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Saturday, Nov. 18, 2006

PREMIER REPORT

McClaren already facing discontent among England faithful


LONDON -- Steve McClaren flashed his orthodontist friendly smile and said he was happy with England's display in the 1-1 draw against Holland in Amsterdam.

Christopher Davies

"I asked for a good performance and that's what I got," said the England head coach.

The media and fans remain unconvinced about McClaren's England after the underachieving era of Sven-Goran Eriksson. If the boot has not quite been put in yet on McClaren, a slipper has.

"It doesn't concern me what people say about me," said McClaren who has spin-doctors in place in an effort to ensure he says the right things. "I'm only bothered about the team and getting results."

Once again England threw away the lead given to it by Wayne Rooney with his first international goal for a year. Rafael van der Vaart equalized in the 86th minute.

England has been unconvincing under McClaren, with Macedonia drawing at Old Trafford, Croatia winning in Zagreb and defensive errors allowing the Dutch to draw a game they should have lost.

There was predictable arrogance when the Euro 2008 draw was made . . . Russia, Croatia, Macedonia, Israel, Estonia and Andorra were England's opponents.

Easy, was the general English view which has changed significantly in the last month.

With four matches played, arrogance has turned to concern after Croatia's 4-3 win in Israel and Russia's 2-0 defeat of Macedonia in Skopje.

England's next tie is away to Israel in March and earlier results in Group E have made this a must-win game for Team McClaren.

Israel, too, if it is to get its Euro 2008 campaign back on track.

After 4-4-2 and 3-5-2 McClaren tried 4-3-3 in Amsterdam with Andrew Johnson, Rooney and Joe Cole a three-man attack.

Everton striker Johnson looked lost playing on the right while Rooney seemed confused with the formation.

Cole did well, laying on Rooney's goal and made a satisfactory return to the national team after injury, but the problem that neither Eriksson nor his former assistant McClaren has been able to solve is how to effectively accommodate Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

Both are superb players but neither really has the discipline to "hold" or stay back while the other attacks.

Neither has been as effective for country as for club, but while Lampard operates as an attacking midfielder at Chelsea, Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez insists on playing Gerrard wide right, which is where he was used in Amsterdam with minimal effect.

Dutch legend Ruud Gullit believes Gerrard should have signed with Chelsea two years ago, when he was on the brink of leaving Liverpool to join the Blues but eventually stayed at Anfield.

Gullit, the former Chelsea manager, said: "I wasn't impressed by the way Gerrard played against Holland because there is always a feeling he can do more. He doesn't play the position he likes or feels most comfortable in. That's a pity. A player of his standard shouldn't be playing wide.

"If he played at Chelsea, where they have Claude Makelele and Michael Essien doing the defensive work so he could attack, he would play much, much better.

"England also has Lampard playing in an offensive role like Gerrard. You need to have players who understand tactically how they have to cope with that. It is very difficult and a risk."

Lampard certainly benefits from having Makelele and Essien as a midfield shield, but Gerrard does not enjoy a similar luxury at Liverpool.

There is a growing feeling that rather than changing formations in an attempt to get the best out of Lampard and Gerrard, McClaren should make up his mind which will be his midfield general and drop the other one.

Leaving out one of Europe's top playmakers may seem soccer suicide, but as Lampard and Gerrard have not played well together for three or four years on the national team it is unlikely they ever will.

The biggest plus from the draw in Holland was undoubtedly the outstanding debut at right-back of Micah (pronounced Mike-ah) Richards who, at 18 years and 144 days, became the youngest defender and the seventh youngest player of any description to play for England.

Calm, assured and confident beyond his tender years the Manchester City defender looks one for the future when Gary Neville hangs up his international boots, possibly after Euro 2008.

LUTON could not afford to sack manager Mike Newell despite his sexist public criticisms of assistant referee Amy Rayner after last Saturday's 3-2 defeat by Queens Park Rangers.

The Championship club didn't have the money to pay up Newell's four-year contract, so it "severely reprimanded" him after he branded the appointment of women referees and assistants as "tokenism for the politically-correct idiots."

Newell has apologized twice over the phone to Rayner, who was promoted to her current level after receiving the necessary marks as she worked her way up football's pyramid.

Rayner is there on merit just as every male official is.

Earlier in the year, Newell was hailed as a hero for being the Bungbuster when his disclosure that he had been offered illegal payments by agents prompted a Premier League inquiry which is still ongoing.

His latest flirt with the headlines did not cover Newell with glory and ensured the brain-dead among football's fraternity were able to air views that just stopped short of saying women shouldn't even vote.

Rayner's "crime" was to have apparently indicated a corner for QPR from which it scored its winning goal rather than a goal-kick that Newell believed was the correct decision.

It was Luton's fifth consecutive defeat -- it would be interesting to know what Rayner thinks of some of Newell's decisions in recent weeks.

POLISH international defender Jacek Bak has claimed he was offered a $10,000 bribe to help his side lose its Euro 2008 qualifier against Belgium on Wednesday.

Poland won 1-0 in Brussels, but according to reports, Bak was the target of some unscrupulous phone calls prior to the game.

Sports daily Przeglad Sportowy reported Bak as saying: "I had a strange telephone call before the match. Someone offered me a bribe in return for helping Poland lose the match against Belgium."

The Belgian Football Federation has asked UEFA to investigate the alleged Bak-hander.

Christopher Davies was a longtime soccer correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.


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