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McClaren's brave new dawn

Anyone for Svennis? No, thought not. Discredited by England's failure under the Sven-Goran Eriksson, it is scarcely surprising that many are starting to distance themselves from the wealthy Swede.

Steve McClaren, it is suggested, had already started before England's World Cup exit to Portugal. Hints have emerged that his defence was that, carry out instructions as he did, his ideas did not necessarily conform with those of his boss.

It indicates that, even before taking up his new position, the former Middlesbrough manager's survival instincts were already finely honed. In all probability, they will need to be.

But whatever McClaren did scribble on the touchline or murmur in the dressing room, it is now time for Eriksson's right-hand man to prove he is his own man, and actions speak louder than off-the-record briefings.

Despite the scale of England's underachievement, that is no easy task. The age of the current squad means a clearout is unlikely. David James may be eased aside to make way for a younger goalkeeper (Chris Kirkland is the logical choice should he ever be fit for long enough) and a rather nervous appearance against Sweden surely marked the end of Sol Campbell's England days.

It was an undignified conclusion to an outstanding international career; high-class performances in the previous two World Cups and Euro 2004 mark him out as one of England's modern-day greats. But Messrs McClaren and Wenger could be unanimous in their verdict, ditching the strong, silent type for a sleeker, younger model.

For England, this should mean a seamless return for Ledley King: but for injury, his season would have been extended by the World Cup anyway.

It will be harder to integrate a trio of emerging central defenders for, as Anton Ferdinand, Michael Dawson and Curtis Davies will discover, competition for places is at its fiercest in the middle of the back four. On the right, Gary Neville's willingness to prolong his England career, coupled with an absence of alternatives, should ensure stability.

His name will figure - though his age (31) may act as a deterrent - when McClaren has his first chance to mould a team in his own image with his selection of a captain.

The successful candidate, the advert could state, will be more grounded in reality, more demonstrative on the field and less high-profile off it than his predecessor. The path to the succession seems clear for John Terry, though there is a strong case for Steven Gerrard.

If McClaren is torn between helping and haranguing the Liverpool skipper over his unexceptional England form, it is worth remembering the captaincy at Anfield appeared to empower Gerrard. Making Eriksson's odd-job man the main man in midfield should be a priority, together with removing the shackles often imposed upon him.

If Owen Hargreaves' remarkable efforts in Gelsenkirchen are to have earned him his first extended run in the England team then McClaren must sacrifice Frank Lampard, something Eriksson clearly would not countenance.

Whether it was the unsettling effect of Barcelona's reported interest or the inevitable consequence of a workload that would have exhausted lesser men long ago, Lampard's lamentable World Cup is yet to be fully explained. If there is to be only one central midfielder with an attacking brief, he has ceded his advantage.

Recognition of Gerrard's supremacy in the midfield and importance to the cause may suffice; it is worth remembering he has inspired Liverpool without a fixed position. It is pertinent, too, that he was the finest right-sided midfielder in the Premiership last season.

If McClaren decides that Aaron Lennon's pace and trickery is best deployed as an impact substitute - though the Tottenham teenager deserves a chance from the start in friendlies - then Gerrard is the logical choice. David Beckham's advocates may disagree, but his inability to beat a defender should preclude his selection; though his ambition to reach 100 caps remains laudable, he may serve McClaren best by concentrating on club football now.

Options abound in midfield, but not in attack; it is a reason why 4-5-1, providing players of the calibre of Gerrard, Lennon and Joe Cole have sufficient licence to attack, should not be discarded altogether.

But with Wayne Rooney suspended, Michael Owen injured and Theo Walcott dispatched to the Under-21s to continue his football education in a more fitting environment, England will reconvene for competitive action with only one of their World Cup strike force.

In providing company for Peter Crouch, McClaren has most scope to spring a surprise. Dean Ashton, a more conventional target man, is one alternative and it will be telling which of the quicker understudies to Owen - from Jermain Defoe, Andy Johnson and Darren Bent - he favours.

And yet, whoever McClaren opts for, the personnel may not be the problem.

Despite the increasing embarrassment Eriksson's choice of the unfortunate Walcott caused during the World Cup, England's exit cannot be attributed to the 17-year-old striker. There is a temptation to brand them as over-hyped as well as overpaid. Yet the credentials of many individuals - Gerrard, Lampard, Rooney, Terry, Neville, Rio Ferdinand and both Coles - cannot be questioned.

No, the challenge is to blend them into a more cohesive unit where the excellence displayed on a weekly basis in their club colours can be replicated. A side playing with the elan of Arsenal, the youthful promise of Tottenham, the resolute determination of Chelsea, the flexibility and adaptability of Liverpool and the capacity to rattle their fiercest rivals of Manchester United would not be halted so easily.

And to do that, they must take friendlies seriously. Eriksson's complacent attitude gave no incentive to perform and led to unfounded assumptions that England could simply switch from mediocrity to excellence whenever required; all five World Cup games proved otherwise. Picking a squad on merit, rather than out of habit, would help; claims of continuity masked an inertia in selection.

A tendency to ignore the views of the outside world and a refusal to accept responsibility disfigured the Eriksson-Beckham era.

The culture of excuses - no matter how lame - resulted in blame being laid at faulty penalty spots, long grass, unexpected heat and unhelpful officials. Rooney's rather implausible claim that he did not intend to stamp on Ricardo Carvalho suggests no reality check has been administered yet.

For all the giddy optimism generated in the early months under Eriksson, there is a temptation to try and banish at least the last two years - arguably the previous four - from the memory as soon as possible. Wasted years, however, can yield a better legacy. But only if lessons are learned.

Possible Euro 2008 squad:
Paul Robinson, Chris Kirkland, Scott Carson; Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Jamie Carragher, Ledley King, Ashley Cole, Leighton Baines; Owen Hargreaves, Michael Carrick, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Nigel Reo-Coker, Joe Cole, Stewart Downing, Aaron Lennon; Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen, Jermain Defoe, Peter Crouch, Dean Ashton.

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