The Nick Townsend column: Beckham in on merit but FA should kick petulant Cole out of the squad

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The Independent Online

The more cynical may believe that it is purely a matter of prising the monkey off the Football Association's back, to borrow the curious parlance of Fabio Capello's English club counterparts. So, let it be stressed from the start, any suggestion that the latest reinvention of David Beckham as an England player is merely a maudlin tribute to past triumphs, that his probable presence at the Stade de France on Wednesday night is the footballing equivalent of a telegram from the Queen, is thoroughly scurrilous.

Though Capello is on a voyage of discovery, not veneration of the past, and it could be concluded that the England manager should be focusing on the potential of David Bentley, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Theo Walcott, he is in no way indulging the former England captain and allowing him to stow away in the hold for old time's sake. Perish the thought.

That will no doubt be confirmed when things get somewhat more serious and England begin to contemplate South Africa 2010. For the moment, Capello assured us when asked whether Beckham's inclusion in the manager's second squad meant that he could play in those World Cup qualifiers: "I will call players I believe are useful to the team. Let's get one thing straight – I don't call players up to do them a favour. I call them up with a view of future games and what I need to do in the future. When David is fit he can always bring an important contribution because of his vision on the pitch and the fact that he can cross the ball and always create chances; not only for free-kicks but also during open play as well."

Good players, he added, "are good players whether they play in the US, in England or in Spain". Also, Beckham is "fresher than other players at the moment, having just started his season".

There had been, insisted Capello, absolutely no onus placed on him by his employers, the FA, to select Beckham because of his popularity and contribution to ticket marketing. "In my career, in my life as a football coach and manager, I have always made my own decisions and I have never been put under pressure – because those who choose me know me." So, there we have it. We will all believe what we want to believe and, frankly, Capello – with or without the influence of the FA – is doing the right thing, even though, as has been stressed here before, the LA Galaxy mid-fielder would be some way short of the ton if he had represented his country purely on form and fitness down the years, and not on his celebrity quotient. But most of us would not deny him joining such luminaries as Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton and Billy Wright, particularly because Beckham's dedication to the cause (admittedly, one suspects, to a significant degree his own rather than England's) is making it well-nigh impossible for Capello to ignore him, just as it did when he played under the Italian at Real Madrid.

The debate comes in a week in which many feel that the FA should have emphasised to their England manager that another player had no place in the squad for Wednesday. The FA are looking remarkably foolish, the day after their chairman, Lord Triesman, appealed for the Premier League's biggest names to lead by example when it comes to respecting officials, that Ashley Cole was still in Capello's squad only a few hours after events at White Hart Lane.

It was not so much the Chelsea left-back's poor challenge on Spurs' Alan Hutton that was the source of concern, though that was reckless enough, but his petulant response to the referee, Mike Riley – and that despite receiving only a caution. Admittedly the player, who, speaking of respect, is afforded about as much of it by his critics as Heather Mills after being caught out by the red-top newspapers for cheating on his wife Cheryl, has apologised. He could scarcely do anything else.

In response, the FA have displayed typical inertia. English football's governing body could have withdrawn Cole from the squad, with Capello's compliance – after all, the Italian is said to be a strong supporter of those who advocate more respect for officials – and made a lasting impression on the game as a whole. Instead, we hear only an expression of "disappointment" from Capello, not just at Cole's actions, but that of his accomplices, the protesting Frank Lampard and Chelsea's captain, John Terry.

It was an opportunity lost. One imagines the individual who will suffer most is Terry, who appears unlikely to regain the England captain's armband although, for the moment, Capello refuses to commit himself on that question.

That is typical of Capello, who, still speaking via an interpreter, prefers to restrict his observations to the general rather than the specific. But after announcing a squad that offers some a chanceto French-polish the lustre of their reputations – including Glen Johnson, Matthew Upson, Jermain Defoe and, notably, Walcott – therewas at least reassurance for Michael Owen.

Capello left him on the bench against Switzerland because he felt his form was not good. Now the England manager has been persuaded. "I saw him play in the last game [against Birmingham last Monday night] and saw that he's fitter and more alive, better physically. I'm happy about what I saw," reflected Capello, who also lauded Joe Cole's "fantastic" performance against Spurs in Wednesday's pulsating 4-4 draw.

One aspect of life in LA that surely won't trouble Beckham is burn-out – in contrast to the demands of the Premier League. Capello, like those before him, has identified that factor as a significant impediment to England's fortunes in tournaments.

"It's certainly true that in England players play a very high number of games and all of them at a very high intensity, so it's obvious that at the end of the season players cannot be physically fresh," he said. "Club managers are there to win so they need to keep intensity high. I can't do anything. I get the players in the condition they are given to me by the clubs."

But he added: "It's important players understand that you can't always run at the same speed, at the same intensity. And that means we need to be intelligent enough to understand when we can run and when we can't run."

In Capello's new order, mateyness with his men and the celebration of celebrity – if we leave Beckham, for the moment, out of the discussion – apparently have no place, and everyone has to demonstrate their claim to a cap. Capello has spoken of inheriting "world-class players" but he refused to name names – probably no bad thing, asEngland players for years were laughingly called the "golden generation". There was little reluctance on the part of his predecessors to nominate their idea of the Big Beasts, but when the Italian was asked the same question, he simply retorted: "No".

It was put to him that perhaps he didn't know. "Well, if I'm in this job presumably I know who they are," was his withering response. "And I think I've been the manager of a few world-class players in my time..." Which is why he is here, at not inconsiderable cost. He comes bearing wisdom and a knowledge that it will be England's cohesive football, come the World Cup qualifiers, rather than any loose words from him now that will vindicate the FA's faith.

Watch England take on France in Paris on Wednesday on Sky Sports 1, kick-off 8pm

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