Assuming Martin O’Neill is tied into his contract, is this the moment to start a Bring Back Graham Taylor campaign?
No, and I think last night’s result slightly more complicated than that. And perhaps it really is time now for a few minutes’ reflective silence from the press. They got what they wanted – and what they wanted has been shown up for gimcrack juvenile Boy’s Own rubbish.
Let me get my sole piece of cynicism out of the way first: with this result, McClaren has proved once and for all that he has broken with the Sven era. Because above all else, this wasn’t a Sven result. There.
The game was a reminder of how many genuinely talented players are missing from England at the moment, and how much of a difference that has made. A fit Michael Owen, for instance. Rooney is having to play what you might call the Shearer role as senior England striker at the age of 20. So did Owen in 2001, but with experienced heads around him like Teddy Sheringham. And he had the benefit of a regular partner in the (hideously mismanaged at club level) Emil Heskey.
Gerrard wasn’t on the pitch owing to suspension, but my guess is that he’d have spent most of the last half hour roaming the pitch looking for a chance for that spectacular long-range shot. Scholes, the closest thing English football has to a playmaker at present, has had enough, sensible man, and won’t allow himself to be selected. Owen Hargreaves’ surging self-belief (which Lampard and Gerrard took shameful advantage of at the World Cup) has been brought to a halt by a broken leg and the refusal of his club to allow his career to proceed.
Ashton, injured. Johnson, injured. Lennon, key to McClaren’s vision of the future, injured. Defoe and Wright-Phillips, both fit but desperately short of match practice. Woodgate, on his way back and then.. injured.
Walcott, scoring. Oh, shush. And there’s nothing to be said, really, about Croatia’s goals. Yes, Ashley Cole got in the way of his fellow defender and allowed a free header – but it was a finely-taken goal and no real embarrassment to concede. The second goal – you can only sympathise.
I’m torn. On the one hand, there’s an awful lot of usually-effective talent simply not available to McClaren at present that he would certainly have used. Owen is a particularly bad player to lose – but then again. I still don’t have the feeling that the people in charge of England know what they’re doing save for repeating ancient incantations about English performances (shades of those alternative therapies invented c. 1968 that claim pre-Biblical origins). If it’s fast wide play that they want, then they don’t have the confidence to back it up with action, namely, giving Richardson and Wright-Philips and Defoe starting spots.
England seem to have come to a complete halt at half-time away to Macedonia and haven’t moved since. For McClaren, so much now rests on the upcoming friendly with Holland. For that, he needs some luck with injuries, as he’s having none at the moment. And even without that, he really needs to go for it. It’s England’s best chance of resuming qualification in five months’ time with confidence.
Sincerely, I don’t envy him – or, for that matter, Bill Beswick – just now. Given the players he has available, I can’t see any good choices. Clive mentions Martin O’Neill – well, O’Neill is currently engaged in savage expectation-limitation at Villa, warning that a slump in form is on the way. I can’t see what he would do from here either.
You can’t drop everybody.