Of gadgets and coaching

To give the England manager Steve McClaren his due, he was bold enough, on taking over the England team, to do something which his previous superior Sven-Goran Eriksson could never do; drop a David Beckham who had become an incubus on the effective running of the team, with his lack of pace and ability to beat his men.

When a younger journalist in the West Ham United Pressroom, hearing I'd just finished writing a book about England's football managers, asked me which I thought was the worst ever, I had no hesitation in replying. Graham Taylor, I said, or the present incumbent, Steve McClaren. And sure enough, what did I read the very next day but a hymn of praise by the current England manager to a future featuring "teams of coaches."

His inspiration was Jurgen Klinsmann, once a famed German striker, who, as national team manager, fiercely criticised at first, and deploying a struggling side in the early World Cup matches, eventually got his and Germany's act together, and all but reached the final.

Klinsmann, who has now gone back to America, from where he, in fact, controversially commuted during his managerial years with the German team, insists that in the future, quotes an impressed McClaren, there will be "lots of staff and individual coaches for each player. We are able to get more and more information from the game. Factual information, not just instinct. This is leading to a decrease in the gap, especially at international level between the top teams and the smaller teams. Everybody now is getting very organised and very difficult to beat. I think that will continue."

This, he pursued, would make the development of the special players more paramount when you would need to unlock defences and open up games. "We need to coach our players on an individual basis and nurture the special players because they are the ones who are going to win you football matches... We need to look after the individual."

Yes, indeed, but whether this is the way to do it seems deeply doubtful. No surprise, really, that McClaren should be keen on this kind of scenario. Self-confidence hardly seems his forte. Indeed the poor fellow, according to Gareth Southgate, his skipper last season at Middlesbrough, seems early in 2006 to have had something of a personal crisis when, according to Southgate, the senior players had to take over the running of the team. Since so debatably being appointed, in such great and superfluous haste, as the new England manager last May, McClaren has surrounded himself with a veritable entourage, one which includes a psychologist. He even, till that egregious fellow walked out on him, employed the flamboyant publicist Max Clifford, whose speciality is handling stories about the scandalous behaviour of celebrities.

He initially acted for McClaren to keep his name out of the papers when, oh how conventionally, he was having an affair with his secretary at Boro. Subsequently, he continued to work for McClaren, seemingly at one remove, loudly singing his praises. Then he withdrew.

McClaren — made England manager at a time when the World Cup finals had still to be played and there was plenty of time to deliberate, as several other countries did — has shown an alarming lack of tactical sense when his Boro team met Seville in the UEFA Cup Final and was brushed aside, 4-0.

To give him his due, he was bold enough, on taking over the England team, to do something which his previous superior Sven-Goran Eriksson could never do; drop a David Beckham who had become an incubus on the effective running of the team, with his lack of pace and ability to beat his men. But his strategies soon proved embarrassingly ineffective when it came to the European qualifying games. A laborious 1-0 win in Macedonia, whose modest team then came to England and forced a 0-0 draw. Followed by an abysmal display against Croatia, lost 2-0 in Zagreb, where McClaren suddenly and suicidally opted for a 3-5-2 formation, wholly alien to his players, which did little for the defence and still less for an attack without wingers.

To put McClaren's suggestions into some kind of perspective, we need only ask what such methods would do for, or to, a Paul Gascoigne or a Wayne Rooney, arguably two of the few truly talented English players to emerge since the war. Some years ago, when Gazza, before a Lazio match at the Olympic Stadium in Rome, had belched into a television microphone, the international goalkeeper, Walter Zenga, ever ready to express his opinion, announced that, to know why Gazza did this, it would be necessary to get inside his head. There, I suggested at the time, one would find on one side a superb football brain, on the other, shades of what Groucho says to Chico in a Marx Brothers film: "Barabelli, you've got the brain of a four-year-old boy and I bet he was glad to get rid of it!"

The quintessence of Gazza at his amazing best — or George Best or Rooney for that matter — was his capacity for what Italians call inventing the game, suddenly doing the unexpected. Something all the individual coaching in the world cannot imbue. Go further back in time to that great England right-winger Stanley Matthews, who played till he was 50. "Don't ask me how I do it", he said of his astonishing body swerve. "It just comes out of me under pressure."

Besides, how many good, truly talented coaches can any country produce? The best of them are few and far between, and there's scant hope of successfully recruiting them in the numbers Klinsmann and McClaren envisage. Football, in fact, is surely over coached and over managed as it is.