Steve McClaren: lucky manager? Well, apart from the fact that he will be without his best player Wayne Rooney against Croatia on Wednesday for the sixth time in 12 Euro 2008 qualifiers. And that Michael Owen won't be there either, his seventh absence of the campaign. If you like, you can gloss over John Terry's injury too and that he had to pull out of the away game against Russia less than 24 hours before kick-off. That game in Moscow when the Russians played silly buggers by holding it on the Luzhniki Stadium's artificial pitch, despite having staged all their other Euro 2008 qualifiers elsewhere.
Perhaps you can also overlook the other blows of the McClaren reign. Like Owen Hargreaves being fit for four out of 12 qualifiers or Gary Neville only figuring in two. Even Frank Lampard turned his ankle in training at roughly the same time McClaren was handing out the squad sheets for the double-header against Israel and Russia at Wembley. Need any more evidence of McClaren's uncanny knack with Lady Luck? How about Emile Heskey snapping a metatarsal shortly after playing like Didier Drogba in an England shirt? Or that rubbish penalty decision by the Spanish referee in Moscow that was forgotten in the aftermath?
When you look at it like that, perhaps McClaren is not actually the type to fall in the River Tees and come up with a salmon in his mouth. Many Englishmen will have watched Russia's Dmitri Sychev crack one against the post with the score at 1-1 in Tel Aviv on Saturday night and they will have put themselves back on the sofa and wondered at McClaren's fortune. The England manager could argue that he had been dealt such rotten luck up until then that, come Saturday, he was due a turn for the better after all.
If McClaren's England team complete the job on Wednesday, then he does not simply deserve the chance to lead them to Euro 2008 – he has absolutely earned it by right. The Football Association, and his many other detractors, cannot set him the target of qualification and then, having seen him fulfil it, pick up the proverbial goalposts and set them down elsewhere. If the final standings of Group E have England among the top two, then McClaren has done his job – and done it in circumstances that have been deeply unpromising at times.
No one would argue McClaren has become a better coach in the space of an evening of two extraordinary results in Group E, but the defeats for Russia and Croatia have put into perspective some of his darker moments. It was always a personal conviction that the performance against Russia which led to England's qualification destiny being, temporarily, decided elsewhere was not the tactical disaster it was portrayed as. Not only that, but Russia's defeat in Israel gives some context to England's draw in Tel Aviv in March. The revisionist view is now that a point in a country who have not lost at home in two straight qualification campaigns is no bad thing.
The integrity of the FA as an organisation – and you can be sure there is no appetite to sack McClaren there – as well as of England as a football nation rests on giving their manager the chance to lead his team to the tournament if England qualify. To change that would be to ignore what we have been reminded of by that remarkable outcome in Israel on Saturday: that not everything in football can be discerned until the competition is over. Or to put it another way, maybe we aren't as clever as we think we are.
McClaren has been desperately unlucky with injuries but he has also made some mistakes. Playing 3-5-2 for the first time away in Zagreb was not the best idea; neither was alienating Jamie Carragher, one of the best players of his generation, who decided finally to retire from international football when he was dropped in favour of Wes Brown, of all people, against Estonia in June. In private, McClaren would surely admit those mistakes and he would also say that not even he could have anticipated the magnitude of the job, whatever he might have said in public about his years as Sven Goran Eriksson's assistant.
Then again, who could walk into this job? Perhaps not Guus Hiddink after all, who did not quite look the tactical genius some regard him as when time ticked away in Tel Aviv on Saturday and he threw on attacker after attacker to win the game. Is anyone seriously suggesting that, if England qualify above Russia in Group E, McClaren should lose his job to the coach who finished behind him? Jose Mourinho is still available and told his English Chelsea players before the last World Cup finals that he would have taken the England job for the tournament alone had Eriksson been forced out by the "fake sheikh" scandal.
The natural response to which is: of course he would. International tournaments without the hassle of qualification is the international manager's equivalent of surreptitiously cherry-picking the choicest Quality Street from the Christmas selection box without having to wade dutifully through the less popular alternatives. Yet this England job, like no other, demands a period of acclimatisation. Mourinho may yet prove to take to it effortlessly, but since he left Chelsea he has been exposed to some pretty lurid headlines about his own private life that make you suspect that the attention managing England brings would not be entirely welcome.
McClaren knows that he was not a popular choice to manage England and at times he has looked shell-shocked at the reaction he has drawn from England supporters. For someone who professed to know so much about the job when he took it 15 months ago, he has occasionally worn the 1,000-yard stare of a man who has just had to reassess everything he thought he knew about just how lonely it can get. Relative to Eriksson, McClaren has been fast-tracked into the agonies of the job, with a honeymoon period that lasted only four games.
What he knows now already, that it took his predecessor more than six years to deduce – if indeed he ever did, is that no player's reputation is worth preserving at the expense of his own if the individual in question is not performing. If England do qualify on Wednesday, you can only hope that McClaren can use the pain that has been inflicted on him thus far as a means of strength, like the FA's own Shaolin monk. He will have seven months, as well as three weeks with the squad at the end of the season, to prepare for a tournament and try to teach his squad a few new tricks. If he fails at Euro 2008, then all bets are off as to his future – but he at least deserves his chance.Reuse content