Friday, September 14, 2007

What about now, Steve?

I don't like Richard Williams - though he's the most senior Guardian Football writer - but hats off to him for this excellent, point-blank, sharply written analysis of England's options.

Now all McClaren has to do is bench Rooney
With England finally purring, how does Steve McClaren tell England's missing senior players that they're not needed?

Richard Williams
September 14, 2007 12:10 AM

One way and another, that was not a bad night for Steve McClaren. Before his own eyes and those of the Football Association international board, Guus Hiddink was revealed not to be the omniscient Sun Tzu of football coaching. And over in Lisbon, Luiz Felipe Scolari ended the evening by landing a left jab on the cheek of a Serbian player after watching his own Portuguese team surrender points at home for the second time in four days. As McClaren calmly shook hands with the defeated Hiddink, those FA blazers must have been thinking that perhaps they hired the right man, after all.

Now all McClaren has to do is figure out a way to tell Wayne Rooney that there will be no place for him in the starting line-up when England return to Wembley to face Estonia next month. And then he will have to deliver the same message to Owen Hargreaves, to Frank Lampard and - if they recover their fitness in time - to those two old friends, David Beckham and Gary Neville.

With six points tucked away from two crucial games, six goals in the bag and a pair of clean sheets, McClaren must be rubbing his eyes at the wonder of it all. He deserves credit of course, particularly from those of us who have regularly questioned his right to the job of England's head coach, for reacting to adverse circumstances by making two decisions that turn out to have been extremely astute.

First, he reacted to the injuries to Lampard and Hargreaves by inserting Gareth Barry alongside Steven Gerrard in the position from which he has been captaining Aston Villa under Martin O'Neill. Two excellent captains of big clubs next to each other in the central midfield is not a bad foundation.

Second, he refused to heed the claims of Everton's Andrew Johnson and Tottenham's Jermain Defoe to partner Owen when the Liverpool forward Peter Crouch was suspended for last Saturday's Israel match, instead courting ridicule by reaching back into the past and recalling Emile Heskey on the basis of his current form for Wigan Athletic and his familiarity with Michael Owen.

Amply rewarded, McClaren can congratulate himself both on his shrewdness and his luck. No doubt he always had belief in the former. The latter, however, will have come as a pleasant surprise.

So at least his recent successes will have given McClaren a measure of personal authority as he confronts the problems posed by returning players. There will be a degree of pain and unhappiness on the faces of those he must disappoint, but he will be making his pronouncements from a position of relative strength.

How, though, does he break the news to the most talented English footballer of his generation, to the only man who performed with true distinction in the last World Cup, to the player who can be relied on to score 20 goals a season for his club from midfield, to the world's most famous footballer, and to the most loyal of servants?

Taking them in ascending order of difficulty, Neville will surely be the easiest to placate, not least because, after such a long period out with injury, he is probably the furthest from match fitness. The Manchester United captain has seen for himself what his Manchester City rival can bring to the side, and he also knows that an injury to either of the established central defenders would mean a switch to the middle for Micah Richards.

Beckham, too, has the excuse of sporadic recent activity to help him rationalise a place on the bench. During his time at Real Madrid he showed that he was not above accepting such a decision and continuing to give his best. Even a couple of minutes as a sub, of course, would allow him to get nearer to the personal goal of 100 caps.

As for Lampard, he will probably remind McClaren that he scored England's only goal against Germany last month. His long history of failing to perform in tandem with the undroppable Gerrard, however, is more than enough justification for inviting him to sit on the sidelines.

The only real injustice will have to be done to Hargreaves, so outstanding in the disastrous campaign in Germany, so committed and so thoroughly professional in everything he does. Having established his niche in the team, he must now accept that England have a midfield which has achieved enough in two games to deserve a further chance to test itself. Fate being what it is, his chance will come again.

And, finally, comes Rooney, the player whose name was the last thing on the lips of the departing Sven-Goran Eriksson, with a stern injunction to look after the country's most valuable footballer. Of course the £30m Rooney is a better player than Emile Heskey. But he is not a better player alongside Michael Owen, whose three goals against Israel and Russia restated the Newcastle United striker's importance to the national team.

Rooney's own scoring record for England would be unacceptable in a less gifted player, but he has yet to compensate with the kind of contribution that brings the goals out of his team-mates. To leave out Chelsea's Joe Cole - after one humdrum performance in a position he has worked hard to master - and to put Rooney out on the left would be to tinker unnecessarily with a line-up that, as things stand, appears to have the right balance for McClaren's purposes.

No comments: