The Peter Corrigan Column: Sven's caution thrown to the wind too late

Click to follow
The Independent Football

What was more worrying than the daze of defeat that accompanied England out of the Estadio da Luz on Thursday night was the coach-load of complacency that brought them home. It made them at one with a nation so consumed by the belief that the gods are against them when big football matches come along that the circumstances of Portugal's victory brought wounding confirmation searing in from every angle.

Reaction was suitably bitter. The Swiss referee, Urs Meier, was denounced as a cheat and a halfwit for disallowing that goal. Curses were aimed at the penalty shoot-out, coupled with the shifting sands around the spot. And an unspecified divin-ity came under criticism for allowing Wayne Rooney to collect a broken bone.

The grievances had a trace of legitimacy, especially as they were formed when the defeat was freshly occupying the heart. At that time, it is not about deserving to win, it is about how close you came to winning. And no one can deny that England came agonisingly close.

Neither could anyone deny that they didn't deserve to win. Portugal were the better, more technically proficient, side. That doesn't mean to say that England couldn't have won if they had approached the game differently. But they didn't, so they didn't. What should be happening now, three days later, is that the chorus of sour complaints should be giving way to a touch of reality. England should be facing up to some awkward questions about their failings and how they can be addressed.

Some consolation has been found in the fact that France, Italy, Spain and Germany also made earlier exits than were expected. True, England are not alone in their dejection, but the difference is that the managers of the other four are either on their bikes or about to mount one.

From the manager down, every man-jack of the England squad appears convinced that their departure was due to matters beyond their control; that tactically and performance-wise they had it right. If Rooney hadn't been injured it is a belief they may have got away with. But, as it stands, it is not too cruel to suggest that without Rooney they wouldn't have even been in the quarter-finals.

Perhaps it would help the country to cope with this latest destruction of their great expectations if they were to be assured that lessons will be learned, that next time England enter the fray their passing, their ability to retain possession and their tactical awareness of how to deal with changing situations will provide a better reflection of what they do in their preparation - apart from sending the wives shopping. Scoring an early goal and then retreating behind the barricades does not reveal sound strategic planning. It might have worked in Zulu but, firstly, this is a major football tournament and, secondly, England don't have the resilience of the 24th Foot.

We did get a glimpse of England on the rampage in extra time on Thursday. By then, of course, they had thrown Sven Goran Eriksson's caution to the wind. If England's caution had spent more time in the wind, they would still be in the competition. As for David Beckham's lack of telling impact, it may be fairer to compare it with two others who fell well below anticipations - Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane - which makes it more Real Madrid's problem.

Meanwhile, the protest cries of "we wuz robbed" are beginning to echo feebly. After reviewing Sol Campbell's disallowed goal on several occasions I can see a reason for it to be written off. When Campbell was jumping to head in the ball, John Terry's left forearm was on the shoulder of goalkeeper Ricardo, thereby restraining him from jumping.

Whether Meier saw that from where he was standing I can't judge, and it is very unfortunate that whereas masses of blatantly unpunished skulduggery have been going on in goalmouths, one of the most fateful disallowed goals in English international football history needs slow-motion replays and a magnifying glass to suggest it was the right decision. But the right decision it was.

Penalty shoot-outs have been reviled for many years in this space, and Thursday's experience proves that it remains an abomination of the modern game. I favour a corner count-back as an alternative - England would have been well done on that, too - but penalty-kicks have been a reality for a long time, and no one has suffered from them more than England. So why was England's penalty-taking so atrocious? If Ricardo had stood stock still he could have easily saved three of the ones that went in.

Having seen a close-up picture of Rooney's boot it is tempting to ask whether protection has been sacrificed for fashion, but I realise that this is a marketing question.

Perhaps the injury was a way of telling Rooney that he should slow down - a task that God has taken over from David Moyes, the Everton manager, whose guardianship of the youngster hitherto has been exemplary. Everton's progress over the past two seasons hasn't been such that Moyes would have been thanked by the fans for keeping Rooney on a tight leash. He knew better than anyone the extraordinary potential of his charge, but remained determined to control his arrival into the big time.

As a more temporary custodian of the wonder, Eriksson had different priorities, and I find it hugely ironic that the England coach is being credited for his faith in the boy. He then had the cheek to advise club managers to snap him up. Everton have every right to be annoyed, and if Rooney's handlers are blessed with wisdom as well as commercial acumen they will ensure that he stays at Goodison for at least another season.

Incredibly talented he may be, suitably bashful about his brilliance and unfazed by the limelight, but it wouldn't help him to be exposed yet to the clamorous urgency and impatience of some clubs.

The presence of Roman Abramovich, plus two yachts, a helicopter, various advisers and a clutch of agents a click of the fingers away, has cast a sinister shadow over the place. Is this the European Championship or a series of auditions?

Chelsea are said to be in their usual swooping mood, but it wouldn't be a pleasure to see Rooney thrown into that maelstrom at this stage of his career. Reports last week suggested that Chelsea have offered Damien Duff and Scott Parker in exchange for Liverpool's Steven Gerrard. Duff and Parker were exceptionally bright young players themselves when they moved to Stamford Bridge, and it has to be asked how many of the players hoovered up by Chelsea have added to their status in the game. It appears more like a mink-lined transit camp every week. If circumstances demand that Rooney be plucked from Everton's care, then Manchester United would be the best choice. Old Trafford is near to home and Sir Alex Ferguson has good form as the beadle of a finishing school for young prodigies.

So far, the tournament has had more success exercising the nerve-ends than the taste-buds. We've had dramatic ebb and flow but little sustained magic in the action. There's still time. Teams tend to settle down once they reach the final stages, when the rise in quality can persuade the artists to express themselves more fluently. I wonder how many in this country will continue to keep watching to see if they do.

Comments