Twenty one – the number of minutes Marcus Rashford spent on the pitch during the 2016 European Championships in France. There’ll be no more this summer. England has failed in the round of 16 once again, humiliated by a country whose inhabitants number around 300,000 – only a little more populous than the City of Salford.
It’s no so much that the English nation likes a scapegoat – although quite clearly it does – but that there’s fundamental requirement to ignore the deep seated problems in the national game. In the 46 years since England won it’s only international tournament blame has been apportioned liberally after repeated, and frequently embarrassing tournament defeats. This is a cycle long-established, lasting roughly two years; wash, rinse, repeat. Euro 2012 has offered a fall-out so typically English that it ranks right up there with the finest national traditions. Like failing to pass the ball with any sense of authority, or repeatedly using the word ‘bulldog’ before bowing out to a technically superior opponent.
England’s national reaction is, of course, one that ignores every fundamental technical, tactical and mental failure inherent in the English game. How could it not, lest the authorities that govern these matters actually resolve to fix the inherent problems in coaching and culture that have contributed to repeated failure.
Indeed, the vitriol dished out to Manchester United pair Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young after England’s latest failure is no great surprise; there was always a certain sense of inevitability that the media, and by extension the public, would seek out individuals and ignore the root cause. Little surprise that two players from England’s most successful club should fall victim to the mob either.
While United’s striker Danny Welbeck emerged from the tournament with some credit, and Phil Jones is immune having spent three wasted weeks on the bench, it is Rooney and Young that have been singled out after penalty shoot-out defeat to Italy on Sunday night. Young for a series of lacklustre performances, and Rooney for being, well, Rooney.
Neither player’s performances genuinely stands out amid a tournament replete with English mediocrity, but, then, scapegoats rarely do. David Beckham, Paul Ince, and Rooney himself, each understands from personal experience the depth of national hate that is so often be meted out to the men in Red.
Young’s disappointing tournament was surprising in that the former Aston Villa winger had performed so well for the international team over the past year. Six goals in the player’s previous 10 internationals proffered a player in form, mature and ready to make a genuine mark on an international tournament. Yet, in four games at Euro 2012 Young was unable to deliver the goals, assists, or vibrant performances that had previously flowed so freely.
The criticism is in part supported by Young’s stats over the tournament, but then none of a poor English cohort will be proud of their attacking achievements. The United winger completed 76 of 92 passes over the tournament, at 82 per cent accuracy. Young made four shots, although none was on target, created two chances, and provided no assists.
There is mitigation, though. After all, at no stage was Young genuinely deployed in the attacking role he is accustomed to at United, nor with the freedom afforded under former England coach Fabio Capello, even in the opening match against France when the United man was nominally deployed ‘in the hole’.
Restricted by a system that placed emphasis on defensive shape over possession and attacking fluidity, too often Young found himself running from deep into increasingly lonely dark alleys. That less than 40 per cent of Young’s infrequent touches at the tournament came in the attacking third tells its own story. The 26-year-old was by no means culpable alone for failure in a highly dysfunctional English midfield.
Yet, for the all criticism Young has earned, egged on by sabre-rattling BBC pundit Mark Lawrenson, it is Rooney who has garnered most headlines following Sunday’s loss. After all, the hype built pre-tournament by manager Roy Hodgson had reached it’s most fervent pitch by the time of Rooney’s introduction for England’s match against Ukraine last week. The nation expected Rooney to deliver the Pelé-esque performances promised by the team’s manager.
After scoring against Ukraine, Rooney was unable to influence England’s match against Italy – a fixture in which the Azzurri enjoyed more than 65 per cent possession; 75 per cent in extra time. It was, of course, always unrealistic to expect Rooney, without a game in more than five weeks, to drag England up from the gutter of defensive entrenchment. But, then, realism and English expectations have rarely been natural bedfellows.
Some, though, were very quick to lay the blame on England’s leading striker, including former manager Fabio Capello who claimed, with no hint of irony, that Rooney only performs for United.
“After seeing the latest (England) game, I think Rooney only understands Scottish,” Capello said.
“He only plays well in Manchester where Sir Alex Ferguson speaks Scottish. Look, when I spoke they did understand me. But every now and again, when I tried to explain tactics, things didn’t work out. You know what? Maybe it’s because Rooney doesn’t speak English. He doesn’t understand English.”
While Capello’s words smack of bitterness – the Italian having fallen on his sword in defence of John Terry – even the now incumbant Hodgson threw Rooney to the wolves, offering up a headline-writers dream in the process.
“I think we put a lot of expectations on Wayne,” Hodgson admitted post defeat to Italy.
“When he missed the first two games, we were all believing that what we needed to do was to get to the third game and Wayne Rooney will win us the championships. That maybe was too much to ask of him. Wayne certainly tried very hard, but he didn’t have his best game. I think he would admit that.”
In truth England’s failure is a collective; of tactical rigidity, technical limitations, and obsessive focus on ‘spirit’, ‘fight’ and ‘work rate’. Across four matches England enjoyed just 40 per cent possession, according to UEFA’s official statistics. Only Ireland and Greece claimed less. Other stats nerds, including OPTA, have the figure even lower. No wonder, when England’s players found a team-mate with just 67 per cent of passes made – the 13th lowest in the tournament.
By contrast, there is little surprise that England places top of the ‘tackles made’ table, but achieved the fourth lowest shots on target per game out of the 16 teams at the tournament. This was an England side which sought only to not lose, anything else being a bonus. It was a system built for defensive “heroes” at the expense of attacking talent.
“We were being too conservative,” observed now former England defender Rio Ferdinand.
“It sends a message to the opponents that you are more interested in defending and playing on the counterattack than making them scared of you. The only time we really kept the ball properly was when Danny Welbeck dropped short to collect it and linked the play. But, usually, he was having to stay up and wasn’t allowed to drop too much because we had set out a certain way with a 4-4-2 which didn’t offer a great deal of flexibility.
“It’s OK saying we were very good defensively and hard to beat but if you set out to be defensive then that’s your first priority. It makes it very hard for the attacking players in the team. The most damming statistic of them all was that one which showed our best passing combination was between Joe Hart and Andy Carroll.”
Not that the critics will concur. It was, after all, Young’s fault. Or maybe Rooney’s. Or maybe a bit of both. But what’s defeat if you have that bulldog spirit? The spirit of yet another English failure.
On the Thames this past Sunday more than 1,000 boats, canoes and ships followed the Queen’s gold-adorned barge from Battersea to Tower Bridge in the first mass flotilla on London’s artery for more than 300 years. The outpouring of national pride and ubiquitous presence of the Union Flag, so infrequently displayed on these shores, was more akin to a sporting contest, than a Monarch’s anniversary.
As ever – for this is a British summer after all – the weather threatened to spoil the occasion, which had been planned, by some, for months if not years. Despite the autumnal weather, driving rain, and high tide none of the throng is believed to have sunk.
It’s hard to draw the same conclusion about the Football Association’s public relations department though, which is going down without a trace this summer. Not so much light drizzle at FA HQ, but a force 10 gale.
First, the FA bungled its decision to strip John Terry of the England team captaincy this summer; attempting to strike a balance between accepting a man’s innocent until proven otherwise, and protecting the national game’s already tarnished image. The governing body did neither, fudging the only acceptable decision, which was to leave Terry at home while the criminal case surrounding the Chelsea captain’s alleged racial abuse of Anton Ferdinand was concluded.
Worse still, in ‘protecting’ Terry the FA has run roughshod over 81-cap Rio Ferdinand – a player, who despite an unprecedented FA ban and national team exclusion for missing a mandatory drugs test in 2003, has given everything and more for the national shirt. Plenty of Manchester United supporters have little love to lose for England, and indeed the player’s international career could have come to an end earlier, but Ferdinand has never hidden his passion for the Three Lions.
Yet, when Ferdinand was unexpectedly not selected for England’s European Championship squad on the ill-hidden pretence of “football reasons” the defender held his tongue with a dignified silence. Few players with Ferdinand’s global media appeal, and huge audience, would have refrained from hitting the tabloids.
There seemed little justification for the omission on any grounds, least of all quality or fitness. After all, having played in each of of United’s last 16 Premier League matches in the season just finished – and been an outstanding performer to boot – there was little reason to believe Ferdinand had not earned his place in Hodgson’s side, let alone squad. Four games in 13 days over Easter proved Ferdinand’s ability to complete several matches in a short time-frame, whatever Sir Alex Ferguson’s observation to the contrary.
Indeed, while many excluded players had already departed on summer holidays to popular footballers’ destinations such as Aya Napa, Miami Beach and the Gulf, Ferdinand has been training. Hard. The 33-year-old former West Ham United defender even played in Park Ji-Sung’s charity match in Bangkok, while maintaining championship levels of fitness.
The insult of being excluded from Hodgson’s initial squad was compounded on Sunday when Chelsea’s Gary Cahill, injured against Belgium during England’s tedious 1-0 win at Wembley on Saturday, was ruled out of the Championships with a broken jaw. Would Ferdinand be called up as an experienced alternative? Not a chance, with Hodgson instead selecting Liverpool’s reserve right-back Martin Kelly. A fine player though the 22-year-old may become, Kelly started just 10 Premier League games in the past season and has just two minutes international experience.
“Football reasons,” Hodgson had stated. “What reasons????!!!” retorted Ferdinand on Twitter, Sunday evening. And there was little surprise that the Ferdinand camp, although not the player, finally broke its silence following the latest snub. Enough was apparently, and finally, enough.
“Lampard, Terry, Barry, Gerrard; all ageing but they go to the tournament. Why is Rio different?” asked former Millwall midfielder, and Rio’s representative,Jamie Moralee. “To treat a player that has captained and served his country 81 times in this manner is nothing short of disgraceful. Total lack of respect from Hodgson and the FA as far as I am concerned.”
After all few now believe that Ferdinand has become anything bar the sacrificial lamb to protect Terry’s place in the England set-up. Rio dropped, essentially, for being the Anton’s brother. Race will play a key role in England’s team this summer after all.
And let there be no mistake that this was, on some level, Ferdinand’s decision – the United defender has always been willing to work with Terry despite the obvious enmity between the pair. In that there is no little disgrace; Ferdinand the martyr for Terry’s continued presence in the national side.
There could be long-term consequences in the FA’s stance though. After all, should the case go against 30-year-old Terry when court proceedings reconvene on 9 July England’s campaign will be forever be associated with a criminally guilty racist. Whether Terry is captain, or not.
In that scenario heads must surely roll at the FA. Perhaps even Hodgson’s. After all the former Liverpool manager, together with FA Chairman David Bernstein, have bet their chips on Terry in the face of national and global incredulity at Ferdinand’s omission.
Hodgson’s insistence – both in public and in a private phone call with the United defender – that football alone dictates the make-up of the national squad now flies in the face of common sense, and Ferdinand’s intelligence. Lingering suspicion of a conspiracy was all but confirmed with Kelly’s call-up on Sunday.
If the FA thought that stripping Terry of the captaincy would remove the focus on the Chelsea player’s upcoming court case then Ferdinand’s treatment has only intensified the spotlight. Indeed, Hodgson’s techy response to questions about Ferdinand’s omission when the England squad was announced in May will ill-become the 64-year-old coach during Euro 2012. But questions Hodgson will face, especially if Terry performs his usual tournament trick of being caught horribly out-of-position against any reasonably mobile or technical opponent.
Few United supporters will feel any sympathy for Hodgson though; this managerial crisis is of the coach’s own making.
There was something all too inevitable about Fabio Capello’s departure from the England job this week. Reportedly angered by the Football Association’s unilateral decision to remove John Terry as national team captain, Capello resigned at just after 3pm Wednesday afternoon. Such is the mood of distrust between the parties that the FA made little attempt to change the Italian’s mind. Capello’s is a fit of pique that costs the Italian around £2 million in lost wages, but more importantly generates questions about the former national team manager’s conduct.
Just as Kenny Dalglish has garnered critical media coverage for his staunch support of Luis Suárez over the past three months, in the face of widespread condemnation of the Uruguayan’s conduct, so too will questions be asked of Capello. After all, there are significant parallels between the two men, each of whom has singularly failed to understand the national mood surrounding racism in the country’s favourite sport.
The Italian’s resignation followed an hour-long meeting with FA Chairman David Bernstein at the body’s Wembley headquarters. It was a meeting in which the former AC Milan manager expressed his frustration at Terry’s removal, against the manager’s wishes, as England team captain.
After all, argues Capello, Terry has not been proven guilty of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand. Not by an independent panel, as was Suárez when he abused Manchester United captain Patrice Evra, and certainly not by the courts. That verdict may come in July after the magistrates court in charge postponed Terry’s originally schedule hearing.
Capello’s is a simple mantra: Terry is innocent until proven guilty. Simplistic, might be a more accurate description. Capello’s is a message that is widely understood, and may have garnered more widespread support among the football community had the Terry affair not threatened to engulf England’s Euro 2012 campaign. The unrelenting controversy and media scrutiny that a tournament involving England brings would only be heightened by Terry’s name on the leadership ticket.
The risk to the FA, of course, was that every managerial decision, every question to the team’s captain, and every result during the tournament would be placed in the context of Terry’s potential guilt. It was a risk too far for a conservative organisation. No spin will airbrush history if Terry is found guilty of racially abusing Rio Ferdinand’s younger brother.
In the context, and for once with right on its side, the governing body reacted quickly, and without apology, to sack Terry. Indeed, the FA’s decision was taken without consultation, undermining Capello’s authority in the process, and prompting the Italian manager to burn his bridges during an interview with Italian TV station RAI on Tuesday.
What more could the FA have done, except critics add, remove Terry from the squad altogether. Inept though the governing body is normally guaranteed to be, the FA had almost no choice but to demote the Chelsea defender. Many argue that the FA should never have allowed this halfway house to exist at all.
The new manager, whether it is the much discussed Harry Redknapp or another man, may well find it impossible to take the Chelsea man to Poland and Ukraine at all. Yet, Capello has received widespread support from fellow managers, including United manager Sir Alex Ferguson. The collective managers’ union can never countenance team decisions being taken by a higher authority, without admitting to an overwhelming sense of impotence.
“There’s nothing wrong with having an opinion,” said Ferguson shortly prior to Capello’s departure.
“It’s a difficult situation for both sides. When you are the manager of a team and have a captain that is an important part of that team then you don’t want to lose him, so I can understand there’s a lot of discussion and controversy about it. There will have to be a coming together of the FA hierarchy and Fabio Capello because he’s the team manager, he has the importance of that position. Without question the most important person at a football club is the manager.”
In that prediction Ferguson was right, and Sir Alex’ support for fellow managers is long-standing. But it is also a poor barometer of the bind that the FA found itself. While the manager may be the “most important” man at any club, Capello’s position was certainly no more valuable than the bigger picture. This is, after all, an association that has promised a tough stance on racism. Terry, as the body’s leader on the pitch, quickly became anathema once the courts had put back its decision until after Euro 2012.
Capello’s is another case in a sordid campaign for managers when it comes to dealing with issues of race.
The Suárez and Terry incidents in the autumn have brought far too myopic a response from those involved. Dalglish’s agenda was different to Capello’s, of course, but each came from a position not of responsibility, but self interest.
The Liverpool manager strongly voiced Suárez’ innocence long after an independent regulatory commission ruled, in microscopic detail, on the affair. Capello has fallen on his sword for a man who may yet been proven guilty of a deeply inhumane act.
Yet, both Dalglish and the now former England manager have misjudged the country’s mood; misunderstood that while short-termism can be a catalyst for deflecting attention, ‘doing the right thing’ is the only permissible route when it comes to question of race. Dalglish’s stance set race relations back a generation at Liverpool. Capello has fallen on his sword because of his poor command of the substantial implications of the Terry case.
It is as if denial of the issue has taken over; an old school misunderstanding of the societal changes that have taken place while Capello and Dalglish were cossetted away in the surreal world of professional football.
The bandwagon will move on of course, but the England job, dubbed a “poison chalice” by Ferguson, will remain an impossibly difficult challenge. It is one that Ferguson must be grateful the FA will not try, for a third time, to foist upon him.
Dear Liverpudlian friends,
After reading this article you may be tempted to post a long conspiratorial diatribe, blaming the FA for “making an example of Luis Suárez.” You may wish to protest the striker’s innocence or, indeed, you may think about couching your post in quasi-legal language, of which you have no genuine expertise. You’re almost certainly desperate to blame Patrice Evra for it all. STOP! This has been heard before, and the small number of you that did not include racist or foul language were afforded space on this Manchester United blog. There is, however, a proper home for you. It’s called RAWK and you’ll be more than welcome there.
Yours, the editor.
Rant might ordinarily throw its hat into the ring for the big job after Fabio Capello’s jump-before-you’re-pushed resignation today. After all, here at Rant towers we’ve lost count of the medals won, the glory soaked up, the years on the managerial treadmill – there really is no better grounding for the real thing than Football Manager. But, alas we cannot this time.
You see, there is only one man who can look at this particular poisoned chalice, and squarely face it down. Only one man for whom controversy could never rear its ugly head. Even if he tried. Really hard. One man whom the Football Association could guarantee to tow the party line. No matter how absurd the line may me.
Is he English? Check! Does he have significant European and international experience at the very top? Check! Does he wear riddiculously tight shorts? Check! Even in winter? Check!
Ladies and gentlemen, we give you, the next England manager. Old tight shorts himself, the one, the only, Michael Christopher “Mike” Phelan…
The red mist, they say, descended before Wayne Rooney kicked out at Miodrag Dzudovic during’s England’s 2-2 draw in Montenegro on Friday night. The draw ensured Fabio Capello’s side qualified for Euro 2012 but Saturday’s headlines were focused firmly on Rooney after the red card, which ensures the Manchester United striker will miss the start of the tournament, to be held in Poland and Ukraine next summer. After all the nation’s writers are well versed in the cod psychology of post-dismissal analysis: it followed Rooney’s previous red in England colours, received against Portugal at World Cup 2006.
The debate, for want of a far better word, will continue after Saturday’s incident. Very little of it will be about the red itself, which goalkeeper Joe Hart described as the “most pathetic” dismissal he had seen. In truth referee Wolfgang Stark had little choice but to issue red after Rooney’s kick at Dzudovic, with the player’s frustration at losing out on a routine challenge converted into violence not for the first time in the 25-year-old’s career.
Plus ça change. Rooney is what he is.
The red is, of course, manna from heaven for the nation’s hacks though, who will now be able to continue the Rooney debate into the tournament itself, with the United striker likely to miss at least one group match after the dismissal. Further suspension depends on UEFA’s interpretation of the 73rd minute incident.
Capello made little attempt to defend his star player, although the Italian was quick to dismiss any notion that dropping the player was ever in the picture prior to the game. After all Rooney’s father and uncle were arrested in the past week on suspicion of being involved in a betting scam.
“It’s a red card,” admitted coach Capello.
“You can’t defend that. I’m not happy, absolutely. I spoke with him. He made a silly mistake and he said: ‘Yes, sorry.’ More than that, I can’t do. He made a silly mistake when he kicked the opponent and he will now not be able to play the first game in the Euros. He was not happy because he missed some control and some passes. For this reason, I think he reacted. I can’t enter into the head of Wayne Rooney when he plays. I can speak before. But the reaction of the players, you cannot understand during the game, why things happen. Not just Rooney.”
The player’s dismissal is a bonus for United though with Rooney not only missing games at Euro 2012 but with Capello likely to experiment during England’s friendly matches before the tournament. The less Rooney plays during spring 2012 international fixtures, the fresher the striker will be for United’s crucial Premier and Champions league games towards the season’s end.
“He’s a really important player with a lot of experience, and he’s played really important games,” added Capello.
“But he’s made a silly mistake. We will find a solution to play without him. We will try something in the next games, the friendlies that we play, to prepare for the future.”
In the meantime the clichéd analysis will continue as journalists the nation over roll out the dictionary of pithy football-speak. Rooney was “immature” or “angry”; it was perhaps the “red mist” or just that old favourite, “petulance.” Pundits will proclaim the striker as a “risk” for Capello at Euro 2012 and some, several perhaps, will urge Capello to drop United’s in-form forward from the squad altogether.
Indeed, former England full-back Gary Neville is right when he points to the distraction Rooney’s card brings from an average England side that has little hope of winning the tournament itself.
“The most disappointing thing about his red card is that it distracts from the major issue,” Neville told the Mail on Sunday.
“With England, we’re always looking for an excuse; we’re always caught up in the minor rather than the major. The real issue is that the spine of the team is not good enough, as it stands, to take on Spain, Italy, France or Germany at Euro 2012.”
Should Rooney face Spain at Wembley this coming November he will enter the field, no doubt, to the sound of jeers from the north London crowd. England fans – very few of which hail from the red side of Manchester – have rarely taken to United’s players in any case. The feeling is mutual, with few Reds having forgotten the boos that greeted United’s players during the 1990s, or the effigy of David Beckham hung high following the midfielder’s dismissal at the 1998 World Cup in France.
Yet much of this supporter anger is fuelled by a media so keen to scandalise. Lionised for his wonderful domestic form, so many hacks have now jumped on the opportunity to criticise. “An Idiot Abroad,” “Roonatic” and “Roo Fool!” were just three of the less polite headlines to appear in Saturday’s papers. Many more will follow in the weeks and months to come.
Rooney’s England red is unlikely to concern too many United supporters. After all, there is perhaps some irony that media or England fan ire towards the striker may well strengthen United supporters’ relationship with the 25-year-old. While Rooney is a hero on the pitch at Old Trafford the player’s ‘October Revolution’ reminded many supporters that players are little more than employees of the club after the best deal.
But United fans are more loyal than most. Certainly than those that support the national team. In that Rooney will receive a huge reception the next time he turns out at Old Trafford, especially if the negative headlines continue.
England’s turgid performance against Wales at Wembley on Tuesday night was simply the latest in a very long line of mediocrity from Fabio Capello’s side. Plus ça change, no matter the coach, of course. It is now so long since England put in a genuinely exciting performance that fans under the age of 20 are unlikely to remember it. (England 4-1 Holland, Wembley, 1996, for those who can’t).
Yet, it is not solely England that fails to thrill on the international stage, even if Capello’s men offer a particularly unique brand of insomnia-inducing fare. Indeed, international football is now such a poor cousin to the latter stages of the Champions League that it is genuinely hard to muster any excitement for the non-club game. Last summer’s FIFA World Cup in South Africa was a much discussed case in point, of course, with 64 matches of dull, uninspiring, negative and often disjointed football performed by shattered players.
Even the tournament’s deserved winners Spain, with a plethora of Barcelona-bred tika-taka stars, failed to truly spark into the thrilling brand of the game served up by the nation’s champion club. The final, which descended into a level of thuggery rarely witnessed at the game’s highest level, seemed a good précis for the tournament as a whole, where negativity was the dominant emotion.
Yet the World Cup finals tournament is by no means the worst of international football. That, seemingly, belongs to the European qualifying tournaments; a never-ending cycle of the depressingly familiar and homogeneous. Replete with the endlessly mediocre, Euro-zone qualification for European Nations Championships and World Cups now rarely delivers excellence.
Perhaps not helped by the vast expansion in teams from Eastern Europe, and the very real need to improve standards in some of Europe’s smaller nations, but there are now so few games of genuine quality during qualification that fans are deserting in droves. Wembley, more than 13,000 short of capacity for the international equivalent of a local derby, was one of the fuller European grounds this week.
Just 16,000 watched World champions Spain and there were only 8,000 for Italy;s match in Genoa. In Russia the giant Luzhniki remained half-full – or empty depending on your persuasion – for matches with Ireland and Macedonia. Only in Germany, where fans enjoy a buoyant national team and reasonable prices, was the ground bursting at the seams this week.
With mercy perhaps, the game’s club administrators have decided to put down the suffering beast. Well, end a third of meaningless international friendlies that have become a never-ending excuse for ‘experimentation’ that cheats supporters with a carousel of substitutions and disruption.
Manchester United chief executive David Gill, in his dual role both on the Football Association board and as a leading member of the European Club Association (ECA), led the charge this week in attempting to reduce international friendlies from 21 every two years to 14.
“These topics have been discussed at length,” said Gill, an ECA board member.
The ECA hopes to reduce the number of single dates and “end friendlies in August and June and reducing it to meaningful games plus the Euros and the World Cup. Ideally we would have six double dates over the period. That gives the right balance while being a reduction for the interests of the national teams against what the clubs want.
“Six games a year is the best from a club point of view. Before Euro 2012 we have to release players two weeks before the tournament and there is space for two or three friendly matches then.”
The proposed changes are born of club self-service but, if enacted,will have the positive effect of ensuring no future summer friendlies that add little to the calendar and increase the burden on the best players. Tournament football will remain unaffected, although the ECA is on an unwavering path to extract ever more compensation for the players used in international football.
None of this guarantees an increase in quality though and international managers may well be faced with even less time to construct fluid teams. Perhaps that is irrelevant. After all, Capello has largely wasted three years and £18 million in salary deploying the same failed strategy and players as his predecessors. The ‘golden generatio’n now an allegory for the handcuffs around each successive national team coach.
Indeed, on Tuesday against Wales Capello ignored calls to rely on the youthful zest of Phil Jones, Tom Cleverley and others. Instead, back came 33-year-old Frank Lampard to anchor, alongside Gareth Barry and James Milner, one of the biggest-boned English midfields in recent times. No surprises in the glacial speed of England’s movement then, with 117 FIFA-ranked Wales genuinely unlucky not to snatch a late point.
England round off qualification against Montenegro in Podgorica next month before Capello embarks on an eight month farewell tour that is likely to take in a plethora of utterly meaningless friendlies before England bow out of Euro2012 in Poland and Ukraine at the first knock-out stage.
Mercifully, just in time some might say, there is United away at the Reebok this weekend to distract. And for once Sir Alex Ferguson may have escaped international fortnight with no fresh injuries.
Rio Ferdinand’s humiliation at the hands of Fabio Capello this week is not only total and deliberate but it should also lead to the 32-year-old defender’s international retirement. After all, Ferdinand’s pride at being made England captain in the wake of John Terry’s affair with Vanessa Perroncel has been shattered at the hand of Capello’s boorish mismanagement. Publicly defenestrated with no just cause, Ferdinand can now achieve little by remaining with the national team.
Capello’s decision to return the England captaincy to John Terry after “a year of punishment” – as the Italian put it – is not only deeply insensitive but threatens to split the England camp. Not every player under Capello’s management, it is said, shares the former AC Milan coach’s predilection for Terry’s peculiarly British form of captaincy.
“One year is enough punishment for anyone,” Capello said on Friday.
“In that time, Terry has come to understand the mistake he made. And I have come to understand the importance of the England captain in this country. Now is time to forgive. From the moment I came in, he was always my number one choice as captain.”
Yet, the crass manner in which the news was leaked to the media without so much as a phone call to the now former England captain is seemingly typical of Capello’s bumbling handling of the England team. That the manager first failed to inform each party of his decision before telling journalists – and as it turns out lying to Ferdinand over the permanent nature of the switch – is grounds for dismissal in itself. It can do little to foster a camp spirit that will take England beyond the severe technical limitations inherent in the squad.
It begs the question of what Ferdinand is likely to gain by adding to his 80 caps in a subservient position to Terry, and under Capello’s unique leadership. England, drawn in a favourable group for Euro 2014 qualification, will surely reach the tournament in Poland and Ukraine only to be knocked out of the tournament at the hands of the first decent outfit it faces. The truth of this predication was amply demonstrated last summer in South Africa – a tournament that Ferdinand was retrospectively fortunate to miss.
Even more importantly Ferdinand should now consider his place in the Manchester United squad as his priority. Indeed, Ferdinand’s position at Old Trafford is devalued by persistent injuries over the past two years. Now into his 30s and beset by ongoing physical problems, Ferdinand would surely do well to follow the lead set by Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Dimitar Berbatov and Park Ji-Sung in retiring from the international game. After all, retirement has prolonged the United careers of Scholes and Giggs, and prompted the best campaign of Berbatov’s time at Old Trafford.
Predictably, Sir Alex Ferguson refused to be drawn on the issue when meeting the media at Carrington on Thursday morning. Privately, it is seemingly inconceivable that the 69-year-old United manager will not have raised the spectre of international retirement with Ferdinand.
And while some elements of the nation’s media might position an early retirement as ‘throwing his toys out of the pram’ Ferdinand is well within the bounds of reason to no longer work with Capello on principal alone. Indeed, the former West Ham United player is reportedly deeply insulted with the Italian coaches actions – as he should be.
Yet, far from apologise for his handling of a delicate matter Capello has – quite unbelievably – chosen to lay the blame at Ferdinand’s door, accusing the United defender of not meeting his at Old Trafford following the Reds’ victory over Marseille last Tuesday. It was a meeting that was never formally arranged, according to the player. It’s not for the first time Capello has played fast and loose with the truth some might add.
This, of course, is Capello all over. The man who, under pressure during the World Cup, turned the England hotel into a monkish prison camp, heaping pressure on his players. Capello also chose the post World Cup period to launch another crass invention – the ‘Capello Index’ in which the Italian would publicly rate and slate his players. Then, in a crime perhaps on a par with his humiliation of Ferdinand this week, the coach ‘retired’ David Beckham to the nation’s media without consulting the player himself.
Ferguson would never treat a player in this matter – at least not one that mattered to him. And that is an important point. Capello is not blessed with a swathe of proven defenders in Ferdinand’s class. Indeed, Terry has been repeatedly exposed at international lever, no matter how forceful the British Bulldog bluster.
This fact offers Ferdinand the opportunity to leave the international game with his pride and dignity intact, head held high, self-esteem stronger than ever. The Londoner has fought to build his reputation both as a respected member of the footballing community and a campaigner. For his many faults and mistakes, Ferdinand is worth more than the lack of respect shown by Capello this week.
Wayne Rooney’s bright performance for England at Wembley last night is vindication for the striker, who has faced some of the most vitriolic criticism of his career in recent months. The striker, who scored 34 goals last season, played a part in all four of England’s goals as Fabio Capello’s side ran out comfortable winners in London.
Rooney’s contribution to England’s 4-0 win over Bulgaria, from a deeper role than is customary when he plays for Manchester United, comes as the he develops match sharpness and fitness after injury and a lengthy summer break after the World Cup.
Indeed, while the critics wallowed in Rooney’s lengthy ‘goal drought’ few acknowledged either the serious ankle injury sustained against Bayern Munich in March or that the former Evertonian played no part in United’s pre-season programme. Rooney’s club colleagues played up to six pre-season matches; the striker only reached that figure last night.
Now injury free, fitness close to peak levels, and confident after an excellent performance at Wembley, the real Rooney can stand up, while his critics eat their words. At least that is the hope for United’s supporters.
From the wonderful chipped pass that led to England’s opening goal after three minutes, to the final ball that enabled Manchester City’s Adam Johnson to open his international account, creativity epitomised Rooney’s performance last night.
“It should be appreciated that this occasion liberated Wayne Rooney from the torpor that has overcome him since the spring,” writes the Guardian’s Kevin McCarra.
“He may not have scored, but the Manchester United attacker revelled in the freedom of the deeper role he had here and assisted, particularly, in each Defoe goal.”
So good was the striker that Sir Alex Ferguson must regret he cannot deploy Rooney in the deeper role and maintain a goal output at last season’s levels.
Not that Rooney’s media critics will evaporate; there is nothing better than the perceived failure of this generation’s best player to fill column inches in tomorrow’s chip paper.
Yet, for the most part Rooney draws positive reviews from Fleet Street’s capital-focused hacks. The Guardian, Telegraph and Independent, for example, rated Rooney eight out of 10 for the night’s efforts, with only the Sun offering a stingy seven.
Surprisingly, the country’s most popular paper waits until the 10th paragraph of its match report to mention the United striker, despite his central role in each of England’s goals. Others at least are more effusive in their praise of United’s number 10.
“There is still no question about the England player who can make almost anything seem possible with one stroke of his foot,” writes James Lawton in the Independent.
“Rooney did that when he delivered a sublime floating pass to the feet of Ashley Cole in the third minute.”
“Early in the second half his exquisite attempt to chip goalkeeper Nikolay Mihaylov was thwarted only by a fingertip. What could not be denied, however, was the growing reminder that Rooney’s creative powers can be exploited from pretty much anywhere he finds himself.”
Yet, sections of the Wembley crowed chose to jeer Rooney, as they had during England’s 2-1 friendly win over Hungary in August. Rarely tolerant of United players at the best of times, Wembley’s fickle supporters mirrored the country’s media in preferring to heckle rather than support England’s best through a difficult period.
No wonder Rooney’s predilection for frustration overspills more frequently in the white of the national team than at Old Trafford.
“One mistake drew boos from the crowd, but [Rooney] played a part in all four goals,” writes the Guardian’s Dominic Fifield, but “some of England’s best attacking play stemmed from his endeavours.”
The main beneficiary of Rooney’s creativity was Tottenham Hotspur striker Jermain Defore, who grabbed the first hat-trick of a stop-start international career. Capello’s decision to deploy the United forward in a withdrawn ‘playmaker’ role, which has always suited the 24-year-old’s sublime skills, fully justified in the thumping result.
No wonder that the former West Ham United and Portsmouth player saved his praise for Rooney.
“When you play with a new partner it can take a bit of time for it to gel but Wayne’s a great player to play alongside,” said Defoe.
“He works so hard for you and, if you make the runs, he will find you. After I scored my second he said: ‘Now go and try to get your third.’ To have that from someone playing with you is fantastic.”
Even if the nation’s media is sometimes reluctant to swallow previously over-zealous criticism, then his colleagues more than make up for it.
Wes Brown has retired from international football despite being called into Fabio Capello’s first post-World Cup England squad. Brown, overlooked for the World Cup, retires at 30 with 23 caps following a début against Hungary in 1999. The defender told Capello in person following Manchester United’s Community Shield victory.
Brown, who would surely have won more caps bar for injuries over a 12 year career with United and England, said that younger players now deserve to play in the national team.
“After a lot of thought and with a very heavy heart, I have decided the time is right for me to retire from international football,” said Brown in a statement this evening.
“At the age of 30, I feel it is right for me to stand aside and let younger players come through, which allows me to concentrate on my club career.
“I regard it as an honour and a privilege to have represented my country at every level from under-15s upwards. I have always been very proud to play for England and wish them well in future tournaments.”
The defender follows Paul Robinson in retiring from international duty. Shame then that other senior England players such as John Terry and Frank Lampard failed to follow suit.
Brown figured heavily in United’s pre-season programme in Canada, USA, Mexico and Ireland but was overlooked by Sir Alex Ferguson for the club’s Community Shield match win over Chelsea today.