Steve McClaren picked his new captain yesterday and whether you were originally a Terryist, a Gerrardite or one of the Nevillistas, there is another question beyond the merits of John Terry for the job. What happens to David Beckham and how will his continued presence in the England squad affect Terry as he takes on what has become, in the modern era, like a position of state?
It was a quiet summer for the now former England captain until a small pair of white swimming trunks intervened. That was a reminder that even a blurry photograph of Beckham on holiday still has the power to seize the agenda and relegate the likes of Terry and Gerrard, in their more traditional thigh-covering, knee-length swimwear, to virtual irrelevance. Terry is the new captain but, with Beckham still in the squad, will he really feel like the main man?
McClaren's captaincy decision is based on much wider issues, of course, than whose summer holidays feature on the front of gossip magazines, but already he faces another huge choice. For an England manager whose assumption of power has been accompanied by so little optimism, who is linked so closely to the previous doomed regime, there is pressure to do something radical to signal a break with the past. Approaching Terry Venables was a brave, innovative step. Ending Beckham's international career altogether would mark him out as a manager who is absolutely his own man.
It is worth remembering that up until yesterday's announcement, McClaren has decided very little when it comes to the England player hierarchy. He has sent Theo Walcott to the under-21s, he seems destined to bring back Jermain Defoe and call up Dean Ashton. But the captaincy debate? That was launched by Beckham himself with his unilateral decision to relinquish responsibilities the day after defeat to Portugal.
When Beckham walked into the media marquee at England's training ground at Buhlertal on 2 July he was doing what he thought was honourable. He played the humble, awkward, unaccustomed-as-I-am public speaker, his voice almost cracked with emotion, and the 24-hour news channels' ratings surged. Great television - but then as the drama faded, we started to ask how many previous England captains had resigned. And whether, in fact, it was their right to do so.
Check the text of Beckham's speech that day and the implication is quite clear - "I want to stress that I want to continue to play for England," he said, "and look forward to helping both the new captain and Steve McClaren in any way that I can." Or in other words, having saved McClaren the mess of having to depose him, Beckham's surrender was conditional on being kept around.
What thoughts go through the mind of a 45-year-old man from Hull who is faced with ending the international career of the most famous footballer in the world? As McClaren stared out of the window of his Football Association office this week, the first might have been: "How can I exclude a player who has a place in Real Madrid's first XI?" Or then: "How can I be sure that I'm right and Fabio Capello (five Serie A titles, one La Liga title, one European Cup) is wrong?" It is pressure enough to push a man to pick up the telephone and, with trembling fingers, punch in Max Clifford's number. But this is a decision that cannot be spun or made to look anything other than it is. It is an enormous call, one that may well hit the FA's marketing department, that may affect ticket sales and could come back to haunt McClaren. Because, if he does retire Beckham, every time he scores a goal or performs well for Madrid, he will be invited to say how that proves that McClaren is wrong.
In short, it is an old-fashioned football manager's decision, one that requires strength of mind and the confidence of McClaren to impose himself on the dressing-room. There are no guarantees he will be right whatever way he goes but, if he does send Beckham packing into the annals of FA history, then he will at least forever be known for doing it his way.
One question seems most pertinent above all. Does McClaren believe that in 2008, at 33 years and two months old, Beckham will be in a viable position to make a contribution as a squad member to England's European Championship campaign (and, if they haven't qualified, McClaren will be looking for a new job anyway)? If his answer to that is "No" then he should feel confident enough to tell Beckham that he wants to build a new team for this qualification campaign without him.
No one with a heart would take any pleasure in Beckham's personal pain at such a decision. It would be humiliating at first, especially given the significance he has built up around reaching 100 caps. He has 95 caps which is remarkable anyway, so what difference does five more make? This is not cricket, where records are measured in centuries. He is competing with Peter Shilton, Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton and Billy Wright. With an old statistic that no one cares about much. For example, he would never contemplate swapping one of his six Premiership titles with Manchester United for another five caps.
It will be much more important to remember Beckham for the great moments - Greece in 2001, Argentina in 2002, even the winner against Ecuador this summer - than a desperate veteran with a vested interest in playing. Terry is about to find out that the England captaincy comes with more scrutiny than he has ever experienced. If he wants to redefine the job according to his own qualities, it would be simpler if Beckham was not around.
Making the tough decisions. Upsetting powerful people. Going it alone despite the twitchiness in your employees. So much of the Sven Goran Eriksson years were about compromise, consensus and avoiding the real issues. With one decision, McClaren can change all that.Reuse content