England: what next?

England manager Steve McClaren has diligently re-written history, now telling us that he initially dropped Beckham to stimulate him into a return to form; after that truly disastrous World Cup.

David Beckham; from scapegoat to saviour. From busted flush to new Messiah. Suddenly, after the 1-1 draw at Wembley with Brazil and the 3-0 win in Tallinn against weak, and weakened — two key men missing — Estonia, euphoria is in the air; especially induced by the resurrection of Beckham. Suddenly the hapless Steve McClaren is, so to speak, amnestied, temporarily at least reprieved; though who knows for how long? He has diligently re-written history, now telling us that he initially dropped Beckham to stimulate him into a return to form; after that truly disastrous World Cup.

So what has happened to turn Beckham from sinner into saint and saviour? At the very time when he has mortgaged his future by accepting a hugely lucrative contract to immure himself in the backwoods of the so-called Major League soccer in Los Angeles with a team which has begun its season with one win in seven games.

McClaren, who assured us of the "importance" of the match in Tallinn clearly has no sense of irony. It was important only because he had made such a dog's dinner of the previous European fixtures. A pitiful draw at home to Macedonia, a dismal defeat in Croatia where his half-backed, untried 3-5-2 system predictably floundered, a wretched goalless draw in Israel, followed by a hard won victory against tiny Andorra in Barcelona, where he was crudely insulted by a thuggish bunch of England's hooligan fans.

McClaren, even, amazingly, has the fervent support of one of England's finest players, Steven Gerrard, who has eulogised him after the triumph of Tallinn. Those of us who deplored the misuse of this powerfully influential figure on the flanks rather than in central midfield were amazed to hear such enthusiasm from Gerrard, who even assured us that when playing on the flanks, he was encouraged to move into the middle. But then players do that, don't they? That is to say, applaud the managers who pick them when thing go well only — as in the case of Michael Owen, to denigrate them when they depart.

Owen strongly supported Sven-Goran Eriksson before the last World Cup, but was highly critical with justice but some inconsistency, once it was so dismally over. And in Owen's case, even if he did score a goal in Tallinn and have a crisp header just over the bar against Brazil, he is still, alas, after his shocking succession of injuries and long absence from the field, very far off the swift, sharp Owen whom we once so admired.

And Beckham? When he took the field at Wembley against Brazil, the reception was ecstatic; as indeed was the applause when he left it, near the end. But, what, in the meantime, had he done? What had he essentially contributed — or not contributed — that he hadn't in Germany last year? Against a Brazilian team lacking Lucio in central defence and Fred in attack — where Wagner Love was a lonely and lightweight spearhead — he indeed made England's goal with one of his superbly calibrated free kicks, expertly and enterprisingly headed in by John Terry.

There were several well struck crossfield passes, but his repertoire has been familiar to us all for a very long time. As a supposed outside-right, he doesn't sprint, he doesn't beat his man, he never gets to the by-line to pull the ball back as the true winger will. And that once great winger Tom Finney, famous for all these things, was regretting the lack of players who can do it before the Brazilian game.

Amidst all the acclaim for Beckham at Wembley, one could not but remember the repugnant scenes when he came off the field after an England match in the 2000 European finals, when a vicious bunch of so-called supporters insulted not only him but his wife and child. The relic of his expulsion — after kicking out at Diego Simeone — in England's World Cup match in Saint Etienne in 1998. Fickle is, you might say, as fickle does.

In Germany, a doggedly mediocre England team were deplorably reliant on Beckham's remarkable dead ball kicks to score. One of them provoked the own goal which gave them a lucky win in their opening game against Paraguay. Another, supremely insidious, won the game against Ecuador in the second round. But as against that, Eriksson's obsession with Beckham ("We are not a marriage") largely kept out the bright young Spurs winger Aaron Lennon, who when he did get his chance showed those very qualities of pace and elusiveness denied to Beckham and thus by extension to the team.

Lennon was injured and unavailable for Tallinn, where Beckham's immaculate long crosses from afar, against a defence which obligingly stood off him, led to two of the three English goals. But when it comes next season to the two games against Russia, the home game against Croatia, can we honestly expect the opposition to give him such space?

Nor has McClaren yet resolved the duplication of Gerrard and Frank Lampard; unfairly booed at Wembley. But his inclusion in central midfield, where Owen Hargreaves will now be fit, inhibits Gerrard from breaking forward. Against Andorra, Lampard was left out for what seemed a minor wrist injury; but he was back again in Tallinn.

The misuse of the resilient Garragher in defence, out of the middle, is another of McLaren's errors. But he may comfort himself that come the autumn, at least the incomparable Wayne Rooney will be back. In better form, surely, that he so sadly showed in Tel Aviv. On song, he can win any match and not with a dead ball kick from afar.