Once more unto the breach! Harfleur, Dunkirk and all that guff is being desperately evoked by the public prints and broadcasters. Goodwill may be suffering from donor fatigue but for one more time the nation entreats the England football team to get a grip. Victory in Tel Aviv against Israel today (Saturday) is crucial to qualification for next year’s European championship finals, to be jointly hosted by Switzerland and Austria. Another tediously limp and drooping disaster by England in the Ramat Gan stadium today would stir supporters to demand immediate and unamicable divorce proceedings between the Football Association and Steve McClaren, even though the poor put-upon manager himself would claim to be still in honeymoon mode. Israel are no mugs on their home patch. For England, any sort of victory will do, but defeat today and then a win by a cricket score in Wednesday’s follow-up fixture against part-timers Andorra — likened to the Dog & Duck Extra B Sunday XI by former player Chris Waddle — will only serve, somehow, to underline England’s second-rate pub-team status. If England were to be ignominiously dumped and Scotland’s sudden bright sparks were to qualify, I can forecast riots south of the border.
Yorkshireman McClaren has also been consulting the devious spin doctors. He needed to, I suppose. He knew as well as the world and his wife that he was not even the FA’s second choice to succeed the dreaded Swedish smoothie, Sven (still pocketing his pay-off thousands each week). McClaren’s CV, in contrast, was decidedly unglossy, drearily workaday. He’s been consistent at least in that the Middlesbrough teams he managed and coached played as boringly as England have under his short, fraught stewardship so far. McClaren’s idea of dynamic tactics have been confused and blandly uninspired, but even more so, in fairness to him, has been the play of the the dozy lot he has continued to pick; nor have their (real or imagined) injuries helped. Playing for England now seems a drag and a drudge. McClaren’s inaugural tactic was a celeb’s buff-up damage limitation. He hired Max Clifford; he spent a weekend at Chequers with Tone and Cherie and, reciprocally matey, he turned up at the Commons to admire the PM at question time. He couldn’t have imagined then that a Middle East confrontation — in Steve’s case today’s biggie in Tel Aviv — might also be the cause of his own downfall; nor, indeed, that friend Tony might even be outlasting him in the top job. We shall see.
Consistency, too, in that McClaren follows a decidedly rum line of England managers in the 40 years since own-man Ramsey, that brooding one-off who at least never let the chips on his shoulders inhabit, or inhibit, the teams which loved him. In turn followed the superstitious, obsessively suspicious Revie; too kindly, old hat great-uncle Greenwood; charming worrypot Robson; ‘do-I-not-like-that’ scoutmaster Taylor; artful dodger Venables; earnestly confused theologian Hoddle; over-excitable cheerleader Keegan; and — you couldn’t make it up — silk-shirted Swedish sexpot Sven. At least our Steve knows the Dunkirk drill. Naming his squad last week, he said: ‘We’re English, so it’s backs to the wall, looking each other in the eye; respect and trust; you see, we shall prove it in Israel. We’ve done it before, we’ll do it again.’ Cue stirring William Walton tunes.