Of the few certainties upon which Steve McClaren could rely when he took the England manager's job 14 months ago was that the end, when it came, would be brutal for him. It is because he is the everyman in the grey Football Association suit, without a famous playing career or a colourful private life, that makes his detractors ever more venomous. It is the hint of mediocrity about McClaren that makes him the hunted.
England are not yet out of qualification for Euro 2008 and McClaren is not quite out of a job, but it would be brave to bet that when the former takes place it will not trigger the latter. Defeat against Russia on Wednesday epitomised McClaren's England regime; small errors precipitating disappointment on a much wider scale and a football match slipping out of the control of the team and their manager. A complicated set of factors, a deeper malaise in this generation of players, were simplified by a handful of yesterday morning's newspapers into the catastrophic failure of one man.
So, if McClaren is not the answer, then who? Perhaps Jürgen Klinsmann, beamed live from Huntingdon Beach in California to Soho Square for his press conferences and the first manager to try to convert Wayne Rooney to email correspondence. Jose Mourinho would have to be diplomatic with every Premier League manager who messed him around over releasing a player. And even then those two Goliaths of modern coaching would have to combat all the old problems that came back to haunt McClaren on Wednesday night.
There were moments in the early stages of the second half against Russia when it seemed that his moment had arrived. McClaren's team were solid defensively, the Russians passed the ball in front of England rather than through them and then a number of factors conspired to undermine him. Rooney's running battle with Konstantin Zyryanov was already two late tackles in when he threw an innocuous arm across the Russian two yards outside the area. England have been let down by Rooney's temper before, just a year earlier against Portugal at the World Cup.
Earlier Steven Gerrard had failed to put away England's best chance of the night, then he did not close down Alexei Berezutskiy whose shot made Russia's second goal, one that Paul Robinson unforgivably palmed back into the area with those hands which have proved about as reliable as cat flaps for England of late. Some might choose to personalise the events that brought McClaren's team down, but for those who have watched closely they looked horribly familiar. The old flaws of this England generation, combining disastrously and, this time, in qualification rather than the quarter-finals of a major tournament.
McClaren might look back and wish he had opted to bring Frank Lampard on earlier to change his midfield to five and close out the game. But there was little argument with the formation that he picked before the game, a side who had won at home to Russia and Estonia. After he had only just steeled himself to leaving Lampard out, if there is one criticism in his selection then it was that he was not prepared to leave out Michael Owen in favour of an extra midfielder or Peter Crouch, who would have proved a more useful outlet – as Emile Heskey did against Russia at Wembley.
So, in the space of 21 minutes, McClaren went from a manager growing into the job to a useless failure, worthy only of vitriol. Despite the five previous consecutive 3-0 victories that even prompted one of his biggest critics among the press pack to ask McClaren, after the Russia game at Wembley, whether he wanted to have a dig at those who had doubted him.
McClaren was so close to turning the tide back in his favour, in the stands and in the press, before his luck ran out. The old joke goes that he used up so much luck getting the job last August that there was none left to sustain him once he was in it.
For the first time in his tumultuous 14 months, McClaren was asked that sombre question on Wednesday night that comes to every England manager eventually. Should England fail to make it to Euro 2008, would he consider resigning? "I'm not thinking about that, I'm really not," he said. "You know, it's after 12 games. They've got two to play and we've got one. And we're disappointed. There's going to be a lot of criticism. We'll deal with it and we'll get on with it and, hopefully, we're in a position when we play Croatia needing to win the game."
Among the pearls of tactical wisdom that Guus Hiddink dispensed in his post-match press conference, the Russia coach also broke off to tell one of his country's journalists that if he wanted to speak on his mobile phone he should leave the room. That kind of brusque treatment is exactly what McClaren has never shown the press – he prefers a joke at the moments that Mourinho would favour a haughty stare. Yet being polite to reporters has never saved a manager his job.
McClaren's regime, if it is due to end when Russia play Israel on 17 November, has been radical at times but never quite radical enough. Dropping David Beckham in August last year and trying to break with the past was admirable and not diminished by eventually having to bring a much-changed Beckham back into the team in May. Recalling Heskey against Israel and Russia last month proved just as effective. McClaren dropped Lampard but was never prepared to go that far with Owen or Rooney on Wednesday, even when the former proved all but anonymous.
The calamity the England team now find themselves in coincides with one of the FA's best years. It will soon have a turnover of £200m, of which £60m goes back into the game, the new £425m, four-year broadcast deal starts next summer and the Burns report has been largely implemented – to the extent that the FA will appoint its new independent chairman in the new year.
Not that it will be any consolation to the chief executive, Brian Barwick, who said two years ago that the appointment of Sven Goran Eriksson's successor would be his most important decision. On the brink of elimination from a tournament that England had begun to take for granted they would be a part of, it is difficult to make the case that McClaren was the right man.
He did not arrest all the old failings, but he came very close to turning it around – close enough to be afforded more respect than he is likely to get.
Clutching at straws: Why England must now rely on Israel
Remaining fixtures: 17 Nov: Andorra v Estonia; Macedonia v Croatia; Israel v Russia. 21 Nov: Andorra v Russia; England v Croatia; Israel v Macedonia.
England's defeat in Moscow this week means they no longer control their destiny. By beating Croatia in their final qualifying game Steve McClaren's team can reach 26 points, but by winning their two remaining games Russia will have 27. The Russians will surely beat Andorra, which means their key game is in Israel on 17 November.
Missing out: When the big boys take an extended summer break
England's probable failure to reach Euro 2008 would be the seventh major tournament they have failed to reach of the 21 played since the 1966 World Cup. The sides with the best attendance records in that time are:
1 GERMANY (1 missed tournament). They failed to reach the European Championship in 1968.
2 ITALY (4) Euros 72, 76, 84 and 92.
3= ENGLAND (6) World Cup 1974, 78 and 94; Euros in 72, 76 and 84.
3= SPAIN (6) WC 1970 and 74; Euros 68, 72, 76 and 92.
3= NETHERLANDS (6) WC 1970, 86 and 2002; Euros 68, 72 and 84.
4 FRANCE (9) WC 1970, 74, 90 and 94; Euros 68, 72, 76, 80 and 88.