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Feb 23, 2007

England need to break from the old routine

Whenever England are on the ropes or face a test of mettle the same old motivational rhetoric is rolled out by the staff. The lead up to Saturday's match against Israel in Tel Aviv, a clash that is pivotal to England's chances of qualifying for Euro 2008, has been no different.

'Qualification is the goal. That's what we are working towards. The past is motivation. We need to do better starting on Saturday,' was McClaren's get tough message to his players.

'We just need to start doing the talking on the field,' he added.

England skipper John Terry chipped in with: 'It's about time we let our football do the talking.'

Whichever member of the England set up speaks to the press the message is the same - the time is now!

But these are lines that we've heard prior to, and post, every major tournament England have been ousted from in recent history and every time there has been a stutter in qualification for those competitions.

This latest round of tub thumbing comes as a response to a dire run of games that has firmly affixed question marks to England's chance of qualification for the European Championships. The rot started back in October when McClaren's side failed to beat Macedonia at Old Trafford and then lost in Croatia - two results that leave England languishing in third place, behind Russia and Croatia, in a group they were expected to win.

A passable draw with Holland and defeat to Spain during interim friendlies has done nothing but heap the pressure on McClaren and his team. But the England manager is remaining calm and sending out positive messages in the face of fierce criticism ahead of a game that will have a profound effect on his own career.

'I am relaxed. I have great belief, great trust in these players.

'The time has come for the players to step forward, because they are special players who can inspire you and can win you games.'

'Wayne Rooney is one of the players who can win us games. Many others can step forward as well and that's what we are looking towards.'

'We have those players with England,' McClaren concluded.

Again this rhetoric seems awfully familiar and we only have to look back to Sven Goran Eriksson, and the entire England squad, prior to the World Cup to see the same declarations. Germany 2006 was ultimately a disappointment, so it begs the question: do England really have players of sufficient quality?

If we take Rooney, the man McClaren himself singled out, we can undoubtedly label him a world class player, who could walk into the majority of club sides around the world, but for England he has failed to score in a competitive match since Euro 2004.

It is a similar story throughout the squad. Top players fail to produce their best for England; with the possible exception of the defence which is universally accepted to be the team's main strength. The unit was singled out for praise during the 2002 World Cup and kept four clean sheets at the 2006 Finals. Individually the first choice defenders are also very highly rated.

Manchester United captain Gary Neville has been one of the most consistent fullbacks in Europe for the past 10-years and can count FA Cup, League Cup, Premiership and European titles among his massive haul of silverware. Fellow fullback Ashley Cole is similarly regarded, although much younger. His running battle with Cristaino Ronaldo during the Euro 2004 quarter-final with Portugal elevated his game to world class status and persuaded Chelsea to break transfer regulations in order to pursue the left-back from Arsenal - ahead of Barcelona.

Since Rio Ferdinand's £30million switch from Leeds United in 2002, a world record fee for a defender, the centreback has been a mainstay of Manchester United's defence and the hugely experienced international defender looks set to win the Premiership title this season.

His partner John Terry has captained Chelsea's squad of multi-millionaires to back-to-back Premiership crowns, now skippers his country and is wanted by Serie A leaders Inter Milan, where defensive qualities are held in very high esteem. Terry's Chelsea colleague Frank Lampard has been hailed by his club manager Jose Mourinho as the best midfielder in the world and was runner up to Ronaldinho for the 2005 FIFA World Player of the Year award.

Steven Gerrard almost single handedly guided Liverpool the European Cup in 2005 and such is his ability to change a game that he is constantly linked with big money moves to virtually all of Europe's elite clubs, including Real Madrid.

Bayern Munich enforcer Owen Hargreaves emerged from the 2006 World Cup as one of the few England players with their reputation enhanced and was voted the fans' player of the tournament. He has played at the highest level for German giants Bayern since 1997, in both Bundesliga and European Cup triumphs, and is all set for a £20million summer move to United.

And given that former Liverpool and Real Madrid striker Michael Owen, who made his name with a wonder goal against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup, is still to return what is going wrong with this apparently abundantly talented bunch of players.

If the finger cannot be pointed in the direction of the squad's potential ability then it must linger on the manager who has failed to make the team equal the sum of its parts. Two goals and a solitary victory, a 1-0 away win in Macedonia, in the past five games does not reflect favourably on McClaren.

Defeat in Israel and his position as England manager can be justifiably called into question. On Saturday night in Tel Aviv, we will find out whether McClaren's best is good enough for England. The talking will be done on the pitch.

If things go poorly McClaren could find himself a dead man walking, saved only by the fact that there is no competition for his place - to use football parlance.

At the time of the former Manchester United assistant's appointment it was widely accepted that he was second choice, and then only just edging it ahead of a pool of poor available talent.

The FA wanted to appoint an Englishman to succeed the Swede Eriksson but they were initially forced to chase Dutchman Guus Hiddink, who eventually joined Russia, Brazilian boss Luis Scolari, who was scared off from the job by the press, and Northern Irishman Martin O'Neill, who took time out from the game to care for his sick wife, due to a dearth of English talent.

And those that rivalled McClaren for the job at the time have since been toppled from their positions of high esteem. Stuart Pearce is just about clinging on to his job at struggling Manchester City and Alan Curbishley looks set to be relegated with West Ham United. Even at the peak of their powers neither manager had any experience of top level football.

Bolton Wanderers boss Sam Allardyce probably remains best placed, having guided his club to within seven points of a Champions League place this season, but he has been defamed by the BBC's clumsy investigation into bungs. No solid evidence of wrong-doing has ever been disclosed and Bolton are currently taking legal action against the corporation for their negative allegations.

In short England have nobody to turn to should McClaren fail. The former Boro boss claims he has learnt a lot since taking on the England job and let's hope he has learnt enough from failure to succeed in Tel Aviv, where there is more at stake than just qualification for Euro 2008.


  • If you have any thoughts you can email Dominic Raynor.