All is not well with England

The horrid truth is that under Steve McClaren's misbegotten tutelage, even if you can hardly blame him for the dismal form of Wayne Rooney, any opposition can be dangerous.

After that recent double flurry of European, World Cup qualifiers, how do things look? For England, pretty bleak. The absurd appointment of the hopelessly mediocre Steve McClaren as manager, before ever a ball was kicked in the World Cup, seems crazier now than it even did in prospect, when I for one severely questioned the logic of his choice.

He was viciously abused by hooligan England fans during the feeble performance they put up in Barcelona against tiny Andorra, but arguably those fans should have saved their spleen for the buffoon who appointed him: the hapless Chief Executive of the Football Association, Brian Barwick. This after Barwick had, you may recall, unavailingly chased round Europe after Big Phil Scolari, the Brazilian manager of Portugal. Failing in this, and absurdly protesting that he had never offered the role to Scolari, Barwick then appointed McClaren. Already tainted by his association as assistant coach to the discredited Sven-Goran Eriksson and known as manager of a very dull Middlesbrough team to have had a `crise de neffs' early in 2006, which obliged a group of the senior players temporarily to take over.

When McClaren took command he did at least have the courage and the initiative — qualities sadly lacking thereafter — to get rid of the grotesquely over-praised one-trick pony David Beckham who had been cluttering up the right wing. But from there onwards, it was a tale of doom, gloom and ineptitude.

Friendly matches and a home game against Andorra were negotiated comfortably enough. But then in the European qualifying tournament two abysmal results ensued; a draw in Manchester against modest Macedonia and a humiliating 2-0 defeat in Zagreb by Croatia, propitiated by McClaren's tactical ineptitude, fielding a 3-5-2 formation quite unfamiliar to the players expected to implement it, even if one of the goals was a freakish fiasco when the England 'keeper Paul Robinson mis-kicked a ball which rose on a divot and tricked into his goal.

This was a moment when Barwick, had he plainly not been more interested as he still is in saving face, could surely if not sacking McClaren at least have flanked him with a part-time senior coach, maybe Steve Coppell of Reading, less prone to crass stupidity. It didn't happen, so with McClaren lacking the guts to resolve the duplication in central midfield of Frank Lampard (a flop in the World Cup) and the far more effective Steven Gerrard, it came to Tel Aviv and that arid 0-0 draw against the mediocre Israel.

A match in which McClaren perversely didn't pick a single left-footed player, using the electric young Spurs winger Aaron Lennon on the left and right-footed Liverpool centre-back Jamie Carragher on the right. This though Gareth Barry in such excellent form for Aston Villa was available; and actually left out of McClaren's original squad.

Needless to say, having flounced out of the post match Press Conference in Barcelona, he refused to resign, while the blowhard Barwick refused to replace him. Qualification for England is not impossible. Estonia are to be met, next up, in June and, thrashed 4-0 by Israel, they should hardly be a problem. But the horrid truth is that under McClaren's misbegotten tutelage, even if you can hardly blame him for the dismal form of Wayne Rooney, any opposition can be dangerous.

Not least Russia who must be met twice. Even under the shrewd aegis of Guus Hiddink, they are hardly an invincible team. Little Israel actually held them to a 1-1 draw on their own soil. But again, with the palsied McClaren in charge, any opposition is potentially dangerous. Croatia have to come to Wembley, blessedly operative again after all those scandalously long years and equally scandalous waste of money. Once more, even under the clever managership of their former centre-back Slaven Bilic they don't look an irresistible team and it was inevitable they should miss the powerful opportunism up front of Prso, brought low by physical problems. Their latest 2-1 home win came against a Macedonia team whose 10 men — after a sending off came very late in the match.

Italy, under the new management of the relatively inexperienced Roberto Donadoni, once an attacking star with Milan, looked a much better integrated team in their easy 2-0 win against a plodding Scots side in Bari. Their giant centre-forward Luca Toni headed both goals and given his finishing powers, the Italians have made relatively light of the retirement from international football of the gifted Franceso Totti, who has been prolific as a one-man attack with Roma this season. Note that Toni is another of those Italian stars who've come up the hard way after five years of obscurity, four in Serie C1, one in Serie B.

The Italians still have ground to make up in this group, but I cannot see Ukraine and Scotland staying ahead of them. France, when they can field a full side — Thierry Henry ruled out for the season, but Nicolas Anelka, the eternal maverick, scoring goals while back again — should surely improve.

Northern Ireland in the shape of the remarkable striker, David Healy, 29, are the glittering surprise. Their able young manager Lawrie Sanchez, header of the goal whereby Wimbledon beat mighty Liverpool in an FA Cup Final, cautions that there is still a long way to go. But thanks to Healey and his superb opportunism, his three goals against Spain and Lichtenstein, his two, which were nearly three, versus astonished Sweden, they could surprise everybody by qualifying; just as they did with Danny Blanchflower's gallant team, in the 1958 World Cup, when they knocked out Italy, en route to Sweden.