So, what's it all about? Is David Beckham truly being summoned east as the "big-game player" on whom Steve McClaren may yet have to depend? Or is it a bit more complex; a bit of Californian dreaming on the England coach's part that, if it all goes Russian Bear-shaped for England in Tel Aviv and Russia beat Israel, thenational treasure can help to mollify the collective indignant breast at a failure to negotiate such a relatively weak group? Surely it can't be that a century of caps is so crucial to the furtherance of Brand Becks that he has forced McClaren's hand?
Conspiracy theories abound about a place being found in the squad for the man who was unceremoniously bin-linered from England thinking not so long ago. That is the curious thing about the England coach. Having seemingly dispatched Beckham to international football Hades, albeit in a manner which suggested that it was moreabout establishing McClaren as Definitely Not Sven than for the national good, apparently he now cannot see enough of the fellow. It's not as if there is a drastic need for Beckham. Offered in evidence could be Shaun Wright-Phillips and David Bentley, both capable of pace and delivery.
It could be that the former captain may yet play a pivotal part in England's qualification hopes, as well as gaining his 98th and 99th caps (against Austria on Friday night and, more crucially, Croatia, on Wednesday week), and if so we will genuflect before McClaren at his prescience. But until then the conclusion must be that he has singularly failed to learn some important realities from Sir Alex Ferguson during their period in tandem together. In a week in which we honoured Fergie's coming of age – the 21st anniversary of his arrival at Old Trafford – it should be recalled that just as important as the Scot's acquisitions of elite players has been his judgement of whom, and when, to cull. Ferguson recognised when Beckham's time had come and, while it was true that he was reasonably impressive, on occasions, at Real Madrid, it was United who saw by far the best of him.
True, it's a little different with international footballers. Yet if McClaren really desired to demonstrate that there is an England tomorrow for him, even if Russia prevail, should not he be projecting the claims of young thrusters rather than indulging this veteran performer, now domiciled in Hollywood?
Down the years, Ferguson has been the master of when and how to introduce young talent, and when to discard a player whom he perceived – often before anyone else – was on the wane. Years do not necessarily enter into it, either. It is significant that the admirable Ryan Giggs, 34 this month, still retains his manager's faith, and demonstrated why with a distinguished performance against Arsenal last Saturday.
Giggs, whose physical prowess belies his role of old retainer among the playing staff, has seen it all, but even he must, on occasions, question the complexities of his manager. At 67, Ferguson has not so much mellowed as become ever more maddening.
His condemnation of some elements of the Emirates audience after last Saturday's fixture may have been valid, but his protests would carry more weight if he also objected when he hears, as he must, the disgusting vitriol poured upon Arsène Wenger at Old Trafford. His complaints would also have carried more conviction if he had not, quite unreasonably, also denounced referee Howard Webb's performance virtually in the same breath.
He is indeed a many-tentacled specimen when it comes to his contradictory tendencies. Magnanimous on rare occasions, a malcontent on others. In too many eyes it debases his outstanding achievements. How can Ferguson offer a referee a high approval rating beforehand, as he did Webb, then doubt him afterwards, claiming irrationally that he favoured Arsenal?
The reality is that, whatever undistilled emotion drives the Scot's responses, there is also an inner determination to influence outcomes by whatever means. He would pass a polygraph test, because he believes absolutely in everything he utters. There is but one truth in Fergie's world, and it is daubed with Manchester United red.
Ultimately Ferguson, rather like his political antithesis, Lady Thatcher, is not for turning. His former No 2, McClaren, should have learned the merits of such a stance. Clearly he hasn't.
Bookies must take hats off to Barney
Back in 1997, I ghosted the autobiography of Barney Curley, the former trainee Jesuit priest turned racehorse trainer and fabled Irish gambler, responsible for coups that netted him millions. The controversial figure, a scourge of bookmakers and a man who nurtured the careers of leading jockeys, including this season's joint champion Flat jockey Jamie Spencer, insisted that all proceeds from the book, entitled Giving A Little Back, should go to a charity he had established named Dafa (Direct Aid for Africa).
He had the support of the jockey Frankie Dettori and a few other friends, but one wondered where, if anywhere, it might lead. Ten years on, the Newmarket-based trainer can answer that eloquently by listing school and health projects, mostly in Zambia. His work has so inspired Dubai's Sheikh Mohammed that he has donated £2.5 million to the charity as part of his recent sale of the Racing Post. It was a grand gesture, but we learned this week that it means the enigmatic Curley has decided to quit training to concentrate on Dafa.
Among the old enemy, the bookies, there will be expressions of relief. Certainly the racecourse and betting ring will not be quite the same without the familiar fedora-hatted presence of the 68-year-old. Better, Curley would say, that the lives of many in Africa be improved. For more details: dafa.co.uk
Oracle Coppell worth listening to
There is a shopping centre in Reading called The Oracle; and a football manager at Reading who is increasingly becoming the oracle. Steve Coppell appears to be warming to his role as the Premier League's conscience. Last Saturday, when it was estimated that one billion people had watched the Arsenal-Manchester United confrontation, it was his definitely contrary view that: "There are 1.2 billion people in India who couldn't give a shit what happened to Reading today."
Disaffected of Berkshire was at it again ahead of his team's home fixture with Arsenal tomorrow night. He had been asked about his management ambitions. "I would love to manage on an even keel to everyone else," he retorted.
"I would be fascinated if everyone had the same resources. We are in the same league but we are handicapped. Unlike sports in America, we are structured to eliminate competition." We have heard such laments before, but this is an issue that the game would be foolish to ignore, even though there is a natural antipathy for contrived competition in this country. That question shouldnot only concern Premier League mandarins either.
The injured England striker Wayne Rooney did everyone a favour when he spoke of being "frustrated and bored" after Manchester United's facile Champions' League victory over Dynamo Kiev in midweek. He should have been watching it, at Old Trafford or on television. Health warning: predictability can be a killer.Reuse content