CHIEF SPORTS WRITER
Not really the notices you want on your embryonic England career. Steve sends in the clowns and Robinson gaffe sums up confusion of England's slapstick night were among the less sadistic of headlines heaping scorn on the quality of his men, and his own tactical prowess, following the defeat by Croatia. A month on, the mindset of Steve McClaren does not permit a return to Zagreb.
The England head coach was speaking in the library of the FA's Soho Square headquarters. There was a suspicion that, if one had consulted England international history, all references to that 2-0 reverse, which had followed a goalless home draw against Macedonia would have been censored from the records. So dogmatic was he that there should be no further inquest into past failings, that one could have imagined that an Alastair Campbell figure could have been at work here. "No looking back" sums up the McClaren credo.
The only problem is that moving on - McClaren employed the John Wayne-like imagery of needing "to get back in the saddle" - entails a visit to Amsterdam's ArenA on Wednesday night. It's a friendly against Holland, and one is never certain in what condition England will find the fruit in Marco van Basten's orangerie. But on the face of it, such a fixture is likely to provide an antidote to the English disease: that perennial belief that this nation produces players of sufficient quality in depth to win a major tournament.
A home attack featuring Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Dirk Kuyt will examine an England rearguard who, though much-vaunted, do appear vulnerable on occasions. What encourages McClaren, and will cheer those whose faith in the former Middlesbrough manager deteriorated after that dismal Euro 2008 qualifier in Zagreb, is that key performers return to the fray, fit and approaching the zenith of their powers.
"I've been watching the players in the squad closely, and I'm excited by their form coming into this game," said the Yorkshireman. "They're coming back to real form. A lot was talked about Wayne Rooney before, but he's certainly exploded over the last few weeks. Frank Lampard was outstanding in Barcelona. And there's been other great performances, from the likes of Aaron Lennon who's back in.
"They need to take that form into this game. We want a performance. I want these players to enjoy playing, to play good football, like in the first three games. I've named 28 players. I couldn't do that a month ago. I'm delighted everyone's come back to form, and to fitness."
That squad remains a Beckham-free zone. One somehow suspects that it will also be free of contamination by the 3-5-2 system, dumped, at least for the time being, in the wasteland of England football.
A return to 4-4-2 should yield a central midfield of Steven Gerrard and Lampard; even if the duo continually fail to demonstrate that they can be complementary. But perhaps more crucially could be the restoration of Joe Cole and Lennon; both blessed with intricate footwork that can bemuse the most rehearsed of defenders and both capable of alternating flanks. "Joe's quite flexible," said McClaren. "The way top teams play, in international football you have to be flexible as a player. Joe can play in a variety of positions, and be effective in them all. It's great to have him back. There's no player been so disappointed he's not been involved until now."
McClaren sees no dilemma in persisting with a right-footed player on the problematic left side. "It's not been a problem with Chelsea. He's played down the left there. In fact, it's not been a problem for Frank Lampard, either, who's played down there very effectively."
Lennon was "a huge loss to us the last time because he was playing very well". The England coach added: "When I first got the job, I talked about pace and penetration, and Aaron is a perfect example of that. Whether he starts or whether he comes on, he makes an impact and frightens defenders. I've watched him in the last couple of games, and have been excited. You need players who can beat people, who can change the game. The addition of Joe, Aaron and Andy Johnson, who we didn't have in the last squad... they're three players who've got pace and ability to take players out of the game very effectively."
Steward Downing remains in the squad, following assistant Terry Venables' assertion that the Middlesbrough left-winger was omitted from the Croatia line-up for his own good, because of the criticism levelled at him. "I've had a chat with Stewart," says McClaren. "We've drawn a line underneath it."
Despite McClaren's indication, after the Croatia game, that certain personnel may be sacrificed for their sins, Manchester United's Keiran Richardson is the only absentee; Manchester City's 18-year-old defender Micah Richards, as cover for Gary Neville, is the only new inclusion, elevated from Peter Taylor's Under-21s. "He's a new breed of player," said McClaren. "He's athletic, mobile, strong, and quick, a very good defender. In those full-back positions, we're looking for competition."
The England coach insisted other understudies would follow. "I'm very excited by the players coming through. You've got to be careful, though. It's the timing, really, which games and which get-togethers you bring them in: the likes of [Wigan's Leighton] Baines and [Aston Villa's Gabriel] Agbonlahor. The strikers, too: there's [Preston's David] Nugent coming through, and [Arsenal's Theo] Walcott getting a chance and proving what a good player he is and the potential that he's got."
But he warned: "It's all about potential, but my job is qualification for the Euros. That's what I look towards when I'm picking a squad. That's why the players in the squad are the ones taking us forward at the moment."
Though the coach is likely to partner Everton's Andy Johnson with Rooney at some stage, he emphasises that victory is the foremost objective. "Obviously I don't like losing matches," he says of the Croatia débâcle. "But we did. I've found out the reasons why." Presumably, in his mind, it was the system, but he refused to elaborate further. "We discussed it with the players, and it's time to move on. I've been itching for this game since two days after the Croatia game. There are no real friendlies. The performance will be dissected just the same as any other."
Just for a minute returning to Zagreb, McClaren added: "We lost a football match. And because of that, you expect to get criticism. If it's levelled at myself, I've got no problem. But I was very disappointed with the personal criticism of Paul Robinson [in the wake of his air-kick that brought Croatia's second goal]. It got out of hand and he didn't deserve that. Paul Robinson was our No 1 goalkeeper: he is now. End of story."
Not for himself, it won't be, though, if his team suffer defeat. McClaren may be moving on. But can his England?
Paul Robinson (Tottenham)
Chris Kirkland (Wigan Athletic)
Ben Foster (Manchester Utd)
Gary Neville (Manchester Utd)
Phil Neville (Everton)
Micah Richards (Manchester City)
Rio Ferdinand (Manchester Utd)
John Terry (Chelsea, captain)
Ledley King (Tottenham)
Jamie Carragher (Liverpool)
Wes Brown (Manchester Utd)
Michael Dawson (Tottenham)
Ashley Cole (Chelsea)
Wayne Bridge (Chelsea)
Aaron Lennon (Tottenham)
Shaun Wright-Phillips (Chelsea)
Steven Gerrard (Liverpool)
Frank Lampard (Chelsea)
Michael Carrick (Manchester Utd)
Scott Parker (Newcastle Utd)
Jermaine Jenas (Tottenham)
Joe Cole (Chelsea)
Stewart Downing (Middlesbrough)
Wayne Rooney (Manchester Utd)
Peter Crouch (Liverpool)
Jermain Defoe (Tottenham)
Darren Bent (Charlton Athletic)
Andy Johnson (Everton)Reuse content