McClaren hamstrung by England's growing injury crisis
The last time an England manager faced Germany at Wembley, Kevin Keegan retreated to the toilets at full-time to tender his resignation – so at least Steve McClaren can console himself that his fate is not likely to be that cruel tonight. But the dwindling number of fit players for this friendly are such that beyond the pomp it has become ever more difficult for the England manager to prepare seriously.
McClaren will start in attack with most Geordies' dream team of Michael Owen and Alan Smith, and mainly because there is precious little other alternative to the Newcastle men. Andy Johnson pulled out of the reckoning yesterday, the third injured striker after Wayne Rooney and Darren Bent. So now even Peter Crouch, who is suspended for the Euro 2008 qualifier against Israel next month, will play some part against Germany in the second half.
But, more tellingly for McClaren, even though he has a team partly cobbled together from the remainders of his squad, many of those who will play are either carrying injuries or returning from them. Owen, David Beckham and John Terry are all only recently back playing football again after significant absences. More critically, Michael Carrick and Ashley Cole – both planned to be starting tonight – are understood to be carrying injuries. This patched-up team has the feel of an end-of-tournament side running on adrenaline rather than a team ready to face the new season.
Throughout the first XI, this England team has virtually picked itself – although McClaren can hardly be pleased with what his team will offer in attack. Owen's fitness has only been proved this season in a couple of friendlies against non-league opposition for his club. Smith has spent most of his time for Newcastle in midfield and against Brazil in May he was so woeful that the England manager admitted his mistake and replaced him with Crouch for the Euro 2008 qualifier against Estonia.
Still, McClaren was putting the bravest of faces on another unenviable task of mending and improvising with his squad. The injuries to Ashley Cole and Carrick should not prevent them from playing although there will be one more training session this morning to ascertain the state of their fitness. In the meantime their manager was forced once again to defend another high-profile friendly that he could probably do without.
"International fixtures are set," he said. "All countries have got them and all countries use them. It's important to get the players together as a squad and for cohesion you have to play them in games. You can do that in training but it's not the same as a competitive game in front of 90,000 people. There's the proof."
Jermain Defoe and Bent are by no means certainties to start games for Tottenham this season – and even less so in the same team – while Crouch has also fallen prey to Rafa Benitez's rotation policy. In the modern Premier League, McClaren seemed resigned to the fact that the pressure on the native English footballer was simply something he would have to live with.
"Yes, it is a concern and a worry when they are not playing regularly," he said. "You are dictated to by form. That is one thing you can go on. But you also go on history and past performances and what they actually bring to the squad. That is why these players are in – because they have brought something to the team. That combination makes them invaluable to our squad."
This week McClaren has spoken to each one of his players individually to tell them how he sees them developing in the new season, and for his captain John Terry there was one instruction above all that stood out. "He'd like us to play a bit more attacking at times and push opposing sides and go for it," Terry said. It is an admirable philosophy although on nights like tonight it might not prove so easy.
For Terry a season of captaining England has presented its own challenges and he was honest about the way that he saw his role. It is a theme that England players often pick up that the more familiar environment of a club side allows home truths to be raised without fear of lingering offence. With the national team and so many different players from different clubs, that kind of atmosphere, Terry said, has not always been possible.
"He [McClaren] told me the things he would like me to improve and how he would like me to be a bit more involved with everyone, at dinner and things like that," Terry said. "And he wants me to be a bit louder around the place. It is difficult. I said at Chelsea I can do that and with England it is important not for me just to scream and shout a load of rubbish before the game.
"What I say [as England captain] has got to be very important. It is not just about me talking for five or 10 minutes. I said to him the things I said [with England] are to the point and very precise and I prefer it that way. I've got the contrast at Chelsea. Some need a kick up the backside and others don't. With England I don't think you need that. Playing for your country and pulling on the shirt is enough."
Terry could also joke that he has advised his manager that Micah Richards is better suited to right-back than centre-half – although the grin on his face suggested that he knew the 19-year-old could soon be challenging him and Rio Ferdinand in the centre of defence. The progress of Richards this season presents an intriguing prospect for McClaren.
Richards' form could be one minor triumph for McClaren to take from tonight's game.
It goes without saying these days that David Beckham is in the side and, according to McClaren, showing no signs of jetlag. "I have not made any promises to any [club] manager in terms of the amount of time they [players] will play for," he said. Although after the withdrawals this week he will have some debts to call in come Israel and Russia in September.