Our football journalists can’t make their minds up. Do they want a return to traditional footballing values in the England set-up? Or do they want a series of staged PR gestures designed to “signal a break” with “everything that’s gone before”?
We already know that John Terry is the new captain, with Gerrard as his understudy. That decision was fairly straightforward. Both men have considerable experience as captains, both are very well thought of in that role, and both look to have long England careers ahead of them. One or the other is always likely to be available. Terry wins out because his captaincy is in defence, because he is less likely to feel obliged to win games on his own and thus be pulled out of position, and… because he looks like every middle class journalist’s dream of a good old-fashioned pro. That last comment might look cynical. But there are strong rumours that Steve McClaren brought in consultants to weigh up the various candidates, and Terry won – literally – on points.
Terry was born in Barking (a working class haunt only by descent) and isn’t really a good example of the footballer who had to struggle to reach the top. But he’ll be the ultimate cockney working class hero in the eyes of the press. Fortunately, he’s an excellent player, who is thriving at Chelsea under the most advanced coaching now available, and the jumpers-for-goalposts look is only surface skim. I saw him praised once for never having changed his hair style (he has of course; plenty of times) and two days ago this snappy dresser and familiar of West London was said to be about to kick the catwalk out of the England dressing room.
And what of his predecessor? Rumours fly from my radio that Beckham has been told his England career is over. If so, I trust that there are what are known as “footballing reasons” for it. It’s ten years now since Beckham went straight into Hoddle’s England side. Well, almost – 1 September 1996, against Moldova. He didn’t need bedding in, and played in every World Cup Qualifying match on the way to France ’98. There hasn’t really been anyone quite as good in his position over the whole of that time, just as there hasn’t been in his best man’s position at right back. The first pretender was Shaun Wright-Phillips, whose self-doubt overwhelmed him suddenly and visibly in the first twenty minutes of his first full start against Holland. He now has eight caps, but only his debut has truly impressed. The second, more recently, has been Aaron Lennon. Lennon has pace, and, for now, the confidence to take people on, but I can’t help feeling that at least two thirds of the enthusiasm for him stems from his playing in Beckham’s position. Those thrilling runs of Lennon’s all seem to go into dead ends.
It’s not really a question of replacing Beckham, of course. England have never had a player like Lineker, since he retired. They’ve never had another Robson, or Gascoigne, or Keegan. Shearer hasn’t been replaced like for like. Lennon isn’t a replacement for Beckham: he’s his own arrival. If Shaun Wright-Phillips can get back to regular football, he will bring what he has – the enduring ability to create panic and chaos in opposing defences.
Away from the team itself, there have been other, silly, little things. The press wants a “clean break”, and now portrays the Erickson era as one without any success, bravura or style at all. So it’s significant that McClaren uses a different hotel for press conferences; it’s significant that he stays at matches for the full ninety minutes (that one is especially puerile); McClaren – like George W. Bush before him – must distinguish himself from his predecessor by living the kind of social life that would bore John Knox.
So here we are in the future then. A proper England set-up, with none of the PR fluff and spin of the Erickson era. How do we know? because the right media messages are being sent out –
– at least, the impression is being given that they are being sent out. I suspect it’s all just gigantic projection by the press, putting their own strange dreams and fantasies into poor Steve McClaren’s mouth. How long before they turn on him, do you think?
If he drops Beckham permanently, I think they’ll leave McClaren alone until at least November. And then, of course, he’ll be “too proud” to recall a man who “always gave his best for his country and still has so much to offer”.
Of course, with some decent exceptions (Jim White, Henry Winter, Barnes & co.) the British football press write about football in just the same way the “Archers” script editors write about agriculture. We’ve only another couple of weeks of this ghostly, invented PR drive to prove that it’s the end of PR drives in the England camp, and then we’ve an actual game to look forward to. Although, given Greece’s difficulties and the arrival of Photoshop in the journalist’s repertoire, I’m not sure I’ll ever believe that it’s taken place unless I’m actually there. And I’ve not seen any tickets. Have you?
UPDATE: 5Live’s Jonathan Legard has been saying that Beckham is almost certainly out of the squad against Greece, out of the squad in future, and very unlikely to be recalled, although that’s not totally ruled out. I wonder if people will find it in themselves to be kind?