LONDON — Sven-Goran Eriksson was considered a failure after leading England to the quarterfinals of the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, plus the last eight of Euro 2004.
If, as seems likely, England does not even reach the finals of Euro 2008, Steve McClaren will be seen as the failure’s apprentice who was an even worse head coach than the vilified Swede he was assistant to.
In the unlikely event of McClaren surviving Eng land’s probable first non-qualification for a major finals since the 1994 World Cup, it will be his biggest success since taking over from Eriksson 15 months ago.
This columnist has never believed England would reach the Euro 2008 finals and takes no pleasure from almost certainly being proved correct.
If Russia wins in Israel next month, England will be European Championship spectators next summer (assuming Russia does not slip up against Andorra in its final qualifying game).
The qualifying mathematics are that Croatia requires just a point from its remaining two games to qualify.
Russia will qualify if it wins its remaining two games (though as one is against Andorra that is a formality).
England, which plays Croatia at Wembley in its last game, needs Russia to slip up. The prayer mats are out.
The buck stops with the coach and under McClaren England drew 0-0 at home with Macedonia, a result that was always going to come back to haunt it, while taking only one point from nine in away ties against Israel, Russia and Croatia.
Russia is ranked 26th in the world, and while it has some speedy forwards and a good coach in Guus Hiddink, it is not a European powerhouse.
McClaren can moan about refereeing decisions, but England had 12 games to gain the necessary qualifying points.
It is on the brink of ignominious failure and knives are being sharpened accordingly.
Yes, Wayne Rooney’s foul on Konstantin Zyryanov, which led to Russia’s spot-kick equalizer in its 2-1 win on Wednesday, was just outside the penalty area. But committing a foul so close to the penalty box was unnecessary and risky, giving the referee the opportunity to make a human error.
England must also not overlook the fact that Rooney was just offside when he opened the scoring, or that Russia had a perfectly good goal disallowed when it lost 3-0 at Wembley.
Refereeing mistakes tend to even themselves out even if managers only remember the ones that go against their side and not the ones that work in their favor.
The suspicion has always been that McClaren, an average club manager with Middlesbrough, was appointed because the Football Association could not tempt Luiz Felipe Scolari (Portugal) or Guus Hiddink (Russia) to be Eriksson’s successor.
McClaren was Diet Sven, a No. 2 over-promoted to a No. 1.
His switch from 4-4-2 to 3-5-2 in Croatia proved predictably disastrous. Only McClaren seemed unaware that England players do not play such a system with their clubs, so to give them a formation they were unfamiliar with was a mistake waiting to happen.
McClaren’s England never had the tactical edge needed at this level and unless Israel does England a favor and beats Russia next month, the head coach is a dead man walking. The English media has put a very heavy studs-showing boot into McClaren and the F.A. for appointing him in the first place.
Radio phone-ins have been vitriolic in their condemnation of McClaren and once that bandwagon gets into overdrive there is no going back.
No Euro qualification, no job.
It would be a massive financial loss for England to miss out on a major finals. The Premier League is arguably the strongest in Europe . . . the world maybe . . . and for its national team to be AWOL when Euro 2008 is played would in the eyes of many underline the belief that domestic strength is provided by the overseas talent.
If McClaren goes, he would be the sixth England manager to leave in the past 17 years, compared with four in the previous 28, which highlights the need for continued success in an era of such high financial rewards.
Perhaps English football should look deeper than just changing the manager. Our record at international level is generally poor — England has become serial quarterfinalists, unable (with one or two exceptions) to go further than the last eight.
Russia, not a truly outstanding team by any means, played a swift short-passing game while England relied too much on strength rather than subtlety. It could be time to change the mind-set of English players.
Eriksson was tolerated rather than admired because he steered England to international finals with minimum fuss. We will never know, but most people would agree that under Eriksson England would not be in the perilous situation it finds itself at present.
Brian Barwick, chief executive of the F.A., backed the man he effectively appointed last year. He said: “Steve has our support but our job is to focus on Croatia.
“It is a very big day when Russia plays Israel on 17th November, we need Israel to stop them winning and help us. Steve has a job to do and he must now get the players ready for the Croatia game.
“We know we need a favor, but it is desperately important that we continue to concentrate on qualification. It was disappointing for everyone because for 70 minutes we looked in control. The game got away from us in four minutes, we went from looking on course for qualification to now needing help from others.
“There are all sorts of twists and turns in qualification campaigns and until the point passes where we cannot qualify, we must go for broke to try and get there.”
Well he would say that, wouldn’t he?
The players must take their share of responsibility for England’s stumbles.
In Moscow, Steven Gerrard missed a gift-wrapped sitter to make it 2-0, while error-prone goalkeeper Paul Robinson should have done better than parrying Yuri Zhirkov’s — Roman Pavlyuchenko reacted quicker than England defenders to prod home the winner.
In the worse-case scenario, it is impossible to see McClaren surviving.
Sir Trevor Brooking, who oversees youth development, would be the likely caretaker-manager while the F.A. once again search for a head coach.
This time the F.A. must get it right and appoint a strong, experienced man, and not be concerned about his passport.
Christopher Davies was a longtime soccer correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
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