Managers make the difference

Rejected in Germany, arguably in haste, Otto Rehhagel in Portugal proved a tactical maestro, and psychologically acute enough to give his defiant Greece team the confidence they required.

When it comes to feeble excuses, this one seemed in line for some kind of an award. Before England's crucial European qualifying game in Israel — crucial largely because manager Steve McClaren had made such a dog's dinner of two previous games, at home to Macedonia and away to Croatia — a columnist sympathised with that hapless figure. There simply were not the players to pick, he observed.

Given the availability of such as John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney and Aaron Lennon, this seemed a bizarre theory from the first. Walter Winterbottom, all those many years ago, when manager of England, once told me that to build a great team, you have to have at least four or five great players. Well, the Hungarians had them, as they proved when in November 1953 they came to Wembley and, taking advantage of Winterbottom's misguided defensive tactics, thrashed England and their unbeaten home record versus foreign teams, 6-3. Following that with a 7-1 win in Budapest the next May.

`Learn to play the Hungarian way' was the triumphant book which followed the surprise of Wembley. But by the time it came to the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, one might have answered, why? Puskas, Kocsis and Czibor had defected to Sweden. Hidegkuti and Bozsik were weary veterans. Wales knocked Hungary out in a replay.

Yet, the ultimate disproving of the view that McClaren hasn't got the players surely rests in the astonishing feat of the Greek team which won the last European Championship in Portugal in 2004, twice beating the Portuguese hosts, once in the opener, again in the Final, and adding the substantial scalps of France and the Czechs. All this with a team without a real star; though there were those who surely gave star performances during the tournament.

Dominant at centre-back was Dellas, who had spent the season with Rome largely inactive. Karagounis, a lively and resourceful right flanker, had had little success in Milan with Inter. Charisteas, the centre-forward, had been largely a reserve all through the Bundesliga season, with Werder Bremen. But these players had been welded into a splendidly effective team — and football, after all, is a team game — by their wily, experienced German manager, the veteran Otto Rehhagel. Rejected in Germany, arguably in haste, Rehhagel in Portugal proved a tactical maestro, and psychologically acute enough to give his defiant team the confidence they required.

The Greeks were criticised for being ultra defensive, negative to a degree, but especially in the shape of Charisteas, so dangerous with his head, they proved that they could score goals, as well. Enough of them to win those games and the title, making light, so dramatically, of Portugal's home advantage.

Beyond doubt McClaren's task has been made harder by the flood of foreign players which has come into English football since the Bosman decision. A club like Arsenal, under Arsene Wenger, has so relied on foreign imports that you wonder why they spend so much money on their Liam Brady run Academy. Which might just as well have a notice above its gates, warning any young English player: `Abandon hope all ye who enter here.' Steve Sidwell, the clever, influential red-headed Reading midfielder who has had such a good season, his club's first-ever in the top division, after well over a century, is in great demand. He was at Highbury as a very young schoolboy, but never got a kick in the League team. Nor did his fellow midfielder Harper, who has also had an excellent season. At Blackburn Rovers, David Bentley, the attacking midfielder, who showed such promise in his early games for Arsenal, has strongly come into his own this season.

The Gunners sold him off to Norwich City. They prefer to raid the academies of other, Continent, clubs, and have snatched the excellent, precocious Cesc Fabregas away from an outraged Barcelona. Nicolas Anelka was little older though still teenaged and scoring goals for Paris Saint Germain. They, too, were incensed when the Gunners snatched him for nothing, eventually tossing a derisory �500,000 to PSG, selling the striker to Real Madrid for over �20 million.

Ashley Cole did come through the ranks at Highbury to become the England left-back but he was very much the exception who proved the rule. This season injuries to defenders have given an extended chance to another English born full-back in Justin Hoyte. But he is all too conspicuous by his presence.

Years ago, the complaint was in Italy that there were just not enough domestically-born players operating in the key midfield positions of wing-half and inside-forward, because the big clubs kept importing such players from abroad. But that crisis seemed to pass with such creative stars as Gianni Rivera, Sandrino Mazzola, Giacomo Bulgarelli and Mariolino Corso emerging. During a period when foreigners were actually banned from Italian football there is no doubt native talent emerged, but even when the ban was lifted, there has surely been enough of it around when Italy, with the likes of Giancarlo Antognoni, won the World Cup in 1982, and won it again in 2006 with the likes of the Roman, Francesco Totti.

All in all, a lack of domestic talent is an unconvincing excuse. Necessity is the mother of invention and when you have a coach as clever as Otto Rehhagel, you can make a triumphant best of what you have actually got. He certainly didn't have as many stars as McClaren can call on; alas, to such little effect. Deploying a fatuous 3-5-2 as he did in Zagreb, in that humiliating 2-0 defeat, negates whatever talent may be on hand.