James Lawton: With South Africa in sight, Capello must raise England's game

England must abandon the fiction that sometimes a win can bury every sin
Click to follow
The Independent Football

There was, however, at least the inkling of an old worry at Wembley this week when John Terry was engulfed by team-mates concerned a moment earlier that they might have quite wastefully dropped their first points in the World Cup qualifying campaign.

The concern lay in the recall of an old remark by Rio Ferdinand after a qualifying result that was considerably less secure even than the one which Terry recovered so late against Ukraine.

It wasn't so bad that Ferdinand said it, especially as his comments came in the immediate wake of a shaky effort indeed, but that it was so fervently endorsed by Eriksson's assistant McClaren.

Ferdinand declared, "The performance doesn't matter, it is the result that counts."

When that view was disputed in this corner, after the assistant coach had echoed the player's remarks, the reaction was quite ferocious. Was it not understood that at the highest level of international football the first duty was not to provide lashings of entertainment but the victory? As it happened, it was but there was another much more fundamental point and it is encouraging that we have good reason to believe, that Capello will already have addressed it.

The England coach, naturally, was pleased with the staying power of his men, and, anyway, whoever heard of a consistently winning coach inclined publicly to nit-pick his players after a satisfactory outcome? Yet this does not disguise the fact that Capello's priority has to be a constant upgrading of performance.

The truth is that what happened against Ukraine could not, for all the fresh evidence of Wayne Rooney's bursting virtuosity, be placed in that category. In the second half, especially, England's striking graph of improvement slid away, most alarmingly when Andrei Shevchenko, ransacking his memory, seized upon a bout of extremely sloppy defence.

The reassurance, of course, is that Capello has already established not only his willingness to look below the surface of a good result but also set in motion that most important process in a team's development, a consistency of selection and a close attention to the ebb and flow of individual contributions.

Eriksson stood in dreamy isolation through most training sessions, a remote and, as time passed, an essentially clueless figure, who refused to bite down on slips in discipline and performance.

England thus became nothing so much as an old boys' club, secure in a closed world of self-congratulation. A few glimpses of the demeanour of Capello on the training field or in the technical area are enough to see how it was that such an institution was torn down almost immediately.

Now, when the novelty of the commander's approach has declined, leaving just a set of requirements that none of the players has ever before experienced consistently while on England duty, is the most crucial time in the making of the new team. Ironically, Ferdinand, the author of that statement about the relative irrelevance of the quality of a performance, has been one of the most vocal supporters of the new regime. Yes, he declares, as another senior player, Frank Lampard, also did this week, it is good that England have a new level of discipline and leadership and, vitally, accountability After five wins from five competitive games, it would no doubt be both unfair and premature even to whisper a worry that a degree of lip service might be threatening to replace at least some of the extraordinary single-mindedness that brought such impressive triumphs in Zagreb and Minsk last year.

However, it would be delusional to believe that anything like that kind of statement was produced against the Ukrainians.

Rooney was for much of the time magnificent, but then he might easily have been yellow-carded, if not worse, for the recklessness of one tackle; David James' less than commanding hold on the goalkeeper's job was scarred by one of his alarming lapses; and at a time when England began to lose their edge in the second half, the earlier rhythm faltered to the point where Ukraine looked increasingly threatening.

Gareth Barry's effect dwindled quite alarmingly at times, prompting the suspicion here that Michael Carrick might ultimately offer a more influential contribution, both in the reading of defensive needs and the ability to transfer the action to the other end of the field in the time it takes to identify an available target. Barry has neither the touch nor the vision for such a contribution.

These issues would no doubt be occupying rather more territory this morning but for Terry's intervention and the latest evidence that Peter Crouch remains a distinctly viable contender for a place in or around the team. They cannot, though, be ignored completely because now that qualifying is virtually assured, Fabio Capello has to face the classic question asked of every England manager since Sir Alf Ramsey. He has to show that qualification is not an end in itself, that it can never be more than the prelude to serious competition with the best in the world.

If England are to cover that last vital ground they must separate themselves from the fiction that sometimes a win can bury every sin. If it is not accompanied by genuine performance, it can never do more than buy a little time. Capello, reassuringly, is unlikely to squander the gift that came to him on Wednesday night.