The Nick Townsend Column: The reality check show: England just aren't as good as they think they are

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The Independent Football

His singular "burning mission" had been achieved, the routing of the old foe, and it was appropriate that just hours after that bear hug by Andrew Symonds threatened to crush every rib in his stout frame, he prepared to lay that unlikely sporting physique to international rest with "some beers and a couple of smokes".

Rarely has a sportsman been so excused his off-field frailties, the bad judgements and peccadillos, and his on-field indulgences. Only the most myopic Englishman would not have experienced a frisson of regret at Shane Warne's retirement.

England's cricketers were no doubt thankful that his decision will yield respite from his bowling repertoire. That was not merely because the demon who has assailed the waking moments, if not the sleeping patterns, of the world's finest batsmen had finally undergone self-exorcism, but because, for the moment at least, bad news was buried beneath the avalanche of eulogies for the Melbourne maestro.

Suddenly, it was Warne's majesty that the ex-England captains turned analysts were debating rather than the miscarriages of judgement which had rewarded Australia with a humiliatingly swift return of the little urn.

If 2006 will be remembered as the year of living presumptuously by England's principal national sports, and ultimately of dying for such audacity, the sheer magnitude of Warne's career has placed in context the achievements of those whom we all too readily lionise.

It began with England's cricketers fired to excess by the previous summer's Ashes achievements; their footballers convinced of their right to be among the World Cup favourites, an attitude bolstered by their coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, when history and empirical evidence suggested otherwise; and the nation's rugby world champions encouraged by a stirring autumn to believe that they would again be a dominant force.

One can only anticipate that, come 2007, a sense of reality will at last kick in after this annus most miserabilis which has culminated with England's teams being undone as much by hubris as a dearth of ability.

These are the brutal realities. That the Ashes were grasped for the all-time briefest interval, 463 days. That England's rugby World Cup hopes have rarely been in such ill-suited hands as they look to defend the trophy in 2007, and that refers not just to the players but the administrators. No wonder Brian Ashton, the new head coach, declared wryly on his appointment: "I hope we have bottomed out, or a lot of pain will be coming my way."

And finally, lest we forget, it is 40 years and counting since an England captain, the late Bobby Moore, held the Jules Rimet trophy aloft. The proclamation of "England's golden generation" was stifled in the throat of all but the most vehement followers by events in Germany.

It has left us with the defining images of sport in 2006, a year in which there were enough sporting cock-ups to delight Denis Norden. Only there is no chance of a second take for England's World Cup penalty-takers (Owen Hargreaves excepted), or goalkeeper Paul Robinson after he had contrived that air-kick in Croatia. Nor will Steve Harmison be able to erase pictures of the first ball in the First Test; a horror which will be repeated as often as Warne's "delivery of the century".

There were other moments that remain: the England rugby coach Andy Robinson's introduction of a 21-year-old debutant, Toby Flood, to replace an admittedly out-of-sorts Charlie Hodgson. Flood's first pass was intercepted by Federico Todeschini, who dashed half the length of the pitch to score Argentina's first try at Twickenham.

It produced one of the many faces of Andy Robinson, but probably his palpable relief after an insipid performance was sufficient to defeat a below-strength South Africa epitomised his tenure as much as it signalled England's decline.

Like many of the architects of ill-planned projects, he remained in denial until the bitter end. He protested, with the defiance of all beleaguered coaches, that his men were on a journey; they were not yet in the arrivals hall. Future achievements are held aloft, like beacons in the night, but are so readily snuffed out by persistent, popular criticism.

There is a reservoir of goodwill towards Robinson's successor, the Lancastrian Ashton, who communicates well and embraces the kind of rugby that most followers desire from England. He quotes Muhammad Ali: "Defy the impossible and shock the world", when asked about his team's World Cup defence. Whether his squad possess the virtues needed to adopt his sometimes radical philosophies will be his greatest test.

Steve McClaren, while still attempting to distance himself from Eriksson, remains defensive about the paucity of England's World Cup challenge. He was still claiming last week that "what's unbelievable is that we never lost a game and went out in the quarter-final on penalties". Which just confirms that he still cannot see the truth for the Black Forest.

The decision to enlist Theo Walcott; Wayne Rooney's premature return;the insistence on a celebrity skipper, despite David Beckham's failure to demonstrate that he warranted even a place - oh, and let us not forget the Wags. Eriksson's campaign, in which McClaren was heavily implicated, can be attacked on many fronts.

Which is not to exonerate certain players, who are not as talented internationals as they believe they are. Thus far, under McClaren, England have managed to turn European Championship qualification from shoo-in to group of death. For the coach - who, like Ashton, is effectively on temporary secondment - 2007 will be the making or the destruction of him.

So, too, in the next month, the career of Duncan Fletcher. Having quietly, meticulously and effectively raised the expectations of English cricket, he now feels the weals of a backlash which threatens to engulf him should a 5-0 Ashes outcome obliterate all the positives of his time. In truth, England's demise goes beyond the coach and some dubious decision-making. The captaincy, the set-up, the selection system, and, again, the players, as much for their lack of mental durability as lack of ability, must all come under scrutiny.

An army is at its most vulnerable when its men have trium-phantly sheathed their blood-smeared swords. Even as Michael Vaughan and his side travelled, many bleary-eyed, to an audience at No 10, one suspected the worst this winter. Freddie Flintoff's men duly provided it.

For Fletcher, you suspect, this is a Test series too far. Sporting greatness is knowing when to exit. As performer, as director. The suspicion is that he privately regrets not departing at the pinnacle. Which, in a sense, brings us back to where we began... to Warne's passing-out parade after the Fifth Test at Sydney.

He goes, mission accomplished, having already helped avenge 2005. Not just an entertainer; not merely one of the most accomplished sportsmen his country has produced; but an obsessive performer who would not countenance defeat. A model for England's pretenders, as they prepare to regain their once proudly worn crowns.

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