Gerrard decision is mine, says McClaren
The battle of wounded foot goes on, and Steve McClaren sounds ever more militant. The England manager said yesterday that he was determined the decision on whether Steven Gerrard would play against Israel on Saturday would be made by the Football Association and the player himself rather than it being dictated by Liverpool and Rafael Benitez.
The question of whether Gerrard will need a painkilling injection in his foot to enable him to play in the crucial Euro 2008 qualifier has become ever more pertinent, given Benitez's opposition to such a measure. However, with McClaren's back against a cold wall and a depleted England team desperate for the services of a player who has rescued their qualification campaign at least once before, the England manager said he was prepared to fight for Gerrard's availability.
"I have to do what I have to do to make sure we have the best players available to us and to help us win this game on Saturday," McClaren said. "I will do whatever I have to do to make sure we get there. We won't take unnecessary risks. I will take advice from our medical team, who are well qualified.
"We want to work together so that we all make the decision, we all know what the risks are. Ultimately, we want Stevie G playing for us. It is my job. I have to do whatever I can to get the best players out there. That is what I shall do."
The England manager would not be drawn on the question of whether the FA even has the right to administer a painkilling injection to Gerrard without Liverpool's approval – "we will cross that bridge when we come to it," he said – but it is clear that the biggest factor in the decision will be Gerrard himself. If the player passes himself fit to play, then McClaren will back his man against any protests from Liverpool.
"We will go a lot on Stevie G, about how he feels and what he wants," McClaren said. "We will liaise with Liverpool and do nothing that will put the player at risk. We are coming into big games and you need big players. You need players who want to play. I have spoken to him. He has a great determination to play in this game. If he possibly can, he will be out there.
"You look and, in some cases, if there's no great risk [in giving an injection], then fine. I think John Terry and Frank Lampard had broken toes in pre-season and were taking injections. I've known it at club level where we've done that, where it's just too painful to play [without the injection] but there's no risk of further injury," McClaren said.
Yesterday, however, the England manager had to imagine how his team might look rather than see them in action on the training field. As well as Gerrard, who did not train at Arsenal's London Colney training ground, John Terry and Owen Hargreaves were also absent. The England captain has a virus, which should have ruled him out of the Chelsea game against Aston Villa on Sunday and he is likely to miss today's training session in order not to pass it on to any of his team-mates.
Without Frank Lampard, who is staying at Chelsea to get fit for the Russia game on 12 September, it was Peter Crouch, suspended for the Israel game, who found himself in the centre of midfield at training yesterday. While the Liverpool striker adapted admirably to his new role, it was a less impressive return to the England fold for Emile Heskey in his first chance to impress McClaren in training.
The Wigan man remains the favourite to play alongside Michael Owen on Saturday but he is not an automatic choice and he will need to show McClaren this week that he has what it takes to perform at international level. The back-up plan is to pair Andy Johnson with the Newcastle United striker if Heskey does not show in training that he is worth a chance in the first XI.
McClaren stressed yesterday that Heskey was a replacement for the suspended Crouch, although that did not necessarily mean that the player would start. "Emile has played with Michael before and there is evidence they have linked well together and Michael has scored," he said. "He [Heskey] is different, [and has been called up] because we are missing Peter Crouch. In that Israel game [in March] ,when we didn't have Peter Crouch we didn t have a Plan B."
The question of who McClaren picks in goal for England is still not resolved in his mind and he said that he will let Paul Robinson and David James know his decision on Friday, a day earlier than has been his custom over the last few England internationals. Otherwise, McClaren talked about an England side who had to be able to "go through teams, go over teams and go round teams. If you have a team that can do all three you have a very good chance of winning," he added.
"We have to move the ball, we have to put it into areas where we will score goals and then rely on people to finish them off," he said. Again, it appeared that McClaren is searching for that mix of pace, width and goals that has eluded so many of his predecessors as England manager. And this against an Israel team who will undoubtedly try to defend as stoically as they did in Tel Aviv. Little wonder he is so keen for Gerrard to play.