The Nick Townsend Column: Never mind the absence of quality - where has the pride and passion gone?

Remove Rooney and the golden generation look down-at-heel bunch
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The Independent Online

He may not be the first England coach to discover his vulnerable areas and sensitivities being placed under the torturer's implements. But Steve McClaren is the first to succumb to the experience so early in his tenure. Even before his England squad gathered last weekend, he was being condemned as "two-faced" by a pair of his former Middlesbrough players, Massimo Maccarone and Danny Mills. True, those particular character assassins were referring to their misgivings of him as a club manager, but reputations once established are, like avian flu, more likely to become killers than easily eradicated.

It is too early to contemplate a cull. That would also be an indictment of the FA suits who defied all logic and opted for a curious form of continuity, selecting McClaren ahead of Martin O'Neill, among others. Yet the reality is that neither of his façades on display this week instil any long-term confidence in the England head coach.

Not that gleaming-toothed, gameshow host optimism of a man who had cheerfully proclaimed, "Come on down, Joey Barton", and then, despite the ensuing profusion of midfield contradictions, proceeded to offer the Manchester City man an irrelevant 11 minutes' licence to cut it in international football. And certainly not that haunted demeanour of a vanquished coach, who must have been attached to a concentrated drip-feed of optimism as he spoke of the pride that will somehow motivate England to overcome Israel in Tel Aviv next month.

We can only assume that was the same pride which was palpably absent at Old Trafford on Wednesday night during a performance which had one Premiership manager, Steve Coppell, conceding wryly the following day: "I watched a little bit of the the England game, then I switched over and saw a documentary about Victoria Beckham instead." You could understand his thinking, if not his choice of alternative viewing.

Those of us who stayed with it to the bitter end of a contest in which the teams were separated not so much by a single goal as by a veritable abyss in technique, were left questioning many aspects. Not least, the value of such friendlies.

England's opening hour - before the majority of substitutes were dispatched and the match degenerated into yawning irrelevance - would have been palatable had there truly been evidence of the "positives" which McClaren's eyes alone can discern. But this England lack not merely quality, but desire. They bore the deportment of men whose priority was to return to their clubs, and the Premiership and Champions' League. The question must be asked: do elite professionals actually give a damn about internationals, outside of tournaments?

When one searched for illumination amid the performances of such stand-ins as Michael Carrick, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Kieron Dyer and Jonathan Woodgate, one discovered no more than competence, and in some cases, barely that; partly as a result of McClaren's failure to achieve balance within his team, particularly in a first half in which Spain were presented with a right to roam over England's ill-protected left flank.

We have been here before, of course, under the stewardship of Sven Goran Eriksson and McClaren, and that regime pulled through to achieve qualification, if not ultimate tournament success. So relatively undemanding is England's group that they should still prevail. Indeed, McClaren would have us believe an exhibition deficient in quality was down to absent friends. "It is a reason, not an excuse," he insists. "Hopefully, we'll be in better condition in March."

But if you study those absentees, Wayne Rooney (left) was the only really significant omission; that rare individual who can be considered irreplaceable. John Terry, as captain and def-ender, is a loss, but England possess a surfeit of centre-backs and the Chelsea man was adequately replaced by Jonathan Woodgate, who performed diligently enough - if we ignore his failure to deny David Villa the cross which led to Spain's goal.

Ashley Cole will return, as will Owen Hargreaves, the latter to make a contribution as an anchor man, but the much-lauded Michael Carrick should have confirmed himself as a suitable replacement for the Bayern Munich midfielder. Should have, but didn't. Then there is the still- inexperienced Aaron Lennon and the inconsistent Joe Cole, although only so many midfielders can secure a place in that line or diamond of four, once we have allowed for Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. That is if McClaren persists in attempting to utilise both players, who reminded us again that they simply are not as visionary and resourceful when battling under the England standard as they are in their club regalia.

Remove Rooney from the equation and the golden generation are increasingly a down- at-heel bunch. Absence of raw talent is one factor that you cannot directly attribute to McClaren and why you can have some sympathy for his former club chairman Steve Gibson's claim that the England coach is being asked to "perform miracles", and that "Steve can only work with the tools that the country gives him, and at the moment those tools aren't good enough".

Agreed, but that still does not satisfactorily answer why England, under McClaren, have failed to defeat Macedonia at home and lost so ignominiously to Croatia away. Results which mean that the visit to Israel suddenly takes on panic proportions. Not just for the England coach but for the FA kingmakers, who will presumably travel with their own suicide pills.

Anfield signals the quiet American revolution

When they first arrived on these shores, they provoked seething contempt and indignation. A probable first title in four seasons, and an evidently content Sir Alex Ferguson, have tended to silence most of the rebels. Far from that initial anti-pathy to the Glazer family discouraging their countrymen, it has them descending on the mother country.

Aston Villa's owner, Randy Lerner, has promised the financial support necessary for Martin O'Neill to break the big-four cartel, while a pair of avuncular Americans, George Gillett and Tom Hicks, purchasers of Liverpool, have said all the right things by promising to retain Bill Shankly's values in creating the biggest club in the world.

Never mind all those references to "franchises" and "goal-tenders", Liverpool is apparently their kinda town. Though there is a suspicion that Liverpool missed a trick by effectively spurning Sheikh Mohammed's Dubai International Capital bid, the Anfield faithful reckon they sound like our kinda guys, too, even if Hicks and Gillett make no secret of the fact that "commercial drivers" are a prime motivation, as is next season's greatly enhanced TV deal.

"When the new stadium is built [at a cost to the club of £215m] revenues will be comparable to any NFL team," says Hicks. "But NFL teams are going for two or three times that price." All will be fine and dandy if Hicks and Gillett maintain a similar hands-off approach as the Glazers. Just a thought, though. What if this is the genesis of a quiet American revolution, one which could result down the line in the United States League of English Soccer (president, David Beckham)? Maybe Premiership games could be staged in Texas or LA? After all, it is the ultimate global trade-off in the year that the NFL are staging a game at Wembley. So, let's hear it for the Liverpool Redskins... unless, of course, you support that little ol' club down the road, the Everton Blue Sox.

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