James Lawton: History insists winners do not appear in blaze of early glory


There may not be a whole lot of room left in the storehouse of certainties owned by Fabio Capello, but we can be sure of a few after England’s less than emphatic opening statement here on Saturday night.

One is that he will select goalkeeper Robert Green for Friday’s game with Algeria in Cape Town only at the risk of a crushing blow to his reputation for utterly unsentimental judgement.

Professionals who have travelled as far as Capello in the game make the dodging of such a prospect not so much a rule as an article of faith.

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It means that, having been burned once by his faith – even tortured – in Green, he is unlikely to invite full-scale incineration by ring-posting the decision that unravelled so devastatingly for the goalkeeper when he allowed the United States back into a game from which they should have been routinely expelled.

However much he bleeds publicly for Green, all of the England coach’s deepest instincts will insist he moves on, most likely by handing the job to the inexperienced, but currently vibrant, Joe Hart.

Almost as certain, surely, is that he will accept, as so many before him have been obliged to do, that Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard are forever doomed to be two beautiful football people who simply cannot make a marriage work.

Finally, and potentially just as crucially, he will no doubt be questioning whether Jamie Carragher, for all the splendour of his defensive acumen and competitive character, is any longer quick enough to provide a solution to the sickening accumulation of the problems in the middle of defence that saw Rio Ferdinand’s replacement Ledley King cut down by yet another injury.

Tottenham’s Michael Dawson, raw like Hart but also filled with the conviction that he has moved on to another level of performance in recent months, is now looking the most viable partner for John Terry.

There is one more reality that Capello is sure not to have put aside. It is that, even if he privately concedes selection mistakes to which he would no more admit publicly than he might adopt Diego Maradona’s promise to run naked in the streets, he will neither concede nor believe that what happened here represented some killing blow to England’s prospects.

The briefest inspection of Slovenia’s 1-0 victory over Algeria, one driven like the American draw by serious goalkeeper-error, will have told Capello that England’s chances of winning Group C have been touched by no more than a flesh wound.

It is true that Capello has to do some working repairs but, with the return of the midfield stability provided by Gareth Barry and with perhaps the recognition that in Joe Cole there is much more chance of the sustained coherent aggression that Shaun Wright-Phillips seems incapable of providing, England are still obviously capable of re-making themselves.

There is also the not-inconsiderable value of perspective – which is available almost randomly whenever you trace the emergence of putative champions over the course of a few weeks.

England, who have won only five of their 13 opening games, provided one of the most encouraging examples of growth through the tournament when they won it for the only time in 1966. The Ramsey team were booed off Wembley after a 0-0 draw with Uruguay and acquired their first serious momentum only when Bobby Charlton scored a goal of transforming brilliance against Mexico a few days later.

The potential of someone like Gerrard or Wayne Rooney to do something similar against the Algerians beneath Table Mountain is self-evident, as is the fact that England have much the greater capacity to score the goals that are still most likely to settle the winning of the group.

For the moment at least, it would certainly be a perverse reverse of the usual English tendency to over-state their chances to believe at this early point that all serious hope of a significant impact here has already been extinguished.

History insists the majority of winners, and those who run them most closely, do not first appear trailing clouds of glory. They come with apprehensions or disappointments about this or that. They have heroes lurking in the shadows and often coaches half-crippled by critical disdain. One of the most dramatically vindicated, Italy’s Enzo Bearzot, was sp

at at in a Spanish street before delivering a sensational victory in 1982. But, in the flush of victory, it was written of the one-time, pipe-smoking pariah, “Not only did Bearzot win the World Cup, he set free the sweet, caged bird of Italian football.”

The chance of such lyrical praise soon washing over Capello did not look so likely here when he was surrounded by a media scrum sniffing, perhaps, a little blood and demanding some public atonement for a series of “mistakes.”

“I made no mistakes,” said Il Capo. “We are talking about football. I am happy that we made the chances to score seven goals.”

Yes, he would say that – all coaches have in their time – and when Capello was being examined it was not hard to recall one of the more recent examples of a World Cup coach placed on trial. It was in Stuttgart four years ago and the man who was being investigated, after just one game, was France’s eccentric Raymond Domenech.

France, despite the presence of men like Thierry Henry, Zinedine Zidane, Patrick Vieira, Lilian Thuram and Claude Makelele, indeed looked awful in a 0-0 draw with Switzerland.

Domenech said that France would improve, they had the means and they would simply bed down and become progressively more competitive. Of course, it happened that way, all the way to a final which might easily have been won if Zidane had not been ensnared by the provocation of Italy’s Marco Materazzi.

Of course, it is true that precisely the opposite can occur. Four years earlier, France also started wretchedly, losing to Senegal on a rainy night in Seoul. Vieira looked as if he was playing from a failing memory, Henry was listless and Zidane was out with injury. France, the reigning champions, went from bad to worse and were eliminated in the group without scoring a goal.

Which way will England go now? They will qualify from the group, this much we know. What happens after that rests in the ability of Capello to mask his weakness and accentuate his strength. There are no shortages, by the highest standards, in either category, but it is not overly optimistic to believe that stressing the positive was not the hardest of chores in the African night.

Rooney was judged to be poor in many eyes but it was a verdict that ignored those inevitable moments when he reminded us that he was the best player on the field and among the elite of the tournament. Three of them might easily have ended in goals by team-mates, twice when he fed Aaron Lennon with time and space to find his target, and once when he delivered the ball exquisitely to the feet of Wright-Phillips.

Emile Heskey was again the warrior without a spear of his own, but Capello is plainly prepared to live with this and you didn’t have to look too deeply to understand why. His hard and pummelling presence helped create Gerrard’s superb opener and the disruption he caused to the confidence of the American defenders did not relent.

Gerrard looked like a captain and one capable, once again, of the highest level of inspiration but not a midfielder manipulator – a fact Capello surely has to acknowledge and act upon in the course of this tournament.

This, when the problems have been duly recognised, is not the profile of a team for whom hope has been realistically extinguished. It was something to take away from the new stadium which no doubt will live, somewhere deep down, for ever in the consciousness of Robert Green.

Ultimately, it is his trial, his battle, and the good news is that he is a strong character who has a sense of life beyond the touchline.

For the next few weeks, of course, nothing exists for Capello beyond that often cruel boundary. But then, while we are listing them, there is maybe one more certainty to mention. It is that he will see it is ridiculously early to believe that his cause is already lost. Winning coaches do not happen by way of such thinking. Nor do most World Cups.


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