'Two-face' must save face
'Two-faced' and 'false' are just a few of the disparaging words, spat from the mouths of some of Steve McClaren's former charges, used to describe the England manager in the run-up to Wednesday's international friendly with Spain.
The withering attack, from ex-Middlesbrough players Massimo Maccarone and Danny Mills, is hardly the kind of positive spin the PR-obsessed England coach would have been championing ahead of a clash with opponents who embarrassed England in their last meeting.
The 1-0 defeat suffered in the Bernabeu in 2004 does not highlight the full extent of the footballing lesson England endured under the stewardship of McClaren's predecessor Sven Goran Eriksson. And Wednesday's clash will provide a yardstick by which to measure England's progress, or lack of it, following the unsuccessful reign of the Swede.
Since the FA failed in their attempt to land Portugal coach Phil Scolari and opted for their second-choice - although the FA obviously deny this - McClaren's stock has seemingly diminished with every passing week, and it was never a bull market to begin with.
His successor at Middlesbrough Gareth Southgate, who also played under McClaren at the Riverside, said at the time that Sir Alex Ferguson's former assistant was 'not ready for the job' with England, explaining that whilst widely regarded as a great coach his abilities as a manager were questionable.
Maccarone, who left Boro to join Siena in the January transfer window, embellished on Southgate's comparatively polite rebuke by lambasting the 'limited abilities' of Steve 'Magnificent' McClaren, as the £7m Italian striker sarcastically branded him.
'Only in England could such a man with such obvious and limited abilities be made into the national coach.
'The ever-smiling Steve 'Magnificent' McClaren is without doubt the most two-faced and false person I've ever had the misfortune to meet in football.
'He should first spend his time actually trying to understand his own players' mentality instead of wasting so much time trying to understand the British Press.'
Ouch! Maccarone later claimed that he was misinterpreted (yes, that age-old excuse) but it is hard to see how such a carefully constructed attack can be lost in translation.
Just in case anybody was in danger of believing the former Empoli striker's lame excuse former England and Boro fullback Danny Mills came to the rescue and seconded Maccarone's comments when he said: 'I have experienced some of that myself.'
Even going a step further, insinuating McClaren was also a liar. 'Three days before the end of the [2003/04] season Steve McClaren pulled me in and said, 'I want you here; you're part of my plans,' the former Leeds United full-back explained.
'I already knew he was looking at other right-backs. He said he would call me, but he went away with England to the European Championships, I didn't.
'The phonecall came about three months later when I signed for Manchester City.'
I must point out at this point that both Mills and Maccarone were on the wrong end of selection decisions made by McClaren, and as such both have an axe to grind. Neither of the duo have since gone on to prove the England manager wrong with a series of stunning performances, but, at the very least, some of their allegations are universal. Poor man management and an obsession with public image for instance.
McClaren once had PR guru Max Clifford on the pay-roll and recently paid a trip to the House of Commons to see how Tony Blair handled the often savage barrage of Prime Minister's Question Time following his own grilling by the media after the 2-0 defeat in Croatia that threw England's qualification for Euro 2008 into doubt.
It is also true that McClaren's style can ruffle a few feathers. His first act as manager was to axe David Beckham from the England squad, although sceptics suggest this was just another PR masterstroke as an irate public wanted him out immediately after a disappointing World Cup anyway, and the addition of outspoken Manchester City midfielder Joey Barton in his latest squad seems purposefully designed to put a few noses out of joint.
The gritty midfielder laid into established England 'stars' who cashed in with autobiographies following Germany 2006, particularly Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, by offering the following synopsis of their summer efforts:
'I played shit. Here's my book.'
Lampard hit back insisting Barton should not 'say those things about Stevie and me' whilst fellow scouser Gerrard joked he would be presenting Barton with a signed copy of said book upon his arrival in the England dressing room. It will be interesting to see if the 25-year-old's arrival serves as a reminder that not everybody thinks England's regulars are untouchable.
Barton has had his own problems, assaulting an Everton fan and prodding a lit cigar in the eye of a team-mate spring to mind, but the prickly individual is just the kind of character required to shake the England dressing room out of its apathy and dispel the sycophantic residue of Eriksson's old boys club. For example, what does Jermaine Jenas bring to the set up?
With all this testosterone-fuelled posturing going on it is easy to forget that the upcoming match against Spain represents the only practice game remaining before England's Euro 2008 double header against Group E rivals Israel and Andorra in March.
England currently lie third in their qualifying group, a point behind second placed Russia and trailing leaders Croatia by three points, so the next three games could prove make or break for McClaren's fledgling England career. Emerge in the top two places and the FA may deem him a wise investment, lose further ground and it may be time to cut their losses - at least if Euro 2008 takes place in the absence of England.
With this in mind McClaren will select his strongest XI against a Spanish team so blessed with midfield talent that the much-lauded Arsenal man Cesc Fabregas can struggle to get in. Against English opposition the Premiership-based Spaniard is sure to play and in the opposite corner Real Madrid loanee Jonathan Woodgate could confirm his rehabilitation to his soon-to-be-former employers as a stand in for John Terry in the centre of defence.
Whilst only a friendly, a defeat, or another humiliation, at Old Trafford could prove a big mental blow with a tough trip to Tel Aviv on the horizon. Worse still for McClaren's ego, it could provide the green light for another wave of former players to tell him he's not good enough.