James Lawton: With Eriksson on course for disaster, where is the mutiny?

Click to follow
The Independent Football

The potential folly of rushing to appoint Steve McClaren, a man at the heart of this England regime which has broken every rule of intelligent football planning, and under which the requirements of individual responsibility and leadership are handed around like hand grenades after the pins have been removed, has been painted most luridly in the sky above the RheinEnergieStadion in Cologne this week.

If ever a team needed a new man on the bridge, someone untainted by the years of waste, even outright stupidity - how else do you categorise arguably the most brainless squad selection in the nation's competitive football history? - it is this drifting and hopelessly indulged collection of English players who, for some strange reason of their own, believe they are beyond criticism.

Instead England are bequeathed a man who has been party, willing or not, to so many of the ineptitudes which take over England whenever the bar is lifted to world-class standards.

Maybe you think this is harsh, that McClaren has merely been a prisoner of the Eriksson years. In that case, it must be said it has been a well-heeled prison without bars, one from which the head coach-elect of England could have walked out of any time.

He could have railed against the miserable excuse for team-building, the pathetic little cameos granted to players of promise who never got the chance to prove, either way, their true status, the constant changing of tactics and personnel and now, in the middle of a World Cup, the dawning horror that once again Sven Goran Eriksson, the £5m-a-year man, simply does not have an overriding strategy. But then only McClaren knows precisely the extent of his own input.

Eriksson has become a parody of Mr Micawber, the Dickens character who always believed something would turn up. Could the 18th World Cup turn up for Eriksson? Because football is football, unchartable ultimately, beset often by outrageous fate, it would not be the equivalent of the world shifting on its axis - not quite. But it would be the supreme example of a coach winning the greatest trophy in football in spite of himself and what passed for his policies.

McClaren could have complained, along with a true World Cup hero, Sir Geoff Hurst, when Eriksson refused a word of criticism when the captain David Beckham admitted to fouling an opponent deliberately in order to draw a convenient suspension.

He could have demurred to the point of rebellion when Eriksson delivered his absurd squad selection, when he picked a unit of four specialist forwards: two of them plainly unfit; one of them, a bewildered teenager, utterly untested in the top flight of football, even unseen by the England coach; and Peter Crouch.

He could have said this was unprecedented madness. But of course he didn't. He has a career to protect, a lush appointment to inherit. He could have said that the team needed a new kind of dynamism, new leadership on the field, after the disasters of both Japan in the last World Cup and the European Championship in Portugal. But instead, and possibly because he was so much part of it, McClaren stayed silent, at least publicly. His reward is that now he is the man responsible for the future of English football.

Here right now it is as if the first mate of the Titanic is being handed his own command even as the iceberg looms into view.

This is a team without direction, at times even logical purpose. It is riding the hope that Wayne Rooney can do something to match the stupendous achievement of Diego Maradona in Mexico 20 years ago, when he came closer than any footballer in history to picking up a team and carrying it single-handedly to a World Cup victory.

Whether you think even the brilliantly gifted Rooney deserves to be bracketed in such awesome company is not really the point. This is the expectation placed upon the 20-year-old, who, even as he struggles to become match-fit, and throws one of his trademarked tantrums when he is brought off the field at a point when his aura is beginning to fade and there is a ripple of suspicion that he is beginning to favour his so recently broken foot, has to do nothing less than inspire trust in a team currently incapable of putting together 90 minutes of coherent football.

On Tuesday we had the quintessential England of the Eriksson era. We had 45 minutes of football which made sense, disciplined passing football which was quick and intelligent, spearheaded by Rooney and magnificently supported in the first half by a Joe Cole who, like his virtuoso team-mate, seemed utterly committed to shake off the dead hand which had gripped the team in their appalling performances against two of the weakest teams ever to appear in a World Cup finals, Trinidad & Tobago and a desperately underperforming Paraguay.

Then the system, the belief, collapsed again - this time in defence, purportedly an area of reassuring strength. England defended set pieces with no more proficiency than a rabble assembled at the local park. The pattern is relentless. At the highest point of Eriksson's reign, England were rampant against Germany in Munich. In their next game, at home to Albania, they were rescued by a goal from Robbie Fowler.

On Tuesday, Sweden, a team of modest talent indeed if you took away the subtle Champions' League hero Henrik Larsson and Arsenal's indefatigable Freddie Ljungberg, were the side of heart and conviction in the second half when Frank Lampard again disappeared from significant action and Beckham, who has talked so long about the importance of this World Cup to his own view of his career, virtually disappeared from sight.

Again there was the gravest concern about England's ability simply to last the course of 90 minutes of World Cup action. Against Trinidad & Tobago they were revived by the arrival of Rooney and the superb, biting application of young Aaron Lennon. In Cologne, Steven Gerrard came off the bench consumed with the need to make nonsense of his original removal from the action. He did that quickly enough and there was reason for celebration.

In their current condition England could inspire little or no confidence going in against a Germany, who will be welcomed as heroic successors to the likes of Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Müller when they step out in Munich on Saturday. Even Ecuador, who left half their team on the bench in an implicit announcement that they were happy to surrender the chance of winning their group if it meant meeting either England or Sweden, are not without threat.

The aim here is not to pillory McClaren - only to say that England are missing so many of the vital ingredients of a team on the rise, are performing so far below standards that could reasonably be expected of such alleged talent and established celebrity, that the idea of transferring power within rather than to outside becomes a little more bewildering each day.

When Sir Alf Ramsey took over as England manager 40-odd years ago he dismantled everything - selection policies, interference from outside, methods of preparation, levels of discipline - and he demanded levels of personal responsibility and leadership which had never been met before in a brief 12-year participation in World Cup action.

Who could say that such a dramatic statement of new values is not required of England at this point in the 18th World Cup, one which elsewhere is alive with evidence of new and brilliant football, of national teams who have come here to Germany fired with ambition and a willingness to devote a month of mostly hugely rewarded lives to the single goal of beating the world? England assure us that they are as committed as Argentina, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany and Ghana - to mention just five teams who have so far drawn attention to either the quality of their football or the extent of their commitment. So why are we not convinced? We see the erratic levels of performance and the circus of celebrity shopping and social life which the wives and girlfriends of the England team are generating in Baden-Baden.

Like so many aspects of the England approach under Eriksson, the picture is not one of serious intent. Yes, of course, there are possibilities. Rooney might yet catch fire. Gerrard may continue in a vein of supreme confidence. The promise of Tuesday's first half might just be ignited again.

But where are the certainties? Where is the evidence that in the weeks of his parting Eriksson is capable of doing anything more than again throwing the dice? It does not exist. So of course you have to tremble for the present as well as despair of the future. The only antidote is the blindest of hope. Maybe the World Health Organisation will send an emergency supply. No doubt Beckham is guaranteed to pose for the picture.

Comments