I must confess that my first reaction was anger. Quite justified anger. After all, everyone had got what they wanted, hadn’t they? An English manager who understood the importance of passion and commitment – Terry Venables back on board – an old-fashioned vocal captain in John Terry – Beckham dropped – Gerrard and Lampard no longer sharing the centre – the Rooney/Crouch front line that would have made all the difference against Portugal – Sean Wright-Phillips and Jermaine Defoe given their opportunities.
Let me throw back at you the same damn fool question that gets aimed at psychologists and psychotherapists the world over. Did it “work?”
Suffice it to say for now that this was precisely the kind of performance, and precisely the kind of result, that was meant to have gone with Erickson. I’m afraid I have to tell you that this is what you are in for for at the very least the next two years while England gets all of this traditional-values schtick out of its system.
On to specifics. It is rather unfair to cast Macedonia in the role of total minnows. Given their 2-2 draw in their last competitive match in England, they deserved better. Today, they played 3 men up front – away from home! and were very unlucky not to win the game by some distance. Their pattern of play – using wide men up front who would cut inside rather than go for the by-line, is precisely that favoured down the years by the likes of Chapman, Busby, Paisley and co., and England held them rather than being held themselves.
From the England team, I felt Crouch did what he could with atrocious service from the midfield. Carrick’s first half had good moments, but he was forever being cut out of play by Lampard and Gerrard – in the second half, his vision deserted him. Gerrard played without intelligence, and, after his booking, resorted to the same kind of gloryhunting attitude, looking to be England’s spectacular last-minute saviour, that he’d adopted against Portugal. Had his shot gone in under the bar, it would have been a travesty, concealing an essentially selfish performance. Other people will be having open season on Lampard, so I won’t bother.
Rooney, unlike Gerrard, avoided provocation but is clearly short on match practice. So, for different reasons, is Jermaine Defoe, whose role as the substitute Owen is now under serious threat from Andrew Johnson. I worry about Rooney in an England shirt, not because of his behaviour, but because of how he is being used. For the sake of his own career, the sooner Owen returns to resume their partnership the better. Likewise Crouch, who seems to me to be being set up as some kind of fall guy, the next to follow Beckham out of the squad. Far too much was asked of him today – far too little given.
That was the other spark of my anger. Rooney and Crouch’s international careers, both of which have started well, must not be, but are being, bungled by people who do not know what they are doing. That’s not entirely a thrust at McClaren. McClaren is having to adapt to a renewed surge of superstition and stupidity in English football – these aren’t the considered days that followed Erickson’s appointment, but flight back to some kind of fantasy island where passion and commitment win out over skill and tactical thinking. He has to cope with the same thing that we now know confronted Erickson after Scholes’ retirement – the complete inability of this set of players to adapt to even one other system.
Poor Ledley King looks an altogether lesser player since the start of the season – and something seems to be happening to Ashley Cole too. Terry had a bad night, but I wouldn’t put it any more strongly than that. Gary Neville was no better, and the expression on his face was that of a man who, for all his talk about wanting to be in a successful England side, perhaps realises that the moment has passed.
My gut feelings for this game, and for the matches against Greece and Albania, held good.My gut feeling for the immediate England future is – an acceptable result against Croatia, and then the lights going out Graham Taylor style.
The most depressing moment of the night for me was when the Radio 5 commentator, on courtesy of the red digi-button, praised McClaren for gesticulating from the sidelines – “we didn’t see enough of that from Erickson. Waving his team forward.” Wrong thing, too little, too late. For all Rio Ferdinand’s praise of some straight-talking that’s allegedly been going on behind the scenes, England, after the first ten minutes, looked scared and leaderless, unaware of each other and, Crouch aside, unwilling to take risks.
Gentlemen of the press, you thought you knew why this was happening. You’ve had all you wanted, everything you asked for. Tomorrow morning, you’ll present your diagnosis and prescription for all the world as if you were denied it all. If only the management would listen to you… but they did, they did, and it’s going to take years to undo your bad work of a few short months.