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Sport
Culture: David Beckham and Steve McClaren
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Sunday, 27 May 2007 Written by Henry Midgley
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Beckham comes off in 2006
When Steve McClaren got the England job, his first announcement was that the previous England Captain, David Beckham, would not be called up to the next squad and that he could envisage few scenarios in which Beckham would return at all to the setup. At the time McClaren's words were very popular with an English public hungering for a scapegoat after a disappointing World Cup in 2006- they hoped that jettisoning the Captain indicated that McClaren was a new broom and a new mind on the job.

The Captain was unpopular and partly because of injury had had a poor World Cup by his standerds.

However a year on- McClaren is in difficulties and in his hour of need has turned back to Beckham as his saviour, recalling him to the England squad to face Estonia.

What should we make of this volte face on behalf of the manager?

There is a very good case for recalling Beckham to the squad. One of the best commentators on the web on football, James Hamilton for instance cogently argues that Beckham is a good player and still probably one of England's best players, that he should definitely be in the squad and probably in the team. There is a good contest for the position Beckham used to play, rightwing, because the emerging Aaron Lennon also plays there for Tottenham and offers a different more pacy but less precise option for the manager- but there is no doubt that Lennon apart few of the other alternatives to Beckham have made more than a fitful case for inclusion.

He has also been playing well for his club side. Its always possible to exagerrate club form for a superstar whose media story is turning upwards- but observors in Spain beleive that part of the reason for the resurgence of Real Madrid lies in the renewed vigour of the Englishman. He has yet again turned around a situation to his advantage- a couple of months ago Beckham was exiled to the stands in Spain having decided to sign for Los Angeles Galaxy at the end of his contract, Fabio Capello the boss at Real Madrid was forced by a declining team to recall Beckham and since then he has prospered- going from strength to strength and essentially forcing himself back into the England team.

If Beckham's renaissance demonstrates something about the midfielder- that he is as was said of Gladstone terrible on the rebound- something he proved in 1998 after his sending off in a world cup game by winning the treble with Manchester United and now again with McClaren- then the way that McClaren has treated the issue demonstrates something about the new England manager. Let us just be clear- England have recalled a player that is only going to be playing in a top flight league for another couple of weeks. He will then depart to the United States- and quite possibly lose his place in the team. Firstly what does that say about McClaren's longterm thinking about his squad- should he name Beckham in the next game, he definitely won't name him in the same game next year. Secondly it says something even more odd- because it tells any player that he would have named instead that that player is only playing because Beckham has left the scene- that they aren't really good enough for England because they weren't good enough in May 2007- a signal which isn't psychologically productive.

McClaren though has put himself in this situation. He told Beckham that his international career was over- consequently Beckham quite understandably thought that he might as well go to the United States and help develop that league. Furthermore though this is of a piece with the way that McClaren operates- his radical new approach consists of calling up Phil Neville and other former stalwarts of the England team rejected in the runup to the 2006 World Cup. There has been no real tactical revolution, no real change in personell- and McClaren is still trying to work out the dilemma that Eriksson, his predecessor, didn't work out, playing Gerard and Lampard in midfield and making it work. It may be that nothing else would work other than the status quo- but at the moment England are getting a new manager but not a new approach.

Beckham is a symbol of this in more ways than one. His recall demonstrates that McClaren doesn't really have much idea of what to change about the Eriksson formula apart from to tweak it slightly. It also demonstrates McClaren's conservatism. But there is something else about it that is interesting. Because McClaren hadn't changed the approach or found any new young players- significantly on the right despite Beckham's exclusion and Lennon's injury, England in 2007 sit where they sat in 2006- we know that Gerard could play there but prefers the centre, that Beckham can play there but has lost any pace he had and that Lennon is a young good player. McClaren hasn't dared tried any alternatives- though in Blackburn's David Bentley and Liverpool's Jermaine Pennant alternatives are available. Contrast this to Sven Goran Eriksson who used to go and find players to fill problem positions- most notably giving early caps to the likes of Ashley Cole, John Terry, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole and of course Aaron Lennon- not to mention Theo Walcott. McClaren so far prefers symbolic to actual change: John Terry's embarrassing shirt kissing captaincy and the swift decapitation of the previous regime's leader were radical signals cast out to symbolise change where actually there was none. England have had for the last year a poorer version of the man that they sacked in the summer- we have had Eriksson without any invention.

The whole episode of Beckham's reversal in fortunes speaks a lot for the former captain's qualities- the one thing that you could never say about Beckham was that he didn't care or didn't want success. He did and in an amazing playing career he got it- perhaps looking back his one dissapointment would have been to leave United for a declining Real- having said that he was a key player at Real and may yet win a Spanish title with them. Beckham's revival may well be the last hurrah of a career that many of us will look back on with delight later in life- the epitome of it being a performance against Greece in 2001, where Beckham ran over every blade of grass on the pitch and sometimes seemed to be playing every position before scoring a wonderful freekick to take England through to the 2002 World Cup Finals (a match report can be found here.)

Beckham's place in football history is secure. But McClaren's is wavering. The England Manager does not come out of this episode revealed as a forward thinker or as an intelligent football man. He hasn't performed wonders as a manager either at club or country level yet- as an assistant to good managers (Jim Smith, Alex Ferguson and Eriksson) he did do well- but as a manager he has spent a lot at a midtable Premiership club to get the Carling Cup and managed so far not to impress as England manager. In the latter job this last move may be a desperate attempt to win a game to preserve his place- but the whole episode smacks of a man who responds without a strategy and a clear thought about where the team should be going, who has his eyes on headlines not headers and who fails to understand how international teams are formed over the longterm.

Based on the last twelve months- you'd want Beckham (possibly the younger fitter version) playing for your team but you wouldn't want McClaren to manage it.