The flop artist

Previous England managers have often lost the plot, but Steve McClaren never got as far as having a plot to lose, writes David Lacey.

Try to look on the bright side. England's failure to qualify for Euro 2008 means that next summer's tournament will not have the Wags draped across it like those models who used to pose on the bonnets of the latest horrors from British Leyland. And the bookshelves will be free of catchpenny tomes ghostwritten for players whose performances have not exactly produced haunting memories.

Mercifully the columns and airwaves will be free of anxious reports on Michael Owen's latest strain and it will no longer be necessary to check the spelling of "metatarsal". Interest in the fitness of David Beckham will be confined to the less salubrious suburbs of Los Angeles, if it is mentioned at all.

Thankfully the nation will be spared the parroted optimism which regularly accompanies England to major tournaments - "I know people have written us off but I honestly believe we can win it" - and is invariably misplaced.

Perhaps it was just as well that Steve McClaren's team lost to Croatia that Wednesday night. Why prolong the agony? The European Championship has so often been a bed of nails for England managers that it is hard to imagine this one would have been any different.

England's woeful performance in the first half at Wembley recalled a similar nadir in Frankfurt in the 1988 tournament when Bobby Robson's side met the Soviet Union having already been eliminated after defeats by the Republic of Ireland and Holland. After England had lost dismally 3-1 Robson was asked if he intended staying on and replied that he had no intention of resigning, it was up to the Football Association, and so on. "No, I meant are you staying on for the rest of the tournament," the reporter explained. In the event Robson did both and only one of that team, Gary Lineker, appeared in the 1990 World Cup semifinal against West Germany.

McClaren was never going to get the chance to do better next time. The reason he refused to discuss his future after the final whistle on that fateful day was that he had no future to discuss. If he was not shot at dawn he was sacked after breakfast. The FA could not wait to get rid of him. The hiring squad became the firing squad and nobody shoots firing squads.

McClaren's successors are being lined up but apart from Fabio Capello the most interesting names are not interested while those interested are not interesting.

Debates about the state of the game, the coaching system, the power of the clubs and the attitudes of the players who have failed have been renewed but the question of why those who perform consistently well for their clubs but underachieve for their country remains unanswered.

On November 21, Steven Gerrard's call to arms looked better in print than it did on the pitch. Yet this was more about lack of concentration than lack of commitment, more a matter of a chronic inability to adapt and improvise in the altered circumstances of an international game. Thus the ball is given away as it would not be in a Premier League or Champions League match.

McClaren went because of bad results yet the lack of leadership on the field, the unimaginative passing and movement and the defensive lapses were all in evidence before he took over from Sven-Goran Eriksson.

Indeed it was his involvement, as Eriksson's assistant, in previous disappointments which persuaded critics that he was unsuitable for the job. So it has proved, although simply blaming England's failure on team selections and formations is facile.

Under McClaren nothing much happened. Previous England managers have often lost the plot but the latest incumbent never got as far as having a plot to lose and it is costing the FA �2m to find out what it could have learned for nothing had it listened to the critics.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007