The Last Word: The fact it's Barry or bust is Fabio's fault
England do not underachieve at World Cups, it is the nation that overexpects, so please be realistic
Sunday 30 May 2010
So it has come to this – again. Less than a fortnight to go before the South Africa spectacular kicks off and England's hopes are seemingly resting on the damaged ankle ligaments of a player the team simply cannot do without. Wasn't this World Cup supposed to be different?
Well, it is in one sense as unlike in 2002 with David Beckham and unlike in 2006 with Wayne Rooney, the man cannot be deemed a footballing superstar. Gareth Barry is a good player, no doubt about it. Underrated even. But he is hardly a one-off. Except, it appears, in his own country. Nobody else can play the holding role which allows Fabio Capello to integrate the talents of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. It's Barry or bust. Oh, the torture of the wait.
Now, hang on, shouldn't Capello have thought about this a while ago? After all, it has long been obvious that Owen Hargreaves, the other proven international performer in this capacity, had little to no chance of making the starting line. If, as all the experts are telling us, the Capello masterplan hinges on a disciplined midfielder keeping his field position and thus England's shape, was it wise for the Italian to put all his uova in the Barry basket? Would it not have been astute to consider the consequences of one injury and find an understudy some time before the last two warm-up matches?
But no, the word is that after Michael Carrick failed so dismally against the Mexicans on Monday, Capello will check out the suitability of Tom Huddlestone and Scott Parker against Japan in Austria this lunchtime. With respect to Messrs Huddlestone and Parker, this does smack of desperation, rather like the punter who sees his selection withdrawn 30 seconds before the off and rushes up to the counter to fill in another name – any bloody name – on a fresh betting slip.
Goodness knows where Capello goes if this pair of untested wannabes bomb out. Back to Carrick? Lampard and Gerrard back together in the centre, anyone? As he makes his way from Twente to Wolfsburg, a certain Steve McClaren might see the irony in that; as he might in the question marks surrounding the goalkeeper and the most appropriate partner or otherwise for Wayne Rooney; as the England manager before McClaren might in the apparent decision to pander to celebrity and chumminess by taking along an injured David Beckham essentially as a cheerleader.
Does any of this make Capello a bad gaffer? Of course it doesn't. But it may just signify that he isn't the genius that England and the media have portrayed him to be. To be frank, the deification of this man has been as ridiculous as it has been depressingly familiar. It has been further proof that when it comes to ignoring the lessons of recent history, English football makes certain alcoholics seem pragmatic.
Remember Sven? He, too, took over England when they were rock bottom and he, too, was acclaimed as some sort of saviour when he achieved what any accomplished manager should with a disparate but talented rabble. He introduced a little structure, a bit of a game-plan and, hey presto, they advanced to the world stage. Naturally, England couldn't be satisfied with merely being there; they had to be world-beaters to boot. And soon they would be, thanks to the new Svengali and his inspirational management.
Back then, of course, it was all about Eriksson's impervious nature in comparison to the frenzy which accompanied Kevin Keegan's ill-fated reign. Eriksson had the perfect antidote, implanting control and calm into the panic-induced Three Lions. Later, he was inevitably accused of not having enough passion, of becoming too close to players to whom he was once praised for empowering with the self-belief to think and act for themselves as adults. And after the disaster that was McClaren, so arrived Capello to mop up the Sven lather. Ban the mobiles, ban the WAGs, ban any trace of insubordination. The hard man was here to chuck Sven's soft soap down the drain.
Yet had the Swede created such a mess? Wasn't it more a case of a falsely installed national hero being unable to live up to the falsely installed national hype? The accepted prefix for Eriksson, whenever he has been referred to in this build-up, has been "the underachieving". That is insulting. He was nothing of the sort. His team did not underachieve; the nation overexpected. At his two World Cups, Eriksson actually fared better than the reality said he should.
Like every sports rankings system, Fifa's has its critics. But at least it is based on what has happened instead of what armchair know-it-alls think should happen. And as far as England are concerned, the rankings have been about right. In 2002, they went as world No 12 and reached the last eight (where, incidentally, they were beaten by the eventual champions). In 2006, they went in at 10th and again reached the last eight. On both occasions, England's results in the finals saw their ranking leap up afterwards (four places to eighth in 2002 and five places to fifth in 2006).
Unsurprisingly, however, Eriksson travelled back to his adopted home to a chorus of criticism. Thus the dismantling of the pedestal began. In the rush to do so, there was absolutely no acknowledgement that it should never have been erected in the first place.
Eriksson made his mistakes. But then managers do. All managers. Even managers undoubtedly better than Eriksson – such as Capello. This morning he probably wishes he had already identified and blooded in a back-up for Barry. He didn't, so he has to live with the problem and solve it in the best way he can. England can only pray that Barry recovers in time to assume his critical berth. Then, with the system and the personnel which plainly make them tick, the Boys of 10 can go on to end the 44 years of hurt, or whatever it is now. Capello's standing would be yet more God-like then. Of course, the glory would all be down to peerless judgement and leaving nothing to chance. The smallest degree of luck would not be allowed to feature in the narrative.
For the record, England are eighth in the rankings. If they go out in the quarters yet again, Fabio has not "underachieved".
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