Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Coach must be held responsible if campaign is a failure

England had Wayne Rooney bristling with as compelling a flash of extraordinary power and timing as he has ever displayed on an international field and for an hour they looked as though they might have just put behind them the nightmare of a qualifying campaign which started in chaos and then, for a while, fell away.

It was the brightest of pictures but then this is often the case with illusions. When it mattered, when England were asked the deepest questions about their organisation and their composure, when they were subjected to the kind of pressure which Guus Hiddink's new Russian team had taken so long to apply, we were back in Old Trafford when Macedonia were allowed to deal damage which now threatens to be terminal.

No doubt the coach, Steve McClaren, will be offered sympathy for the loss of his captain, John Terry, on the eve of battle, and before that left-back Ashley Cole, the latest of a series of injury disruptions. But there was a darker reality in the old Olympic Stadium where Englishmen Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe ran to immortality.

It was that more than a year into McClaren's reign, England failed to muster the composure, the vital sense of a team, which at the highest level of international football separates the winners and the losers. When Russia, still plainly a team taking shape, began to play, at pace and with native wit, England's run of five wins was suddenly made to look like so much veneer. Andrei Arshavin became the master of all he surveyed and with the injection – strangely delayed – of Russia's powerful young sniper Roman Pavlyuchenko England were simply outwitted – and overrun.

Would the steel and passion of Terry have made much difference? It didn't seem likely. At 33, his replacement, Sol Campbell, might have been playing substantially from memory, but it held well enough – and nor did the fears that an artificial surface would fatally undermine his confidence materialise. Campbell tackled hard and was alert, but then the heart of the problem was not in the official rearguard.

England lost this game – and the chance to control their own destiny – for the most depressingly familiar of reasons.

They simply haven't developed to the point where they can take control of a game – and keep hold of it. Hiddink, a badly bruised coaching guru after last month's 3-0 defeat at Wembley, celebrated his resurrection to the point where he might just produce another stunning body of productive work after taking over a moribund football team. He was not shy about a brutal assessment of England's defeat. It was caused by panic, he claimed – and who could really argue? There were England, full of running and confidence right up the moment Rooney's slipped from the mountain top with a rash, penalty-conceding foul – and then there was this other team, so incoherent it was all they could do not to run into each other.

Hiddink said that his half-time strategy, so hugely augmented by the decision to send out the superbly aggressive Pavlyuchenko, could scarcely have been more basic. His forwards had to attack England's defence, convert their easy ability to run by an English midfield in which Steve Gerrard again failed to seize his chance to prove that he can become the team's most consistent force in midfield, and hope for the resulting panic. "It happened," said the Dutchman, "and I'm so proud of my guys".

Meanwhile, McClaren was blaming the referee. Unfortunately, culpability was a lot closer to home. By flooding the field with substitutes he announced the kind of desperation which seems to drop over the England campaign at its most critical moments. England didn't lose because of the match officials. They lost because they were unable to deal with the kind of crisis that sooner or later comes in the most vital of matches. A losing team, if it has a modicum of character, throws in everything it has – and this the Russians did, most persuasively in the efforts of Arshavin, as quick as a deer, and the relentless Pavlyuchenko.

In that phase of controlled and inventive Russian attack, England simply disintegrated. Partly, they were haunted by their past – the knowledge of points dropped against the likes of Macedonia and Israel, a waste which left them with a terribly narrow foundation for any true confidence.

McClaren now lives between the salvation that would come with a Russian slip in Tel Aviv and the abyss which awaits if Hiddink can take six points from two games his team are plainly equipped to win. It is a football coach's nightmare but no one, least of all McClaren, can say that it came suddenly in the Moscow night. This crisis, sadly, has been long in the making.

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