Evolution not revolution. So said Steve McClaren at the very start of his very first press conference announcing his first squad as England manager 15 months ago. Today he announces what might be his last squad as England manager and it is probably too late to resort to revolution now.
That line about evolution, delivered on 11 August 2006 at the Landmark hotel in Marylebone, sounded familiar to a few of us. Unfortunately for McClaren, it can be attributed to a classic episode of Alan Partridge when the great comic creation himself, angling for a second series of his hapless chat show, is desperate to impress the commissioning editor of the BBC. "I loved your article in The Guardian," simpers Alan. "I loved that phrase you used, 'Revolution not evolution'."
"No," says the commissioning editor, "it was the opposite. 'Evolution not revolution'."
And similarly, when McClaren used it, you felt yourself wince. He was eager to impress that day – and has been for much of the time since – in a way that has allowed him too often to be lampooned and ridiculed, at times when he did not deserve it. He has learnt the hard way that there is no nice way to be England manager; that players, press, fans all need someone they are a bit afraid of. It is sincerely to be hoped that when he speaks today he comes out fighting – giving no quarter and to hell with what anyone thinks.
England have a friendly against Austria a week today and Croatia in the last Euro 2008 qualifier five days later. Should they fail to qualify, the best line of McClaren's reign, the one that will be chronicled in sporting quotes books, came in March in the aftermath of the win over Andorra in Barcelona. Hounded by his own fans, upset to the point you could see it in his face, McClaren gave a dramatically brief press conference that ended with the words: "Gentlemen, write whatever you want to write." Not quite Sir Alex Ferguson's famous sign-off to the press – "Away and write your shite" – but you get the message.
As McClaren juggles with his squad for these two games, as he wonders whether John Terry will be fit, it is evident that he still wants the job. Those close to him say he is as passionate as ever about a role that, over the past 15 months must have brought him a lot more misery and frustration than happiness. The kind of job in which what happened to him this week – a ludicrous misunderstanding that ran out of all control – has not been that unusual.
McClaren's most recent crime? To go to Los Angeles to see David Beckham and not watch him play in a meaningless charity match against a team of amateurs and second-rate celebrities. McClaren travelled to America to reassure himself of the player's fitness, given that he is set to name the 32-year-old in his squad today. Not unreasonable when you consider the injuries Beckham has had in the past six months. Understandably, he decided to keep it quiet and did not tell everyone at the Football Association. Predictably, one of the Sunday newspapers found out.
With the FA still unsure over the weekend whether McClaren was actually intending to go to the game on Sunday, most papers – this one included – pointed out to varying degrees that a charity match against Vinnie Jones' Hollywood Sunday team was an unusual scouting mission. When The Independent found out that he had not actually gone to the game, and never intended to, we simply put the record straight. Others could not bring themselves to do even that.
The Sun's back-page headline on Tuesday was "Maccy Mouse", ripping into McClaren for going all the way to California (Disneyland, Mickey Mouse, clever eh?) and not watching a meaningless friendly. So let's get that straight. He was being savaged for (a) checking on a key player's fitness and (b) not attending a game that no one thought was serious and that he had never intended to watch anyway. It's good to know the bar has been raised in the level of debate around the England team.
That sorry little saga told you everything you needed to know about McClaren's reign, a tiny misunderstanding spinning out of control, ravenous critics and – as if from nowhere – another damaging back page. It is too soon to look back on the McClaren years in detail – he does still have a slim chance of qualifying for Euro 2008, after all – but Terry's fitness again puts into focus some of the problems with players that he has been forced to endure. Too often McClaren has been without his key players in Euro 2008 qualifiers, and it has hurt.
First of all he was without Michael Owen for the first six Euro 2008 games. Put into perspective, Owen is England's record goalscorer in competitive matches with 26. Between them Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand, Terry, Ashley Cole, Steven Gerrard, Owen Hargreaves, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, Owen and Wayne Rooney have been out injured 44 times over 11 games. That is an average of at least four key players missing for every qualifier (not including when Lampard was dropped for Gareth Barry). Some may argue that Micah Richards has superseded Gary Neville but, in a must-win game against Croatia at Wembley, it is a personal view that a fully fit Neville would be a better option than the teenager.
When England kick off against Croatia they will still have a mathematical chance of qualification even if Russia have beaten Israel five days earlier and Croatia have taken a point off Macedonia. Admittedly, the only remaining hurdle facing Russia by then will be kerb-high – Andorra away. It will be a strange atmosphere at Wembley and any notions the FA has of standing by its man will probably disappear once the booing starts. But the fans' treatment of McClaren is another story altogether. Starting from today, he can dispense with the pleasantries and simply hope for the best.Reuse content