That was the year that wasn't: All hail rugby boys' Lazarus-style comeback but rest are a dead loss

English teams prove to be nearly men once again and must learn lessons from Ashton's Dad's Army. By Nick Townsend
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It was crudely penned on what looked like someone's well-slept-in sheet, but it carried more weight than a hundred conventional advertising hoardings. At various points during the year, that banner, draped by travelling cricket supporters over the ramparts of the 17th-century Dutch fort in Galle "England: Hang Your Heads In Shame" following the tourists' collapse to 81 all out, could easily have applied to the representatives of the nation's other major sports teams. Humiliation has too often been England's bedfellow. As we bid farewell to 2007, we can reflect on what has been less a wake-up call, more a full-blown blast on the reveille trumpet.

It has left us recalling a year in which, with the exception of certain individual performances, to which we will return, we have been left to praise England's nearly men. No, not Steve McClaren's clueless collective, more like Ken Dodd's Diddy Men, but McLaren's ultimately luckless Lewis Hamilton, the gallant Ricky Hatton and specifically Brian Ashton's extraordinary rugby team. Over the six weeks of the Rugby World Cup, his men, touched by whatever force it was sheer inspiration or inner belief borne of a realisation that even the most vaunted world performers can prove flawed under the duress such a tournament represents rose like a collective Lazarus and walked tall.

The dnouement, on a bitter, dismal night in Paris, proved a parable beyond them. Yet, on reflection, the never less than compelling narrative that surrounded England yielded an object lesson that many of their counterparts would do well to assimilate: how to digest defeat; how to accept adverse decisions with grace (this also reminded us that those video replays are not quite the manna from TV heaven that some of their advocates contend); and maybe that a team's prosperity is more in the gift of the performers than many, notably their footballing counterparts, have us believe.

As the indomitable Mike Catt reviewed that thoroughly unanticipated yet thoroughly exhilarating quarter-final triumph over Australia, he said: "There was no gameplan. We just made it up as we went along." Could it be that individuals can be far greater masters of their own destiny than the coach, that almost mythical beast in the sporting consciousness, would have us believe? Clearly, the Football Association's vast outlay on their Italian mob suggests that they don't agree. But that is getting ahead of ourselves. Returning to Ashton, his squad had arrived unheralded but, crucially, also without hubris similar to the Scotland football team as they had contemplated their passage to European Championship qualification. And, like Alex McLeish's team, they proceeded to achieve distinction, if not absolute fulfilment. It is one of sport's most remarkable reversals of fortune that Ashton should have survived a nadir in English rugby, the dreadful36-0 defeat by South Africa, then somehow escorted England to the final, to be rewarded with an "indefinite contract". For a decent man, who has rightly promised to remain faithful to many of his Dad's Army of World Cup men while introducing young thrusters like Danny Cipriani and Jordan Crane in the Six Nations, it is thoroughly merited.

McClaren can only have looked on enviously before he departed, brollied but handsomely lollied. One can speculate on what difference the absent Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen and John Terry would have made, but that is where a coach proves his true worth. While his players may have subsequently deemed it "unthinkable" that England would not be contesting the European Championship, at least failure to qualify offers an opportunity for a stocktake of the state of English football. It is a shocking indictment that England is bereft of top managers. Consider these facts. None of the six leading clubs are managed by Englishmen. Conversely, of the seven Premier League managers who have departed this season all bar Martin Jol and Jose Mourinho are English, and all from clubs in the bottom half of the Premier League, except Chelsea. Consider also that Stuart Pearce has been entrusted with the England Under-21s (successfully so), but not with Manchester City's purse when he was manager, or at least not with the kind of largesse of which Sven Goran Eriksson has been a beneficiary.

Hence the FA chief executive Brian Barwick's assertion that English managers simply did not measure up to his exacting standards. "I wrote out a template and put it against our current crop of English managers and not one of them ticked all the boxes," he said. "It has to be our ambition to have an English boss, but we have to be realistic." Lest we forget, that is the same Barwick who was in large part responsible for McClaren's elevation. But never mind. Barwick possesses a New Realism now. It has resulted in the arrival for work next week of Fabio Capello, an Italian whose seduction techniques include the assurance that there is nothing inherently wrong, technically, with English players. It is simply a matter of mentality. We will see, though not any time soon; South Africa 2010 at the earliest. At the conclusion of his stewardship he will walk away, vexed or with his appointment "as a winner with a capital W" (Barwick's banal description) vindicated. But what of England's long-term future?

The National Football Centre at Burton, or some version thereof, is deemed the panacea for many of England's ills. Perhaps, though it would be unwise to contend that any number of pristine pitches, blackboards or coaching expertise can transform attitudes towards the game, many of which are formed long before youngsters gain entrance to any academy.

In the final analysis, England could not hack it at home when the occasion demanded.It was not just that defeat by Croatia which cost them qualification, but that draw against Macedonia.

Things have been rather different for England's cricketers. Peter Moores' men retain a travel phobia. After the Ashes were meekly returned to Australia, there followed England's exit from that eternity of a World Cup which will be remembered more for the death of Pakistan's coach Bob Woolmer and Andrew Flintoff's pedalo escapade than the final between Sri Lanka and Australia.

The best you can say about England's recent Test tour to Sri Lanka is that it was brief. Just as an England football team without Wayne Rooney are less potent, the tourists have struggled without Flintoff's talis-manic presence. Moores can only hope that the latest surgery will finally return him to somewhere approaching his superhuman best. Thank heaven, this is all part of England's rebuilding process, we are told, with the 2009 Ashes the long-term objective.

The past year should not be regarded as a mere litany of capitulation, however. We should recall Padraig Harrington's Open, the first Irish winner in 60 years; Christine Ohuruogu's 400m gold at the World Athletics Championships in Osaka, 23 days after returning from a one-year suspension for missing three out-of-competition drug tests; Frankie Dettori's first Derby win, after 14 years of trying, on Authorized; and Joe Calzaghe's confirmation among the pantheon of authentic boxing greats. And though the championship eventually eluded Lewis Hamilton, that should not deflect from the rookie's four wins and six poles in a season which re-energised Formula One. The manner in which he negotiated unfamiliar circuits, as well as the politics associated with team-mate Fernando Alonso and his McLaren team being fined 50m for "spying" on Ferrari, can only be commended. His time will come.

Next year, one can confidently predict that our Olympic cyclists, rowers and sailors will do Great Britain proud; that the European team will retain the Ryder Cup in Kentucky... and that the beautyof the European Championship's host countries, Austria and Switzerland, will remain relatively unscarred. By no means everyone will have harboured sorrow at the misfortune of McClaren and his nearly men.

Reasons to be cheerful

1. Witnessing Lewis Hamilton, with a year's experience to sustain him, fulfil all that potential and claim his first Formula One Drivers' Championship.

2. The heady promise of a classic Cheltenham Gold Cupshowdown between King George VI Chase victor Kauto Starand stablemate Denman.

3. Wimbledon and the other Grand Slams, when Andy Murray makes up for lost time, as British tennis comes to terms with its Henman-less state.

4. Treating ourselves to more glimpses of genius from Cristiano Ronaldo. And, no, you don't need an affiliation to Manchester United's cause.

5 European Championship football blessedly free of England, Steve McClaren and possible further embarrassment. And no English fans.

6 Successful gold prospecting at the Beijing Olympics although most will be in sports that engage the public for only one month in 48.

Nick Townsend