Sam Wallace: Question time for the golden generation

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The Independent Online

Three goals at home to Russia and we have reached the point where, tradition dictates, the English football nation does what it does best. It gets carried away. Forget that we're locked in an unwinnable war in the Middle East, and haven't had a Wimbledon men's singles champion since 1936. At least we are still one of the world leaders at getting carried away. No English sporting triumph, however minor, would be complete without it.

So for all those who left Wembley on Wednesday wondering whether it was too late to ask the bloke who cast the Bobby Moore statue if he still had enough molten bronze left over for one of Emile Heskey: a word of warning. The England team are rarely so vulnerable as when they have believe they turned a corner or, in this case, poor Steve McClaren at last feels confident enough to venture outside his Teesside village without a disguise.

There is nothing like a victory to inflame radical thoughts in the populace. There were those who jammed the phone-ins to demand that McClaren disregard Wayne Rooney when England play Estonia and Russia next month. Listen to them and you might think that David Beckham should be made to sit for ever on the bench, perhaps allowed on the pitch only to collect the tracksuit tops after the warm-up. And as for Frank Lampard, only his deportation to somewhere like Chad would appease the masses.

It is, some might say, the natural reaction of a support disappointed one too many times by footballers with big reputations. On Wednesday they fell in love with a team of triers, like Gareth Barry, who in recent years has played for an Aston Villa team so anonymous that probably even he cannot remember where they finished in the Premier League. And Heskey too, who after 12 years as a professional footballer at last seems to have learnt to put his body's power and pace to good use, like a man emerging from an awkward prolonged adolescence at the age of 29.

This was the team the people wanted: a blockbuster movie without the star names (well, almost). Suffering from galactico-fatigue, they want " Macca's minions" instead, a team as workaday and unstarry as their grey-suited manager with his slightly nervous smile and eagerness to please. As ever with England, the truth is out there – it's just a bit more complicated than might first be assumed. For the revolution to take place there is no need to throw out our football aristocrats, but it might be a good idea to re-establish the ground rules with them.

The key problem with England over the last six years has been an unwillingness to drop certain players. Be it Beckham at the last World Cup, or the failure to decide between Lampard and Steven Gerrard for the one central midfield attacking place. Even Owen, whom you criticise at your peril today, is not always the right man for the job. Not when he is out of form or, as at the last World Cup, not even fit.

In the past, Beckham, Owen, Lampard and Rooney have exercised a right to play just as long as they could put one broken metatarsal in front of the other. What Wednesday told us is that the natural balance of a team is much more significant. You know the way it works, left winger on the left, right winger on the right. Two central midfielders: one defensive, the other attacking. It has taken England about seven years to accept.

Fortunately for McClaren he stumbled on it earlier in the month when he took a call saying Lampard was injured and probably out of the Israel game, possibly Russia too. I was one of a few reporters with him at the time and, with hindsight, probably should not have broken the awkward silence by commiserating that at least it saved him a difficult decision in midfield. Funnily enough, he didn't seem to appreciate that comment at the time. But today he probably feels pretty good about the team he picked on Wednesday.

This is not a treatise against Lampard, a fabulous player who has carried England on so many occasions, and never got much credit for doing the same for Chelsea last season. So too Rooney, whose two goals against Croatia at Euro 2004 were the highpoint of the last two international tournaments. But to demand that these players just walk back into the team, irrespective of form, fitness and – most pertinently – the balance of the side is palpable nonsense.

Rooney has scored only three international goals since Euro 2004 so we should stop thinking about him as responsible for winning Euro 2008 and the next World Cup, rescuing English football, restoring the nation's self-esteem and perhaps ending the turmoil on the world's credit markets all on his own. There is a notion that if a player is not picked for every game then somehow he is failing. But that is ridiculous, and never more so than in the fragmented world of international football.

Anyway, most professional footballers tend to be philosophical about the hand dealt to them by fate. Owen Hargreaves will not be seeking counselling just because Barry has proved himself a worthy competitor for his place. In the space of one year Hargreaves was booed by England fans, cheered by them, voted their player of the year and broke his leg. The man can probably take a bit of bad news by now.

Micah Richards deserves to be the first-choice right-back against Estonia but that does not mean Gary Neville is finished. At some point Wayne Bridge may edge ahead of Ashley Cole as first-choice left-back, but no one is suggesting that if the latter was dropped he need call his agent to announce, once again, those immortal words of his – "they're taking the piss".

This is grown-up football: players get picked, players get dropped, the team win. McClaren took a brave step axing Beckham last August, and bringing him back was the right decision too. Now for something really radical: use Beckham as a squad player. Ask him nicely and he might collect the tracksuits too.

What happens next for England

Remaining fixtures: 13 Oct England v Estonia. 17 Oct Croatia v Israel; Macedonia v Andorra; Russia v England. 17 Nov Andorra v Estonia; Israel v Russia; Macedonia v Croatia. 21 Nov Andorra v Russia; England v Croatia; Israel v Macedonia.

What happens now?

England's victory on Wednesday puts them in a strong position but they still have work to do, as Croatia are all but through. A win in Russia would virtually ensure qualification, but a defeat would give the Russians control of their own destiny. England's final game against Croatia is still likely to be crucial.

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