Jim White

Hail to the chief

Jim White

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At the end of his first year in charge, Fabio Capello has done many things for the England football team. He has organised them well, given them purpose and direction, won a few World Cup qualifiers. He has managed to give a semblance of order to an outfit that before his appointment looked rudderless and hopeless. Naturally, this has encouraged those who always get a little over-excited the moment England win a game or two into making extravagant claims once again about the possibility of South Africa. Capello though has remained level-headed and refused to stoke up the wild expectations. He is too cool for getting over-excited.

But perhaps his most astonishing act as the new alchemist of English football came this week: he actually made an England friendly fun to watch. And for those of us who have been obliged over the past few years to sit through the turgid embarrassment that they had become, that is saying something.

The fact is, until Wednesday, there had not been an England friendly in which any merit had been demonstrated since the game with Argentina in 2005, won in the last moment 3-2. And before that, Sven Goran Eriksson's habit of using eleven substitutes had sucked whatever value they might have had. Over the past few seasons so devalued had they become that there were many - including senior figures in the Premier League - publicly calling for them to be scrapped. Especially those scheduled for mid-November and mid-February were regarded as an awful, pointless, useless distraction. They were a joke.

Capello didn't see it like that. Nor did he see any reason to engage in wearisome club v country debates. He regarded the friendly this week against Germany as a very useful exercise, a chance to assess squad depth away from the corrosive need for results, an opportunity to test some fringe players; everything in short a friendly ought to be.

It might be suggested that this time round injury and the siren call of club commitments meant he had little choice other than to do that. But the interesting thing about the side he sent out in Berlin was that it had shape, it had purpose, it had continuity. True there were only three players - David James, John Terry and Gareth Barry - who might consider themselves as first choice. But what he did with the incoming players was to slot them into a system with which both they and he were comfortable. And suddenly, from England apparently having no depth to their international game, there emerged a squad.

Not that everyone was a success. Darren Bent and Wayne Bridge confirmed what every shrewd judge has long reckoned - they aren't international players. Others, though, seized the chance and played with a freedom and invention that put real pressure on the places of those who consider themselves in possession of the shirt. Gabriel Agbonlahor had a compelling first full run out, Shaun Wright Phillips, Matthew Upson and especially Michael Carrick looked like real contenders. Most telling of all was the performance of Stuart Downing. He was a protégé of the previous manager, Steve McClaren. Yet despite their closeness, McClaren never managed to get a performance out of his Middlesbrough favourite in an England shirt. Under McClaren he always looked more Bent than Rooney, a trier rather than a talent. And sometimes he didn't even look as if he were trying. One game under Capello and suddenly no-one is wondering where all the left-footed Englishmen have gone.

More to the point, the manager somehow persuaded this collection of reserves and second choices to play with a coherence and passion that was wholly lacking when McClaren and latterly Eriksson sent out their best men. It was lively, it was spirited, it was entertaining to watch. England played to their strengths, harrying and closing down and bursting forward when they got the ball. Plus, it was tactically astute. Putting sprinters up against the giant German centre backs knowing that he didn't have the armoury to match them in a high ball scrap, then getting Carrick and Barry to slide through balls for them to run on to, was an idea that worked almost to perfection for Capello. And it was evidence that at last England have something they have lacked for nearly a decade: a proper manager. Whether that is enough finally to produce the trophies the country has craved through several generations of failure only time will tell.

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