England's problems


The choice of Steve McClaren was a pathetic, unimaginative compromise.

Alas, no end to the nonsense. Before the recent World Cup finals, we heard and read endless drivel about this being the best team that England had sent to the competition for years when anyone with half a brain in their head must have descried its weaknesses. Wayne Rooney, the essential dynamo of the attack, nursing an injured metatarsal. David Beckham, against all logic, constantly cluttering up the right wing, a master of the right-footed dead ball free-kick or cross, but quite incapable of hitting the goal-line as a true winger should and luring the team into an excessive reliance on those free kick for goals. Unease about Michael Owen, one of the all too rare world-class players in the team, given his succession of injuries and the doubts about whether he had sufficiently recovered. Above all, perhaps the exposure over the years of Sven-Goran Eriksson as an uninspiring, uninventive manager, confirmed in office with colossal salary increases despite his disloyal encounters with Chelsea. Nor did it make much sense to include in the squad a Sol Campbell who had recently been in an evident state of crisis, walking out of Highbury at half-time in a game in which he had given away two goals. Though Campbell would not be alone in the almost incredibly sloppy defending by 'keeper and centre-backs alike when the defence fell apart against Sweden. Quarter-finalists at best, one had rightly predicted.

Now after such depressing experiences as the narrow win in Macedonia and the embarrassment of the 0-0 draw when the Macedonians came to Old Trafford that Beckham should return. Heaven forbid. What England so badly need on that right flank is what Aaron Lennon, now injured alas, so notably and dynamically gave them when he was permitted to come on as a substitute in Germany; and which when he did appear eventually in Manchester versus Macedonia, Shaun Wright Phillips to some extent contributed.

The choice of Steve McClaren was a pathetic, unimaginative compromise. He did at least have the courage to drop Beckham, but this is a manager without flair, far too closely connected, however much he tried to extricate himself with the Eriksson years, given to the wasteful folly of playing Steven Gerrard on the flanks and to persist with his inadequate Middlesbrough protege Stewart Downing on the left wing.

True it is hardly McClaren's fault that he inherited a Wayne Rooney sadly off colour when recalled to the colours. I still think you can largely blame Eriksson for that, for dragging back Rooney into World Cup football when he was clearly in no physical or psychological state to play, compounding such a crass decision by leaving him alone up front to chase long balls.

Following the dismal draw recently with Macedonia, we were told by alleged experts that we simply don't have the players. Eh? Weren't we told that we had them in spades before the World Cup? What has happened in the meantime? Certainly some of them have been seriously overrated, not least Frank Lampard, who had a wretched afternoon against the Macedonians, just as he had failed in Germany. At what point is his entranced manager, Jose Mourinho, going to stop shouting the odds in Lampard's favour, castigating the Press who dare to think differently? At future post match Press conferences, why doesn't Mourinho just put on a tape and let us listen to it?

As to the belief that England's players are not up to scratch, may be individually they aren't, but what of Scotland's, their whole at Hampden so much greater than the parts as splendidly evidenced by their gallant win against an individually far superior French team. And come to think of it, what price now the French establishment at Clairefontaine, which supposedly produced a conveyor belt of fine players?

Of course clubs like Arsenal do no favours to potential England teams by putting out team after team without a single English player; Ashley ("I don't get no respect") Cole, one of England's few successes against Macedonia, having crossed London for Chelsea. It all elicits memories of a period some years ago in Italy when the complaint was that all the key roles in the major clubs were filled by foreigners. Arsenal have doubtless spent a fortune on their academy, but their youth policy seems largely to consist of swooping on European youngsters.

It beggars belief that McClaren, before the Macedonian debacle, seemed to be contemplating some kind of Total Football. With whom? And how long would it take remotely to get the drills right? It becomes clearer by the day that the birdbrains of the relevant, or irrelevant FA committee were foolish to a degree not to snap up Martin O'Neill who is already working small wonders at Villa Park. Yes, in the past his club teams have tended to be over-defensive, yes he wanted his own coaches to come with him but why not? McClaren, as at Middlesbrough, employs a psychologist. Why? The great managers of the past, Vittorio Pozzo of Italy, Herbert Chapman at Arsenal were their own highly perceptive and effective psychologists. George Male, who came to Arsenal as a young amateur left-half, emerged from Chapman's office convinced he was not only going to be a right-back but that he could be the best in the world. Which arguably happened.

Many years ago, I somewhat irreverently invented a psychologist who cured a centre-forward who'd stopped scoring goals by telling him he was suffering from an Oedipus Complex and that every time he kicked the ball, he was kicking his father. I'm not aware Alf Ramsey ever employed a psychologist. My mind goes back to the 1958 World Cup when the Brazilians employed a psychologist whom I met and who insisted that Pele was far too immature to be worth a place! At a late Press conference, Vicente Feola, the Brazilian manager, was asked what he thought of the psychologist, to which the interpreter replied, "Senhor Feola is not saying that he wishes the psychologist would go to hell, but he is thinking it!"

Recently, in Cardiff, I saw Wales collapse pitiably to a Slovakian team, which, as the game went on, seemed likely to score every time they attacked; and pretty well did. Paul Jones' goalkeeping on the occasion of his 50th cap was execrable, but he was hardly helped by a defence whose positional sense was negligible, slowness of thought matched by slowness of movement. John Toshack is determined not to recall Gary Speed and Robbie Savage, who seem inclined to return, having retired from international football, while John Hartson whose sheer physical presence was badly missed up front — not to mention the absence of the incomparable Ryan Giggs — would probably have returned against Cyprus had he been fit. The difference being that Hartson had asked Toshack if he might change his mind and resume. Toshack lamented not only the goalkeeping and defending but also the lack of any end product in attack. The largely unreported irony being that, in the closing minutes, Craig Bellamy, captain for the day, was neatly put through by Jason Koumas, only to be thwarted twice by an alert 'keeper in Contofalsky. But the afternoon surely belonged to the three incisive, fast moving scorers for the Slovaks, Mintal, Svento and the excellent lone striker, Vittek.

Ted Robbins, for so long Welsh FA Secretary, sole selector and inspiration of his defiant teams, would have been in deep despair.