James Lawton: The wheels come off for abject McClaren

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The Independent Online

England coach Steve McClaren's sensitivity to criticism is about to face another severe examination. It is inevitable given the place where an England team he was supposed to revive is beginning to slide.

They are going back, it is hard not to believe, to the confusion which reached such a desperate level in last summer's World Cup. McClaren was supposed to be a new man, a new spirit, a somewhat intriguing concept considering how deeply he had been involved in the crisis he was supposed to solve.

This was a friendly of no great meaning, some would say, but that does not stand up to the reality of McClaren's challenge. He was supposed to reanimate a team, exploit its latent strength and inject new inspiration. But it is simply not happening, Spain were not exactly rampant in their ambition but they were operating on an entirely different level for most of the night. They had time and they had organisation, qualities which for England seemed to dwindle by the minute. This was England's second defeat in three games - defeats which make a forlorn sandwich of a draw in the Netherlands in November which was supposed to represent recovery. That is looking rather like fantasy now.

The report that McClaren had recently attended Prime Minister's question time in order to smooth his press conference technique seemed rather far-fetched too, even when you remembered his hiring of publicist Max Clifford, but then just maybe it was so.

How else could you explain a quote that might have guaranteed an extension to Pinocchio's nose? Not one of the goals conceded by England in the six games of his regime, said the coach, had been the responsibility of number one goalkeeper Paul Robinson, who was being rested purely to provide his cover, young Ben Foster, with a little international experience before next month's pivotal European qualifier in Tel Aviv.

This was a little hard to reconcile with the still vivid memory of Robinson taking an air shot at a backpass in Zagreb - and conceding a goal that might yet cost England a place in the finals.

Whatever the reason for his trip to Westminster, McClaren was last night surely obliged to face one of the older realities, at least of football if not the dispatch box: sooner or later you're going to be judged on what you do rather than what you say. This was the critical edge the England coach faced after going three games without a win and the hard truth was that his opposite number Luis Aragones, in even worse qualifying shape with one win - against Liechtenstein - and two defeats - had some reason to pick out points of light. McClaren did not. He talked of huge disappointment, but that implied that some kind of standard has been achieved since Sven Goran Eriksson rode into the German sunset. It hasn't, and if there were any doubts before last night they were surely swept away.

It's true that before half-time Foster's pulse rate was allowed to remain so gentle that Watford, where his loan stint from Manchester United has involved him in almost non-stop action, must have seemed at least a thousand miles away, but the Spanish did have a semblance of a midfield - and a touch of coherence. This had a lot to do with the bite and the poise of Xavi. The Barcelona playmaker gave plenty of credence to suggestions that Sir Alex Ferguson would like to see him at Old Trafford more permanently as a successor to Paul Scholes, but then what would McClaren give for the United veteran's return to the international stage? While Xavi played with an easy touch and plenty of authority, at times linking splendidly with a David Villa who explained eloquently enough why he is so admired by Liverpool's Rafael Benitez and Chelsea's Jose Mourinho, England's midfielders continued to look like uncomfortable guests at a party where the host had forgotten to make any introductions.

Steven Gerrard did a 45-minute stint as captain. It came and went without a moment of true distinction, a hint of the influence that his reputation insists he is always about to wield but so rarely does outside his Anfield empire. Frank Lampard was, yet again, the one who plays for England rather than Chelsea.

As the match wore down the creative disparity between the teams threatened to become embarrassing when Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas arrived with his usual snap, a boy star with the mind of a general. Already England were sliding towards the kind of abyss that beckoned in the appalling performances against Croatia and Macedonia. They were supposed to be building for a vital game in Tel Aviv. But this was regression to maybe a point of no return, for European qualification, and maybe, Steve McClaren.

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