All about luck

Heskey and Owen... perfect combination.-AP

Steve McClaren’s recent luck has been substantial and heaven knows how badly he needed it.

Just as one was contemplating the good luck which transformed the fallible Steve McClaren’s England team from an impending disaster into lively winners, luck suddenly flew out of the window again. Just three days after his second excellent display at Wembley for England, big Emile Heskey, brought back in desperation to a team from which he had long been absent, succumbed while playing for Wigan against Fulham to that metatarsal injury which seems the curse of England players. First David Beckham, then Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney now Heskey, who will be out for months.

Reviving first against Israel, then against the far stronger Russians the up front partnership with Michael Owen which had proved so dynamically successful in Munich back in 2000, when Germany, in a World Cup eliminator, were crushed with five goals, McClaren was taking a major chance with a player ignored by England for years past. Injuries to other, supposedly more acceptable, contenders however led McClaren to gamble, and lo and behold, the Owen-Heskey partnership worked wonderfully, the burly Heskey acting as a perfect foil to Owen, taking the weight off him, controlling and exploiting many a high ball. If he didn’t score, that was quite secondary. Those who questioned his selection had pointed out what a poor scoring record for England he already had, but fortunately it was a record McClaren ignored. And now, at the run in of the European qualifying tournament, with Russia to meet in Moscow and Croatia at Wembley, McClaren must do without Heskey.

It does at least mean that he no longer has the embarrassment of whether or not to use Wayne Rooney, out of action till after the win against Russia, but when fit still arguably the most-gifted England player since Gascoigne. But though Rooney’s talents are beyond discussion, he is a very different kind of striker than Heskey, much less the old-fashioned English centre-forward than the attacker who likes to do damage from slightly behind the firing line. To use him, crocked as he’d so lately been, as a solitary striker as Sven-Goran Eriksson so misguidedly did in Germany last year was a fatuous error.

Overall, however, McClaren’s recent luck has been substantial and heaven knows how badly he needed it. It’s well known that when Napoleon was about to promote one of his generals to Marshal, the question he’d always ask was, “Is he lucky?” McClaren, whose previous stewardship of the England team had varied from inept to disastrous, putting them in severe danger of not qualifying for the eventual finals in Austria and Switzerland, suddenly found good luck in spades. Not least in the form of the injuries to David Beckham.

As we know all too well, McClaren hadn’t the strength of mind to stick to his original decision when so controversially becoming England manager of dropping Beckham from the squad. In Germany’s World Cup, though Beckham’s clever, insidious dead ball kicks had brought important goals, it was plainly at the expense of putting a brake on the general movement of the team. Ever the one-trick pony, devoid of acceleration and the footwork to go past full-backs and dash down the line, Beckham operated from afar. Only when the quick and clever Aaron Lennon was brought on, with Beckham once, absurdly, being moved to right-back, did things begin to happen. When, after weeks of purgatory at Real Madrid, Beckham was finally brought back in Spain, having already, however rashly but lucratively, assigned himself to the Los Angeles Galaxy, McClaren had a dubious change of heart and restored him to the team.

At Wembley, against Brazil in a friendly, Beckham was greeted by the volatile crowd like a saviour, though who could tell why? He obliged them by sending in the typically searching freekick from which John Terry headed England into the lead, though Brazil equalised. Keeping his place in Estonia, Beckham, given surer abundant space by a poor team, sent in a series of crosses from the right which were duly exploited.

This season, however, when called up for the friendly at Wembley against Germany, he was afflicted by what seemed an advanced case of self-destruction, crazily deciding that despite a persisting ankle injury, he would play for England, fly straight back all 6000 miles to LA and play for the Galaxy the following day. Meanwhile, McClaren, knowing Beckham’s daft plans, still kept him on the field for the whole game. Which meant that when Shaun Wright Phillips emerged as a substitute he had to perform on the left flank on his wrong foot. This he did with such success that he was named the Man of the Match, but the scheduling made no sense.

As for Beckham, he duly flew back to America, played and was predictably injured so badly that he was out of the game for weeks. It can hardly be claimed that the Galaxy have remotely had their excessive money’s worth. And surely even the confused McClaren can hardly bring Beckham back now.

That was one piece of luck for McClaren. Another was notably the return to the team and the two splendid performances of Aston Villa’s Gareth Barry, contingent on injuries to Frank Lampard and Owen Hargreaves. When Barry played against Israel it was the left-footer’s fourth England start under four different managers, the first of whom so long ago was Kevin Keegan, Eriksson deplorably wouldn’t give him the time of day, seemingly convinced that he lacked pace. He certainly showed no lack of it against Israel and in what was supposed to be so much more demanding a game against Russia. Pace in football as we know is sometimes in the head as much as in the legs.

Barry, who I have long admired and is still only in his 20s, dovetailed perfectly in midfield with Gerrard who never hits it off with Lampard. They seamlessly changed places and Barry often went all the way out to the right-wing to curl in insidious left-footed crosses which indeed brought goals; as did a glorious through pass to Owen against Israel. Any fear that he would be defensively in difficulties against the Russians went out of the window.

So, almost despite himself, McClaren found he had a winning team and an impressive one, 3-0 winners on both occasions. Wright Phillips now permitted to operate in his correct right flank position showed all the speed and dynamism which Beckham so manifestly lacks. It’s said that Beckham is desperately keen to win his 100 caps. Let’s hope McClaren won’t indulge him.