Nick Townsend: FA to blame for picking No 2 from a flawed regime

McClaren's dubious judgement was found out in Moscow but it was his paymasters who shot themselves in the foot
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The Independent Online

It is not all gloom, then. In a week which began with triumphalist noises following the vanquishing of Estonia and con-cluded with a beauty parade of possible successors to Steve McClaren in the wake of a night that became "iron curtains" for the England coach in Moscow, a small item appeared on the newswires. David Beckham was fit again, after his knee injury, and had a 22-minuterun-out for LA Galaxy.

Just when you thought the international career of England's greatest sporting export might have run its natural course, he appears ready to confound us all. But will it be to fire England, as he did against Greece back in 2001, or to help rake over the embers of Steve McClaren's tenure as head coach?

After Shaun Wright-Phillips' unconvincing exhibition in Moscow, normally speculation would be rife about whether the man still regarded in many quarters as his country's talisman could return for England's final fixture of their qualification campaign. But it is likely that the only ones who will care by then will be those who believe in a miracle on a par with that of transforming Pete Doherty into a cleansed choirboy: that of Andorra overcoming Russia on 21 November, a night when European Championship qualifying concludes with England facing Croatia. And with McClaren liable to be facing imminent unemployment, to be replaced, most likely, by the man perversely discarded last time, Martin O'Neill.

It is appropriate to mention Beckham because, in a sense, McClaren's handling of the former England captain has epitomised his stewardship; one of indecision and dubious judgement. In an act one suspected was primarily intended as gesture politics, he banished Beckham to the boondocks, erron-eously in this view. Of course McClaren should have examined other options on the right flank, but when he was forced by Beckham's Real Madrid form to summon him back, his action was made to appear foolish.

The midfielder then sustained an ankle injury but, for reasons best known to McClaren and the player, Beckham flew from America and played in a friendlyagainst Germany reserves, which England lost. It all proved futile, because Wright-Phillips res-ponded supremely well in a 3-0 defeat of Israel, so Beckham's absence was ignored. It was the match in which Emile Heskey, in place of Wayne Rooney, partnered Michael Owen and Gareth Barry replaced Frank Lampard. McClaren had achieved fluidityand balance by default.

Wednesday night in Moscow found him out. But it was not just that sole defeat which has induced a renewed chorus of disapproval. It is a response to serial failures in this qualifying campaign.

Contrary to some observations, it was never a matter of McClaren descending from hero to zero in a matter of four days. McClaren is fond of the observation that "this group is decidedafter 12 games. Not 10 or 11. Let's see where we end up". What can be said is that, after 11, England are nowhere near where they should be in what was, to most eyes when the draw was made, a group which should have been comfortably negotiated.

Witness for the prosecution is his own former No 1, Sven Goran Eriksson, who opined at the time: "Whoever is coming after me should be happy with this draw." One point from away games against Croatia, Russia and Israel and a home draw with Macedonia have, collectively, been sufficient to cause this potential humiliation.

North of the border, if Scotland do not prevail at home to the world champions, Italy, they can still feel genuine pride that they got so close to the finals in such exalted company. England, blessed with the talent they have, can only feel acute embarrassment should they ultimately fail.

The penalty conceded by Wayne Rooney in Moscow reveals only a vestige of truth about England's defeat. The truth was that this was far from the first occasion that England have failed to protect and build on an advantage. The maintenance of possession and the ability to provide an antidote to the sting of the opposition as late pressure amounts remain alien concepts.

From that psychologically crucial moment when Steven Gerrard spurned the invitation to place his team beyond recall, you sensed that the wiles of Guus Hiddink's men, bolstered by the introduction of Dmitry Tobinskiy and Roman Pavlyuchenko, would force the issue. McClaren responded, eventually, with Frank Lampard, Peter Crouch and Stewart Downing. He may as well have raised the flag of surrender right then.

Since then, the endorsements of his position have hardly been fulsome, despite the declaration that "Steve has done a bloody good job". The sentiments of Dave Richards, the FA vice-chairman, in which he spoke of stability, may have carried more conviction if he had not added rather unnecessarily: "I will support him right up untilthe point where we can nolonger qualify."

The England coach discovers himself in limbo, conscious that this could be his final month and aware that even if his men still tunnel out of this camp of igno-miny by dint of the assistance of their new friends and allies,Israel, who must defeat Russia before England overcome Croatia, it could still be his final hours.

If so, he will not be a victim of misfortune or a mad four minutes in Moscow, as he would prefer us to believe, but rather a victim of the FA's erroneous assumption that promoting the No 2 of a flawed regime was ever going to correct the failings of four decades.

Rugby will never kick beautiful game into touch as national sport

"Should rugby be our national sport?" At the start of the week, Radio 5 Live, mindful of the warm glow England's unanticipated Rugby World Cup progress had induced, posed that phone-in question, though it bore a hint of mischief.

Leaving aside the more pertinent question – is rugby a national sport except everyfour years when England, in a tournament limited to no more than a handful of winners, flirt with glory? – what the programme alluded to, of course, was: should our young people be influenced by rugby's sportsmanship, resonant of a bygone era, rather than aping our inarticulate, avaricious, ill-disciplined, modern-day footballers?

There are occasions – when, say, Wayne Rooney's histrionics are under close scrutiny, or when officials are hectored – that one despairs for the old game. But it was always thus.

Many, many years ago, when this observer, then an irritatinglyprecocious student, attempted to persuade the head of his rugby-playing grammar school that the school sport should be football, he might as well have suggestedthat pupils should take mind-bending drugs. Rugby, the head emphasised, was "character-building". By implication, football was anything but. End of discussion.

Rugby union does, indeed, possess many attributes. Not-ably, it requires phenomenal physical courage, and injury received without demur from the victims. There is zero tolerance of disrespect to referees. And yet, for all its supposed ills, the beautiful game continues to inspire wonder and inflame debate like no other sport. We will long reflect on Rooney's volleyed goal in Moscow. It was a thing of majesty. But was he offside? Why was he in a left-back position when he concededthe crucial penalty?

Any number of Jonny Wilkinson drop kicks will not persuade us that rugby union should be deemed the national sport, and the suspicion is that aficionados of the oval-ball game would not desire such a "distinction" anyway. They rather enjoy its niche status, its complexities, which are so mystifying to many. They are quite content for the rest of the world to follow the common man's game. In truth, it's probably best left that way.

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