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Aug 22, 2007

Becks and England suffer Wembley woe

England 1-2 Germany

As even a couple of drunken England fans on the London Underground questioned why David Beckham was forced to fly half the way around the world for an England friendly, you couldn't help but wonder why Steve McClaren couldn't see their point.

The pair may have had a combined IQ of a centipede, but it seems they shared a little more common sense than England manager McClaren. Clutching tightly to their cans of beer, one was sporting a red and white Mohican headpiece, while his pal had those glazed eyes that can only be obtained after a long committed afternoon of alcohol consumption. Amid their haze came this gem of an observation.

'What's the point of making Beckham play this game when he's already half injured,' questioned the Mohicaned one, whose colourful use of the English language was on display in the unedited version of that sentence. 'I mean, America's like miles away innit.'

It was a shrewd observation, but one McClaren has clearly chosen to ignore as his battle of wills with the man he reluctantly recalled to national service back in June continues.

Embarrassment was mixed with desperation as the under-fire England boss turned to the former skipper to rescue his faltering Euro 2008 qualifying campaign and even though the decision was justified as Beckham performed superbly against Brazil and Estonia, relations between manager and superstar player are still cordial at best. That may explain why McClaren failed to use a modicum of intelligence and ordered LA Galaxy's chief asset to cross the Atlantic in pursuit of his 97th England cap.

My sentiment that a pardon for Major League Soccer's chief salesman would have been a sensible option with more important qualifiers just around the corner does not suggest Beckham should be afforded special treatment compared to the rest of England's star names. Far from it, as when he was treated differently to his team-mates by the previous manager, that caused totally different kinds of problems, but this was a time for compassion to be put ahead of McClaren's pride.

Love him or hate him, no one could ever accuse Beckham of giving anything less than complete commitment to the England cause throughout each and every one of his previous international appearances, so using the swollen ankle as a valid excuse, manager and player should have come to a polite agreement when they met up in America a couple of weeks back.

While Steven Gerrard was excused with a sore toe and Owen Hargreaves given a night off due to his sore knee, McClaren wasted the opportunity to show a bit of invention and look at talent that may be forced to fill in for Beckham in an emergency. He cannot be excused for every friendly international until he hangs up his England boots once and for all next summer, yet this was a friendly too far Beckham and England.

Instead, we had the folly of a tried and tested performer jetting into London on Monday morning, playing an international less than 48 hours later and then trying, probably in vain, to get back to Los Angeles for a match that kicks off 31 hours after this sell-out showpiece at Wembley.

It came as little surprise that Becks gave his all to an England effort given the ideal start at Wembley as the impressive Micah Richards burst down the right flank and set up the much-maligned Frank Lampard to fire England into an ninth minute lead.

As ever, Beckham received the biggest cheer of all as the England team sheet was read out and it is easy to see why the fans love a veteran who flies into tackles as if his life depended on it and who still delivers the best delivery from a dead ball in the world game.

Tracking back every time right back Richards burst forward, Beckham displayed all of his famed energy and passion and his partnership with the Manchester City starlet on the right side of this England side shows real promise. Gary Neville may still be McClaren's first choice when fit, but Richards offers the pace Beckham has never had and with the celebrated No.7 more than willing to cover for his energetic sidekick, the balance on the right of this side was threatening.

The positive mood of the night was dampened when Tottenham keeper Paul Robinson cast more doubts over his position as England No.1 as he was caught out Bernd Schneider's cross that should have been easy to deal with. Instead, he pawed it out and gave Kevin Kuranyi a simple chance to tap home an equaliser from close range.

As Christian Pander fired an unstoppable shot past Robinson five minutes before the break to hand Germany a lead they barely deserved, my words of warning as I watched Robinson in action for Spurs at White Hart Lane last Tuesday had come home to roost. Here was the evidence that he has become a liability in gloves.

Even though Michael Owen wasted two good chances before the break, this was developing into one of the best friendly internationals England had taken part in for many a year and Beckham was England's chief architect as they plotted a route back into the game in the second half. With his passing as precise as ever, make-shift striker Kieron Dyer should have scored twice as McClaren's side continued to create chances aplenty.

The hapless Robinson was put out of his misery as he was replaced by David James at half-time, but the manager's decision to use Dyer as a replacement for Michael Owen was both bemusing as flawed. By missing two easy chances, the West Ham man highlighted the mistake that was his inclusion. Jermain Defoe, for one, must have been bemused by the decision as he twiddled his thumbs on the bench.

It was one of many curious McClaren moves on a night when he put Beckham's ankle under real strain by asking him to perform for the full 90 minutes. It could be argued that he had made the exhaustive transatlantic trip worthwhile, but if his ankle responds negatively to his second full game in six days, England will be the losers in the long run.

'I would be worried if we didn't create chances and on another night we would have tucked them away,' said a philosophical McClaren. 'That was an ideal game and a tough game for us, so I'm delighted with the majority of the performance. I felt David Beckham put in a good performance and he was not alone in that. There were some good displays out there.'

The media may be quick to condemn McClaren as Germany ensured they were the last team to win at the old Wembley and the first visitors to win an international at the impressive new North London arena, but this should not be written off as a disastrous England display.

'I am disappointed to have conceded the goals overall because there were a few mistakes in there,' added McClaren, who then appeared to cast doubt over Robinson's position as first choice keeper. 'I will not make any decisions on the team in the future after one game, but I understand why people will question the keeper after his performance. I won't make any comment half an hour after a game on what might happen in two of three weeks.'

The home side created more chances in this game than they have in most of their Euro 2008 qualifying efforts and if they had been more clinical in front of goal, this could have been recorded as a highly impressive victory. However, such is the negativity surrounding McClaren that it's hard to be positive about anything he does at this stage.

ENGLAND VERDICT: McClaren has been plunged into a keeper crisis as Robinson now looks to be a serious weak link in the England make-up. He also found out that Kieron Dyer is not a striker, though he just needed to look at the programme to find that out. As for Beckham, he answered any questions that may have been posed of him.

FOOD WATCH: A rather tasty Indian meal was complemented by a delightful strawberry cheesecake. A wondrous spread of half-time sandwiches also went down very well.

GERMAN INVASION: Friendly games don't tend to be attended by too many visiting fans, but the area around our section of the press box was a German zone. They gave their team fantastic vocal backing throughout.

DID YOU KNOW: Beckham became the first player to win an England cap while playing for a non-European club in this game.


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