The Nick Townsend Column: Catalyst Hargreaves the clear plus in a blurred picture for Team McVenables

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The Independent Online

"This has," reflected the yeoman of England's new guard, John Terry, "washed away the memories of the summer." And as a vast rewriting of recent England football history continues, in some quarters without any evident sign of embarrassment, the lyrics of that old South Pacific song come to mind: "I'm gonna wash that man right outa my hair."

Suddenly, Sven Goran Eriksson and David Beckham are regarded as unlamented boy-friends given the heave-ho. Meanwhile, a new dawn is celebrated with the joy of druids at the summer solstice. As the sun rises, you will excuse some circumspection from this direction.

Steve McClaren, the man who arrived largely unfêted, would expect nothing else from those of us who still find it curious that for all this "fresh" thinking last week it was the product of a man who was Eriksson's aide for nigh-on five years, and who had apparently fiddled as the man who arrived from Rome burnt England's legacy.

McClaren and Terry Venables may indeed turn out to be that hybrid, a beast of two enormous footballing brains, ready to transform England's philosophy, as they are already being portrayed. Or that legend may die in comparative infancy once exposed to élite opposition.

One thing is certain:McCla- ren will not have been so readily seduced as some by Wednesday night's triumph. He may just recall similar enthusiasm after England's inaugural victory under Eriksson over Spain, which had the headline writers acclaiming a Sven-sational performance. Maybe he also cast his mind back to England's first game under Kevin Keegan, a 3-1 defeat of Poland, which, it was said by one commentator: "put the smile back on the face of our national game". It has all become as inevitable as the annual improvement in A-levels.

What it would be fair to observe is that while Eriksson became synonymous with confusion over systems and personnel - in part because of the obsessive desire to make Beckham part of his permanent fixtures and fittings - McClaren has made the obvious, yet effective, changes which have transformed the England midfield into a coherent convergence of the forces of creation and destruction.

Frank Lampard was rejuvenated in his traditional central role; Steven Gerrard was liberated, as were Rio Ferdinand and Terry (although again it remains baffling that McClaren had previously been assistant governor of the prison).

The catalyst has been Owen Hargreaves, who has seized the No 7 jersey and donned it like the team man he is, even if the marketing men will not be selling too many replicas.

As McClaren explains when asked whether Gerrard and Lampard could ever play together in central midfield: "It's something we might try in the future, but not the way Owen Hargreaves is playing at the moment. It sometimes needs a player between them to to bring out the best in them, to take some responsibility off them, and also to raise their standards. I think Hargreaves has done that with his performances. Tonight, the whole team looked at the way he chased and harried and thought: 'We'll follow that'."

The irony is, of course, that it was Beckham who provided a similar stimulus against a more serious-minded Greece at the same stadium in 2002. Now England have a different kind of hero; one whom nobody could accuse of embracing the cult of celebrity. There was rousing acclamation when the PA announcer declared Hargreaves as man of the match against Greece.

How that contrasted with his reception in the opening World Cup game against Paraguay. As this observer wrote at the time: "The response from the overwhelming England presence within this 48,000-capacity stadium to this depressing display was that ultimate insult, the Mexican Wave, followed disgracefully by the jeering of Owen Hargreaves' late emergence, a contempt, it seems, largely born of unfamiliarity with the Bayern Munich player and an ignorance of his role."

It demonstrates all too vividly the capricious nature of football and its followers, something of which McClaren is only too aware. Even though he wore a perpetual smile as broad as a TV quizmaster, McClaren readily conceded: "There are some aspects we aren't pleased about."

The second half reminded us of England's old failings. To borrow Eriksson's well-worn phrase: "First half good; second half not so good." Again, despite the impressive use of the ball by England's rearguard when offered the opportunity, they still appeared vulnerable under assault, particularly from set-pieces, and contrived to permit Greece at least three decent opportunities. It is an area McVenners will have to address.

As for England's striking prowess, such a victory against a porous defence demonstrated a difference in approaches to the game rather than any certainty that Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe represent England's future. Wayne Rooney will return, one hopes suitably chastened. Longer term, his partner may be Dean Ashton.

But here, as in every other area of the field, McClaren is blessed with options. His England are also about to negotiate a passage through one of the least competitive European Championship qualifying groups. It bodes well. The new England coach will, though, place Wednesday's opening result in context with those of some of his predecessors, and, in the words of The Who, ensure "we won't get fooled again".

It's players, not directives, who make the game

New England. New Premiership. And, almost immediately, no Wayne Rooney. One dismissal can be regarded as misfortune; two suggests that either officials have made him a marked man or that he needs to ignore the counselling of his defence team, including a typically vocal Gary Neville, and look closely at himself.

All but the most myopic would suggest the latter. His actions in the World Cup quarter-final defeat by Portugal and the elbowing incident in the pre-season game against Porto left him, at best, with a case to answer.

Recent outpourings suggest he is still in denial about both, and he is ill-served by his team-mates, country and club, fighting his corner and seeking to attribute blame elsewhere. If, as Rooney claims, "football is getting more and more where you can't touch an opponent", and certainly that was the impression in the World Cup, then a player of his quality has to heed that sea change and steer accordingly. This season, referees have been reminded that deliberate use of the elbow is punishable with a red card. As Rooney discovered, there is often a fine line between deliberate and reckless.

There is, often, too, a similar slender differential between diving and what is a genuine loss of balance, often at pace under challenge. For all the demands for a crackdown, it is a delicate balance for referees, none of whom want to brand a player wrongly as a cheat.

However, one convention which has long outstayed its welcome is that of a player kicking the ball out of play so that team-mates or rivals can receive treatment for injuries. Now the referee must decide whether to stop the game. It was a piece of etiquette introduced with the grandest of ideals, but which has been abused by players.

Ultimately, it is they rather than any number of directives to referees who will determine the fundamental decency within the game.

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