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Aug 13, 2007

Weakness masquerading as strength

There is a hole and a man. The man keeps digging and the hole, inevitably, gets deeper. That man is Steve McClaren and much of his England career has been consumed by self-inflicted problems.

Specifically, many are caused by his statements; for a man with an exaggerated focus on his every public word, McClaren has an unfortunate tendency to compound his problems in interview

And by chasing headlines, McClaren makes unwanted ones. It is the essential paradox of his management. Afflicted by misfortune, but damaged more by his own decisions, his attempts to regain lost ground tend to highlight his previous choices, and not his best ones at that.

Yet the difficulties originate from his selections. Three of those who missed McClaren's initial cut for the thumping of Greece 12 months ago - David Beckham, David James and Sol Campbell - have shown a stubborn reluctance not to fade into the background. Among those in the shadows of McClaren's squad, Jamie Carragher has decided to remove himself from the picture altogether.

Once gone, however, McClaren decided he valued the Liverpool vice-captain more than his team selections had ever suggested. If allegations he was unpatriotic followed Carragher's rather premature international retirement, his reaction is understandable.

Only five of his 34 caps have come courtesy of a starting berth in the heart of the defence yet, in two of the last three seasons, his expertise in marshalling backs-to-the-wall efforts have made him the Champions League's outstanding defender. If successive managers' preference for John Terry has hardly aided his cause, the nadir for Carragher came courtesy of McClaren in Estonia.

Lacking both Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville, he was doubly overlooked, for Ledley King and Wes Brown. It may not have been intended as a snub, but it was certainly perceived as one.

Moreover, McClaren's rationale was hardly convincing; King may have the edge for pace, but Carragher is deceptively quick, especially in the presence of opposing strikers. Brown may prove a more adventurous right-back but Carragher, if hardly creative, is rarely wasteful in possession and understands the requirements of the role.

But absence and unavailability appear the keys to McClaren's admiration.

Previous paeans have been directed at Aaron Lennon, Joe Cole and Owen Hargreaves when he was without them, together with his extended appreciation of the oft-injured Michael Owen. That such compliments were heard less frequently when they were fit can be interpreted as attempts to find excuses for underachievement by exaggerating their importance.

Now McClaren's praise is being aimed at Carragher, but his timing is awry.

His decision is made and McClaren's move smacks more of desperation as Terry is injured, along with King and Jonathan Woodgate (predictably enough in the case of the latter two).

Hence the clamour for Campbell, which was eminently avoidable. His 69-cap England career appeared to have come to an undistinguished end against Sweden in the World Cup. Instead, aided by his fine form for Portsmouth, his recall, rather than promoting Steven Taylor to the senior squad, would represent a volte face, no matter how many times McClaren has used his clichéd explanation of 'the door is always open'.

Bringing back Beckham was an earlier U-turn which, however it was presented, was not a show of strength. Moreover, even though his curling crosses aided victory over Estonia, it was a short-termist move that created further difficulties. Craving a victory - even in a friendly - led to Beckham's return against Brazil, and may bring Campbell back against Germany.

Now McClaren has to assess the form and fitness of the former captain, together with evaluating how accurate a guide MLS provides to his suitability for international football, not to mention the problems of acclimatising after an 11-hour flight.

Dropping Beckham for a second time would require bravery, yet guaranteeing him selection damaged England under Sven-Goran Eriksson, and could do so again. In hindsight, it would have been far simpler to have relied upon others to overcome a mediocre Estonia side and to have finally brought the Beckham bandwagon to a grinding halt.

Then there is James, and it is only in the case of the Portsmouth goalkeeper that McClaren merits sympathy.

Few predicted that he would enjoy the best season of his long career last year, even if Harry Redknapp's PR campaigns on behalf of his charges are to be anticipated. But with injuries to first Chris Kirkland and now Ben Foster plus a slump in Paul Robinson's form, the case for James is stronger than it has been for several seasons.

There need not be a recall for the thirty-somethings for a friendly but, after Beckham's comeback, a precedent has been set. It is indicative of McClaren's need for a win, regardless of the opposition and as though their return would be the panacea to England's problems.

Instead, still floundering, it suggests that the regime itself is a cause of the setbacks.

Because McClaren's attempts to appear strong have only highlighted his weaknesses. By continually coveting the players he does not have - in some cases because he chose not to - McClaren is revealing a lack of faith in his own judgment.

And if Sol Campbell is recalled, it won't be the first time second-choice Steve has had second thoughts.


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