Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Sweet FA to do next summer

The dour, pessimistic English attitude is rife throughout the sports world, but even deeper down, far more real than we are prepared to admit, is the ever-present conviction that England will do well. Football, cricket, tennis, athletics, Formula 1: constant expectation constantly crushed, and yet every week/year/2 years/4 years, we are eager again in anticipation fronted by feigned indifference or cynicism.

It shouldn't come as any surprise that England's footballers, schooled in the art of doing things the hard way, couldnt grasp a chance gifted to them from a most unlikely situation that could only be described as a lifeline. Throughout their qualifying group England had been inconsistent enough to leave qualification out of their hands, and yet when their fate was placed, by small miracle, back into their hands again, still the performance wasn't there. (I say 'inconsistent' rather than poor, as England had their moments, notably the vital back to back 3-0 wins over Israel and Russia.)

It's difficult to know where to lay the blame for England's failure to qualify for next year's European Championships. How far back do you go? Carson's howler in the 8th monute? Throwing away victory in Russia last month? The 0-0 at home to Macedonia? Was McClaren the wrong appointment 18 months ago? Or did he simply inherit a team managed by a coach who was tactically astute enough to take England to two quarter-finals but at the expense of the passion and heart that is supposed to embody English sportsmen, and which more than anything else inspires the English fans?

Of course, Enlgish fans return their passion and heart through alcohol-fuelled destruction of foreign cities, so tonight's result will be a welcome relief for the Austro-Swiss officials and organisers.

Returning to tonight's game, it never once, naturally, looked remotely like going to according plan. McClaren chose a must-not-lose game to throw Scott Carson his first competititve cap. Of course, less than 10 minutes in and that choice was made to look laughable. At least no one would have been surprised if it had been Robinson making the same error. McClaren then chose to play a defensively minded 4-5-1 formation, neglecting the fact that England couldn't really risk playing for a draw as one Croat goal would scupper the plans completely. Two Croat goals therefore tore the entire plan to shreds. McClaren didn't help his formation by going with Crouch's height as the lone striker, with two wide players whose main asset is speed. Leaving out David Beckham, still one of the best crossers of the ball in the world, when our main threat in a 4-5-1 formation would come from crosses and set pieces, was little short of madness.

The only surprise came when McClaren made exactly the right subsitutions at half time. A quick striker to replace Barry - who had been ineffectually rubbish and, since we had gone 2-0 down with his role supposedly protecting against conceding, was even more surplus to requirements when we need goals - and getting David Beckham on to supply the passes. Almost amazingly, Defoe's presence won the penalty, and Beckham's pristine ball created the equaliser. If it hadn't been McClaren's errors initially, those subs would have been tactical masterstrokes.

Yet just when England looked to be in a position to go on and win the game, the team did what they did under Sven - which was, admittedly, about his only problem during his tenure as manager - consolidate the position and try to hold out. Being England of course, this didn't work. A better team than Croatia could have scored six past England tonight, so when Croatia's third went in, it was time once again for the desperation and anxious panic. Unlike against Greece four years ago when Beckham's 90th minute free kick sent England through, there was no smile from lady luck, no individual piece of genius, no (second) life line for England. The simple truth was we hadn't the belief or the performers to carry out what was required.

In searching for excuses; yes we were affected pretty dreadfully from injuries. Hargeaves fully fit would surely have seen Barry dropped, while Owen and Rooney's injuries saw a striker without a Premiership goal to his name start alone up front, with underachieving Spurs' second string striker pairing as back up. And the least said about the back four - to a man an understudy to England first choice of Cole, A., Ferdinand, Terry, Neville - the better. The pitch was poor, too.

Once McClaren has been sacked, and it will happen because the pithy FA would never risk the complete backlash that will come from every single England fan if a manager who couldn't take us from the group we had to the European Championships was kept on, what's needed is a fresh start. Though the debate about the quality of English players will surface, England do have the players to compete on an international level. The U21s, so nearly finalists at the Euros this year, are all bright prospects. The likes of Walcott, Taylor, Carson, Bentley, Richards, are all waiting to step up. Terry, Ferdinand, Lampard, Gerrard, Rooney and Owen can be the back bone of a world class team for 4 more years at least. It's finding a coach who can convince them, and the rest of the players available, that we ARE a world class team that will bring England's national side out of the slump that is surely at its lowest point tonight.