Nick Townsend: Sven and Becks - time for a parting of the ways

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The Independent Football

On that afternoon at Old Trafford, a facile 2-0 England victory against Mark Hughes's side included a splendid goal from David Beckham. Yet what will have remained in the consciousness rather longer was the Curious Case of the Captain's Caution. Beckham, it will be recalled, allowed himself to become riled by the Wales left-back, Ben Thatcher, incurred a hairline rib fracture after one challenge, and was then cautioned for a subsequent retaliatory assault. His later admission that he had deliberately set out to acquire that booking so that he could use up a suspension while injured was universally condemned, though mostly for his unnecessary candour rather than the act itself. Even the Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, began throwing in his three Swiss Francs' worth and demanding explanations.

Beckham's apology was accepted by the Football Association; yet it diminished him further in the eyes of those who already regarded his contribution, as player and captain, to England's Euro 2004 campaign as peripheral, one in which he had manifestly failed to deliver - and not merely from the penalty spot against Portugal in Lisbon.

In the intervening period, that reputation has, if anything, further deteriorated. Though one is reluctant, of course, to speculate on the bedroom rituals of Sven Goran Eriksson, it would be fascinating to learn just what goes through the mind of the England coach as he lays head on pillow each night in the prelude to an international.

Does he summon the names of Robinson, Neville, Terry, Ferdinand, Cole... before striving to find a solution to the perpetual midfield conundrum? If so, does the rationalist in him ever, even fleetingly, question the selection of Beckham? As player? As captain? Or is the concept of England's celebrity captain fixed in Eriksson's brain as permanently as the tattoos on Beckham's body?

With the World Cup finals only 10 months distant, it is an increasingly disconcerting phenomenon that the England captaincy has become a closed shop of only one member - a decision that appears instinctive rather than planned - particularly because with that honour comes automatic access to the starting teamsheet, regardless of whether performances merit it.

There exists an umbilical cord between coach and captain which can never be severed. "The players definitely have the faith [in him]," declared Beckham of Eriksson before the Denmark game.

"That I should ever doubt that he should be captain - no way," reflected Eriksson of Beckham following the controversy which ensued after the World Cup qualifier against Wales. A certain constancy between such a pair is admirable, but doesn't this relationship stray into the area of unhealthy mutual admiration?

If there was anything that the Denmark game confirmed it was the fallacy of Eriksson's belief. It was not the Real Madrid midfielder's worst game for his country, but what was disturbing was that when an on-field general was required those qualities were seemingly absent. The game, remember, was only a friendly; not the volcano of a competitive contest, which can appear inert but is always liable to erupt. There will be many of those confrontations over the next 12 months.

The responsibility of the captaincy may enhance Brand Beckham as he bids for world domination of his image, but what are its benefits for England? One is reminded of those characters who don captain's caps in order to steer luxury river cruisers. All they receive is ridicule. Captaincy requires a character of authority, with the capacity both to inspire and to instil composure.

At times, of course, Beckham has led from the front, as he exemplified in the World Cup qualifier against Greece at Old Trafford in 2001. But that was the zenith of his performances with the armband and, for heaven's sake, that was four years ago now.

It is not as though other candidates are not advertising their claims extravagantly: John Terry, the tub-thumping leader who constantly cajoles and encourages from a position in which he can view play from the ideal perspective; Steven Gerrard, a stimulating figure, capable of galvanising his Liverpool team to Herculean levels; Frank Lampard, maybe less demonstrative but mature and respected; and Gary Neville, hugely experienced and a dressing-room "voice", even if occasionally a volatile temperament means his judgement is awry.

Time, maybe, for Eriksson to sleep, perchance to dream... of a new bearer of the armband, though those of us who have never understood Eriksson's thinking, or perhaps lack of it, in this matter, will not be holding our breath.

Unappealing side of the appeal

So, Nolberto Solano has lost his appeal against a red card. Frankly, it should never have even got to court, despite David O'Leary's claim that the Peruvian's elbow in the face of Portsmouth's Richard Hughes on Tuesday night was merely an attempt to "brush" him away. Finally, though, it appears as though we have some sanity from the FA, when it looked as though the sheriffs were simply appeasing the outlaws. Three out of eight Premiership dismissals this season have been overturned by a disciplinary commission: those of Newcastle's Jermaine Jenas against Arsenal; Sunderland's Andy Welsh against Liverpool; and West Ham's Paul Konchesky against Newcastle.

More worrying than the original referees' "errors" - from one perspective, without the benefit of replays - are those of the disciplinary commission who can review incidents at length. Quite what the criteria were for downgrading Jenas's red is anyone's guess. Apparently the referee, Steve Bennett, recommended it. Why? A challenge that takes an opponent's standing leg is dangerous and career-threatening by any judgement.

By the same argument, incidentally, Lucas O'Neill should have received a straight red, not the second yellow which produced his dismissal for the poorly timed tackle on Tottenham's Edgar Davids on Wednesday. Is anyone going to appeal against that?

The desirability of such a commission is debatable, in the sense that it delivers selective justice within only the élite ele-ment of a game that contains a myriad of injustices that are otherwise accepted because it is still, essentially, sport. It should not surprise us that it does so to the benefit of managers, who, too often, place officials under unacceptable duress.

These constant dashes to football's court of appeal do absolutely nothing for the esteem of officials. But there is a far greater concern: how long before these trials by TV become part of live games?

Collina's comeuppance

Speaking of which, Everton supporters would have happily seen our old friend Pierluigi Collina placed in the dock after the Italian official cancelled out the "goal" by Duncan Ferguson which would have brought their Champions' League qualifying tie against Villarreal level on Wednesday, with extra time beckoning. For once, those Bette Davies eyes did not mesmerise everyone into an acceptance that he is the world's "most respected" official. As one commentator observed, apparently rather mystified: "Mr Collina has been a bit of a homer tonight".

Strange though it may appear, there are those of us to whom such criticism was no great surprise. Wednesday night simply reminded us that he is actually the world's most overrated official.

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