Steve McClaren and the Future of England

Yesterday, McClaren was in the company of Walter Smith, Laurie Sanchez and John Toshack at the launch of a road safety scheme, and took the opportunity to hand down some clues as to where he sees England going. Regular readers will know my own feelings on the matter – that we are about to embark on one of those periods of frustration and mediocrity that England sides have from time to time (1950-4, 1958-60, 1972-7, 1991-5) – and that we’ve passed up a chance to just grow up a bit when it comes to the national side. A period when experienced, responsible adults (Adam Crozier, Ericksson) were in charge has come to an end and we are back in the hands of dim but well-meaning men, not comfortable in suits, who are good at talk about English values but who don’t really, in the end, know what they are doing.

Back to McClaren. I hope – without evidence – that McClaren’s public pronouncements are all media management. I hope they are no more than an attempt to keep alive the impression that the England set-up is in step with public opinion. I hope that explains the constant bandying about of names, the references to passion/English performances, the assertions that Steve is his own man and not the press’s man or Venables’ man. I don’t have any evidence that this is so, and some of what he had to say yesterday intensified my sense of dread and foreboding.

Take this:

“There was a huge hangover because we had high expectations that were brought crashing down. I always thought it would take five or six months for players to get their form back and move on after such a disappointment. I expect to see that in the New Year.”

Quite apart from the fact that that wildly contradicts what he was saying before the defeat to Croatia, it’s just not true. Of that defeated England squad, one, Beckham, has been used as sacrificial lamb; Owen and Hargreaves have been injured; Neville has been injured but has since shown no sign of loss of either form or confidence; Terry, Ferdinand and Ashley Cole have been perfectly consistent with their past level of performance and their teams are doing well; Lampard is well and truly back and has been for two months; Gerrard has had an excellent season despite not having a settled position; Rooney had a frustrating start owing to his unjustified suspension but has been on top form for the last two months; Joe Cole has been injured – which leaves Crouch, who has scored important goals but been rotated regularly, and Paul Robinson, who is suffering from the bad season in Spurs’ defence generally. Aaron Lennon and Theo Walcott have both had starring cameos this year and both look every inch worth their squad place at the World Cup, especially in contrast to the performances of messrs. Johnson and Defoe.

McClaren’s idea that these men have been going through some kind of psychic trauma simply doesn’t stack up. Then there’s this:

“We had a meeting with all our scouts and went through the players, all the way from Under-21 level to senior,” he said, “and people over 21 who are pushing for the squad. We’ve got a core of about 15 you can guess at. We’ve identified about 50 players we’re going to concentrate on who have all got an opportunity. We’re going to whittle that down by the end of the season and that would be the squad for the push for qualification, and to go into [Euro 2008]. Excluding the Under-21s there would be about seven or eight [older players who could still come through]. There’s players out there who are late developers and who are in form, who have been given an opportunity and who are maturing.”

It’s positive, and necessary, to take another look at what sounds like just about every English player currently in the Premiership plus Southampton’s Gareth Bale. It’s only what Ericksson and Grip did in 2001, and the results of it then were entirely positive – remember Chris Powell’s unexpected, but excellent, holding operation at left back while Ashley Cole (who was thought too young, bad in the tackle, etc. back then by all measure of men who look uncomfortable in suits) got some games under his belt?

But there aren’t – there just aren’t – fifty players of international standard in England today. We know the players that are – they all went to Germany, and since then only the aforesaid Gareth Bale and Wigan’s Leighton Baines have shown that same quality. It’s a sign of what’s happening to England that theirs aren’t the names being pushed by the press – and that Walcott’s isn’t, either.

Instead, the list is made up of what I’d describe as “almosts”, players who are very good but just lack that certain something. Kevin Nolan, Joey Barton, Gareth Barry. Of these, I’d say that Nolan might well be unfortunate not to have attracted Ericksson’s eye, and not just Ericksson’s, but Ferguson’s, Mourinho’s, Wenger’s, Raphael’s. That gives me the hint that I am seeing something that isn’t there.

Barton, to my mind, is a bit Gerrard, unable to resist grandstanding, but without providing the consistent excellent behind-the-scenes work that Gerrard is capable of and with a frankly shocking temperament. Journalists love him because he’s “colourful” and provides them with lots of quotes and stories, and they’ve pinned the “English passion” tail onto him for the time being. Being at Manchester City spares him the remorseless study of his form that Lampard has had to put up with, essentially because if City lose, only City fans care; if Barton is allowed to join the England squad in any serious way, that will come to an abrupt end. Oh, but he’s “inspirational”, he “gets people going”, “he’ll kick the prima donnas up the arse” – the kind of thing John Terry was meant to be doing as captain, but as that kind of thing doesn’t actually work, it’s been of little use, and it will continue to be of little use coming from Barton.

Gareth Barry was unfortunate, early in his career, not to get an extended England run. I remember his excellent shared cameo with Nicky Barmby against Ukraine for Keegan, the two of them coming on as substitutes and running the opposition ragged. I don’t actually know very much about what happened to him next. What I suspect is that Martin O’Neill is busy doing that thing that the best managers do – stopping him from doing what he isn’t good at, cutting his game down to what he can realistically achieve. That kind of treatment can transform a player’s trust in themselves, dramatically improving their performance within a team. If so, Barry is going to be a much better defender/midfielder in four or five month’s time, and Wayne Bridge will have genuine competition for his squad place. But it won’t be because McClaren has spotted a player everyone else has missed. Like Ericksson with Joe Cole, he will have one of that rare breed, the good manager, to thank.

There are other players coming through who will be good enough – Micah Richards can be written in with confidence, surely, after his fantastic debut. Dean Ashton is the real best next colleague for Owen, Rooney and Crouch – watch him in the FA Cup Final against Liverpool before his injury. He’s not good because he’s in some way “like” Owen, in the way Defoe and Johnson are. He’s quick, but also physically imposing in the Shearer mould; his touch is as good as Defoe’s, but he makes far better use of it. Anton Ferdinand will be at least as good as his brother if he can keep the bling in check.

Shaun Wright-Phillips has been a victim of bad timing as much as anything. He was a late developer in the first instance (he’s 25 already – at that age, Paul Scholes had 20 caps and 7 goals and was an automatic pick. Beckham had 37 caps and was captain. Steven Gerrard had 35 caps). Frank Lampard, however, was in a similar situation to Wright-Phillips at a similar age. Part of Wright-Phillips’ problem stems, not from his move to Chelsea and lack of match action there, but from his blinding debut, followed shortly afterwards by a very public meltdown against Holland, where his two early misses obliterated him from the game. He’s only really showing himself again now. Chelsea were accused of buying him to keep him out of the hands of other clubs, but I suspect not: Mourinho moves players on that he doesn’t want, yet Shaun remains at Chelsea. Perhaps, as with Joe Cole, it’s been a case of waiting for Shaun to realise what he should and should not be doing on a football field – to forget being George Best and be Wright-Phillips, a lesser but very effective player. I don’t know. Perhaps time will tell.

But it’s not quite the same as that 1996-2001 period that saw Owen, Beckham, Scholes, Gerrard, Campbell, Ferdinand, Fowler (too briefly) and Dyer (ditto) come through into the first team. It’s good for England’s sake that four of those are still very much young men with years ahead of them.

The question is – are they going to be given an environment in which they can thrive? I doubt it; and will England ever be lucky enough to go into a major tournament without all of their best players injured or in early recovery? Only time will tell.

I’m not optimistic, at any rate. My hope lies in McClaren not really meaning most of what he actually says. Except that I think he does mean most of it, and that’s deeply depressing. Well, you wanted an English manager, and you wanted English passion, and you wanted old fashioned players, and you wanted old values, and you’re going to get them. You’ll get the chaos and demoralisation that comes with it all, too. At least our next opponents, Spain, are in almost as much trouble as we are.

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