It’s curious reading the BBC website’s headline of “England with no injury worries”: that may be so, but it’s certainly not an England without injuries. Owen’s absence until next season is extremely frustrating – when fit, he can reasonably lay claim to being the best pure attacking player in the world, and not just because of pace. Ashton is also injured, and among the current England crop, I’d put him third, behind Owen and Rooney, perhaps alongside Crouch. A lot depends on Crouch today: suffice to say that he hasn’t let anyone down as yet. Neither has Johnson, but once again fate has intervened to deny him the opportunity.
Joe Cole won’t be there, either – were he fit, would he be McClaren’s automatic left-side pick?
Rooney, the man chosen by the papers to be on the receiving end this time, is still getting back to full fitness having had his pre-season disrupted by the Belgian and English Football Associations. I don’t entirely understand some of the criticism. “He has a short fuse..” – no, he doesn’t. He has a fuse, sure, longer than the average for his age, and it’s being placed under enormous pressure. His having made it up with Cristiano Ronaldo after the latter’s behaviour in the World Cup says more about him than the red card in that game that a quicker referee might have prevented. Nor is Rooney playing badly at the moment. It’s true he’s not playing as well as he could – but has he really fallen to the level of Johnson or Bent? and I don’t mean that as an insult to either player: Rooney’s positional sense and general team contribution, his running, are the best in the Premiership when he’s on top form.
Then there’s 3-5-2… Herbert Chapman was a pioneer in more ways than any other man in English football, but even he didn’t see the need for a single England manager. He favoured a committee of three – and the recent (albeit childishly basic) tactical debate has revealed that McClaren is part of a committee of two. Appointing Venables has been a clever move: it allows Steve to share the pressure, to share the ignominy. He will be aware that most people would rather see Venables there on his own – I think that’s what prompted him to get Terry on board on the first place. There’s a hint of Clive Woodward in it too: make England occasions special, make players determined never to be dropped. Training with Venables is famously interesting and enjoyable and apt to improve a player – lose your place, and lose that, lose being part of all that.
It looks like they won’t be playing 3-5-2 though.
You’ll have read this too – and how long do you think we’ll be reading this kind of thing?
Macedonia coach Srecko Katanec is amazed England cannot find room for David Beckham in their starting team.
Katanec said: “For me, he is a key player, although now he isn’t even in the first XI at Real Madrid.
“If I was in McClaren’s position, without a shadow of a doubt Beckham would be in the team.”
Macedonia defender Aleksandar Vasoski added: “We couldn’t believe that Beckham wasn’t there again.
“For me he is a hero, a legend. I marked him when we played England in 2003 and it was one of the greatest moments of my life. It earned me a move to Eintracht Frankfurt.”
Beckham scored in both of England’s Euro 2004 qualifying matches against Macedonia.
Interesting to note also that Theo Walcott is starting to drift back into McClaren’s thinking, if the manager’s own press conference is to be believed. That didn’t take long. It was Stephen Gerrard who said, in print, that Walcott didn’t deserve his place in the World Cup squad, which should add something to the mix when Walcott takes his place in the next twelve months.
Predictions: I still think in terms of a deeply unimpressive victory for England, perhaps 1-0. Macedonia are going to come out and play the game of their lives: England will be asked to “bring their Premiership passion” into the match, but probably won’t.
The trouble is… a fair proportion of the squad now are Erickson cast-offs. Parker, Phil Neville, Johnson when fit, Bent. To me, it doesn’t feel quite so much like England as it did only six months ago. The shine, the class, the sense of unfulfilled potential, isn’t there. What are we building towards – are we building towards anything, are we pacing ourselves, do we know how we are going to play? Well, we know the answer to that: 4-4-2, and we now know that the players effectively go on strike when asked to be intelligent and flexible. My growing suspicion about that Gerrard-Lampard central midfield, with or without a holding player behind them, is that they both just demurred – they simply refused. They could have made it work – each at risk of allowing the other to become the three-minute hero. A lovely picture. Scholes is right to keep out of it.
1-0 England, then. I wonder if I’ll watch.