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Don't believe the snipes

I had intended to go to Old Trafford to watch the match with Austria and the subsequent qualifier against Poland, but fate and job contract demands meant I viewed yet another qualifying game in front of the TV at home.

In essence that isn't really an issue. My brief as 'England Correspondent' at Soccernet is to try and give the view of a regular supporter and, in reality I've always figured that most fans watch their national side on TV screens of varying sizes anyway. Tickets and travel cost a great deal of money and, in any case, match tickets are not always readily available - in the case of this sequence of matches you had to be pretty quick on the Internet to grab a couple. As I'm not an ex-professional footballer, journalist or representative of any recognised FA body the TV is likely to be my only option in most cases anyway.

However, I'm certainly not suggesting that football is an experience best savoured away from the ground but, as I discovered at St. James' Park when England beat Azerbaijan, some passages of the game pass you by without the benefit of the replay and 'expert' punditry, and there is much to gain from seeing incidents from ten different angles. In some aspects then, if I have to write a match report it can be easier done when within touching distance of the remote control and the laptop keyboard. But there is drawback.

For the downside of the TV experience is that you are force-fed opinions that you may not agree with but that seem to seep into your consciousness like a nightmare that you remember when fully awake. And so it was on Saturday. I wonder what I would have thought if I'd actually been to the game in Manchester?

As it was I knew from Motsons' sonorous tones after ten minutes that 'England weren't taking the game to the Austrians'. 'England started slowly', said BBC's own Captain Scarlett impersonator later; 'if you go at the opposition from the first then you can slow it down but if you start slow then it's hard to quicken it later'. Well, I hate to argue with a brilliant defender who won European winners medals with one of the best club sides England have ever produced but - with respect Mr. Hansen - WHAT? This is the type of arrant nonsense that pervades English football at the moment. I've seen many sides spend even 40 or 50 minutes getting a feel for the opposition before upping the tempo; I've even see some do it in the last ten.

With Austria causing few problems for England at the back and Joe Cole seeing plenty of the ball on the left there seemed little cause for concern but it became apparent after 15 minutes that only a hatful of England goals would stop the doom-laden concerns of the venerable Motson and his co-host Graeme Le Saux. The ex-Chelsea defender became worried as Keisenberger got in a speculative long shot declaring that 'England needed to close them down in those areas'. Once again I was puzzled, surely if the attacking team are forced to shoot from 40 yards then the defence are doing their job and an international goalkeeper would be expected to deal with the situation in the way that Paul Robinson subsequently did.

Even when England won the penalty for an obvious hold by Paul Scahrner on Michael Owen the pundits were less than generous. The fact that holding a players' arm in the box is a foul and the decision was correct seemed to pass them by. John Motson had probably seen a game at Stockport in 1972 when a similar decision wasn't given and Alan Hansen, inevitability, erred with the defender in declaring that if those decisions were given in every game then we'd get cricket scores as results (Well, bring it on then, I say). But the referee was right, the long protests of the Austrians were correctly ignored and Frank Lampard's emphatic shot put the home side into a lead they were never to relinquish.

When Owen was fouled by Andreas Drober for a cast-iron penalty in the 40th minute, more confusion reigned with Motson probably controversially correct in his opinion that referees seem strangely reluctant to give repeat decisions on players that have already been awarded hotly disputed penalties. Nevertheless, it was a penalty and a 2-0 lead may have made a significant difference to the second half and the moans of the assembled experts in the studio.

As it was though, following a spell in which England seemed unable to control the play, Roland Linz broke through in the 56th minute and just beat John Terry to flick the ball over Robinson. Fortunately, the ball came back off the bar almost leaving poor old Motty apoplectic. It did look like a let-off but there was still a feeling that Austria had too little up front to worry England further but then came the controversial decisions that resulted in the sending off of David Beckham on the hour.

Unjustly booked for an upraised arm in a fair tackle with Ibertsberger, Beckham seemed to lose his judgement as he clumsily tackled the same player seconds later. No sooner had the referee seen that than Ibertsberger went down again as he attempted to break on the edge of the area. The England captain attempted a tackle but pulled out and the defender seemingly dived on the merest of touches. The referee thought otherwise though and produced a second yellow to ensure Beckham would enter the record books as the first England player to be sent off twice in internationals. Both bookings were harsh but the red was a terrible injustice that was rightly criticised by even the strongest critic back in the studio.

As Eriksson attempted to reshuffle his pack, further agony occurred as Sol Campbell pulled up three minutes later with a hamstring injury, forcing the Swede to bring on the player he had dropped for the Arsenal man. Rio Ferdinand however was determined to show that he shouldn't have lost his place in the first instance and, although the changes caused concern all over the field and the side lost their shape, the defence remained solid to hang on for the draw.

Certainly the performance wasn't one we had all hoped but the key thing in this match was to get the three points and set up the final group game against Poland for a 'winner takes all' climax. Ironically, of course, the Czech defeat in Prague by Holland ensures that whatever happens both England and Poland will progress - quite rightly - to the finals in Germany next year. In this context and playing without Rooney and eventually Beckham and Campbell and also without the confidence that a few solid wins would bring, this was a case of job done again for the home side.

But still the criticism persists. 'Sven lacks passion' says Richard Jolly on another article on this very site as if shouting and getting blue veins in your neck are all that are required to be England manager. Hey, I'm passionate - just ask Lady Blagg what I'm like after a couple of sambuca's and a curry - but I hardly think that qualifies me for the job as national coach. If you want someone who shouts, well why not appoint Barry Fry?

The odd thing here is that I was initially critical of Sven's appointment, even being accused of xenophobia in some quarters, but I simply don't see what has changed in the interim period of Sven's appointment. If Wenger or Mourinho were English and available - or even a younger Venables, Greenwood or Robson - then perhaps it might be an option. But are we really suggesting that Sven's vast experience and impressive record is likely to be bettered by Curbishley or Allardyce just because they have managed to keep their respective Championship sides in the Premiership for some seasons?

Now it shouldn't be thought that I think Eriksson is beyond reproach. His bizarre decision to replace a supposedly tiring Michael Owen and leave the statuesque Peter Crouch as a lone front man for the last ten minutes against Austria was a baffling decision that ensured that England would spend the closing period camped around their own penalty area. Pumping high balls up to a lone Crouch is like watching young children throw sticks at a Horse Chestnut tree - except the chances of them getting a juicy conker are about twenty times likelier than that of Crouch getting a shot on target as a result.

But now perhaps I'm getting the Red Top, Hansen and Motty disease…

Perhaps we should all take ourselves back four years when a superb individual performance from David Beckham was topped by a last gasp free kick that produced a 2-2 draw with unfancied Greece to send England through to the finals on a wave of euphoria. England then stuttered and went out in lacklustre fashion to Brazil in the quarter finals while the Greeks, of course, have never done anything of note in international football before or since (Please don't write in: this is called irony).

And, lest it be forgot, England's point that day consigned the German side, beaten 5-1 on their home soil earlier in the campaign by a rampant Sven side, to the ignominy of a qualifying tie. That was it for the Germans too who would surely struggle even if they were lucky enough to make the finals in Japan/Korea (Don't write in about that either).

In short, the beginning is over and the real bit is about to start. England do have world class players for once and strength in depth in key positions but they currently lack cohesion and confidence. My guess is it may return on Wednesday but, even if it doesn't, this is no time to throw everything away. This is a golden opportunity to hand the captain's armband to John Terry and let him keep it, a chance to try out a few things to solve the left hand problem that still persists.

More importantly it is now the time to build faith in the system and confidence in where they are going. Next July is the time to review everything. For now the future is in Germany and England should enter it with high expectations.

  • If you have any thoughts you can email Billy Blagg.