Sitting in the Tall Trees hotel in Yarm last Friday, England's head coach, Steve McClaren, managed a 35-minute discourse about Saturday's European Championship qualifying match against Andorra and associated matters without once declaring that there are no easy games these days. Had he done so, the North Yorkshire establishment two miles from his home might have had to be rechristened the Tall Tale, if not the Ripping Yarm.
Andorra at home, when your own team are ranked fifth in the world, is as easy as international football comes in 2006. The statistics do not lie about the prowess of next weekend's visitors to Old Trafford. In a dozen years since the little principality in the Pyrenees established a football association they have won three matches, the only competitive one coming two years ago against Macedonia in front of a crowd originally estimated at 200 but since corrected to 116 - the smallest in World Cup history. The scorer, Marc Bernaus of the Spanish second division club Elche, is one of only three professionals in the squad.
His team might also be a little ring-rusty, having played one match in the past 10 months. Their European Championship qualifying record comprises 18 games and 18 defeats, with four goals scored and 46 conceded.
McClaren, of course, has to put a different emphasis on this when addressing both his players and the country at large. He can point out that apart from an 8-1 defeat by the Czech Republic last year, Andorra are rarely on the end of a hammering, preferring to pack their defence in what can prove a frustratingly negative manner; it seems a fair guess that the coach David Rodrigo's team talks do not include the phrase "let's throw everything at them".
McClaren has dutifully been studying videotapes of both Andorra and Macedonia, whom England visit on Wednesday week, and he promises: "I'll pick teams that I think can win the games. In these double-headers you have to make sure that you account as much for the second game as the first, but the priority is having your eye on that first game and making sure we come out of it with a good performance and three points.
"I've watched them on tape, got the IT guy down for a day and we go through clips which we'll show to the players, having a debrief on Greece and looking at Andorra and Macedonia. It doesn't matter if it's Andorra or Brazil, we have to perform."
With Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher out, Luke Young's return at right-back was supposed to be the only change from the side that beat a feeble Greece 4-0 in McClaren's first match in charge, but yesterday Rio Ferdinand suffered a suspected broken toe at Watford. Everton's Andy Johnson has replaced the injured Dean Ashton in the squad. It is unfortunate for Tottenham's Aaron Lennon that Steven Gerrard is being picked on the right instead of in the centre; the Spurs youngster confirmed against Sheffield United in midweek that he can sustain his exciting World Cup cameos over longer periods.
Could the even younger Theo Walcott also translate short appearances into something more sustained? Arsenal supporters believe so, having seen him make such an impression as a substitute against Aston Villa and then Dinamo Zagreb. McClaren believes he is best served by playing more matches, but not yet at senior international level: "He's somebody I'll be looking very closely at, but again, I thought he needs games. It's always the same, that we build everybody up, teams and individuals, beyond proportion, but Theo has got great potential and that's the key word, potential. He will be mentally strong after this period, he's at a big club surrounded by big players and that's when you don't just grow physically, technically and tactically but mentally. That's what he has to do, he has to mature, and he's at the right place to do that. He was excellent in training."
Training sessions at club level, as well as on international duty, will increasingly be a place to impress England's head coach. He has spent more time than Sven Goran Eriksson visiting clubs during the week, talking to players and managers and watching the work being done without in any way interfering in it. "I went to Chelsea on Monday and watched Joe Cole train," McClaren said. "I had a good chat with Jose Mourinho, who's always an interesting character, and with John Terry and Frank Lampard, and I believe that sort of thing is a vital part of the job. There's a lot you can learn from the managers.
"You have the players with England and you chat, but you never really get to know them like the managers and the coaches do. The clubs know them, they get to know everything, every little detail. Sometimes with England it's too small a period to learn much about them, but if you go to the clubs you can learn little quirks, things you didn't realise, and that's interesting.
"My approach is to get a little closer and be more visible to the clubs and the players."
It is another way in which McClaren is different from his predecessor (who did telephone to congratulate him on the victory over Greece), and from a public relations point of view alone, every one of those will count as a plus, so dramatically has Eriksson's reputation plummeted.
Sensibly, the new man is taking Fleetwood Mac's advice to "Go Your Own Way", and is also offering the same counsel to putative manager Roy Keane, with whom he worked for three years at Manchester United. "I think he will make a fantastic manager, he's got all the qualities, everything. He's got a good football brain, he knows what he wants from the game, he knows what to expect from players. He has standards and he demands them, but I think football intelligence is something that is very important when you become a manager. He had that as a player and I've no doubt he can transfer that over into management."
And if McClaren should want some advice in return, Keane did once play for the Republic of Ireland in a 3-0 victory over Andorra.
Paul Robinson (Tottenham)
Chris Kirkland (Liverpool)
Ben Foster (Manchester Utd)
Ashley Cole (Arsenal)
Luke Young (Charlton)
Phil Neville (Everton)
Wayne Bridge (Chelsea)
John Terry (Chelsea, captain)
Wes Brown (Manchester Utd)
Michael Dawson (Tottenham)
Frank Lampard (Chelsea)
Owen Hargreaves (Bayern Munich)
Michael Carrick (Manchester Utd)
Steven Gerrard (Liverpool)
Jermaine Jenas (Tottenham)
Shaun Wright-Phillips (Chelsea)
Kieran Richardson (Manchester Utd)
Stewart Downing (Middlesbrough)
Aaron Lennon (Tottenham)
Darren Bent (Charlton)
Jermain Defoe (Tottenham)
Andy Johnson (Everton)
Peter Crouch (Liverpool)Reuse content