sense. It is inevitably as strong as its weakest part. It cannot have separate compartments or changing values.

It is not a question of casting Beckham into the wilderness. He has his talent and the challenge of remaking his career and perhaps even his life. He can still be a hero to the nation but it is something that has to be achieved on a new and more realistic basis.

He is an England player, he is not English football. It is a distinction Eriksson had a perfect opportunity to impose this week. But he said it hadn't even entered his thoughts. That in the end, was the biggest problem of all.

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