Monday, 2 November 2009

Fab-ulous Turnaround!

Written by Jamie Holt.

What a difference 2 years make. For it was a rainy November night back in 2007 that England, led by Steve McClaren, capitulated at home to Croatia 3-2, and failed to qualify for their first major tournament for 14 years.

Not since USA 1994 had England and its fans felt as dejected - until a certain well disciplined Italian stepped into what many considered the most pressurised job in world football.

F.A Chief Executive, Brian Barwick, keen to avoid the circus that culminated in Steve McClaren’s appointment in 2006, quickly set his sights on the outgoing Real Madrid coach Fabio Capello.

Having just won La Liga with Los Blancos, Capello was sacked by Madrid for being too negative, a criticism labelled on him throughout his time at A.C Milan, where he remarkably won 4 Serie A’s in 5 seasons in the early nineties, but his renowned hard-line attitude was the attribute that most impressed Barwick and his delegation.

Capello’s first task after taking over in January 2008 was to appoint a captain, a figure head in the squad to which his team would replicate in attitude and commitment. John Terry was the obvious candidate.

Unease from the fans under McClaren led to nervousness and the squad seemed to have little cohesion or togetherness. This was something Capello also wanted to change, and used the five friendlies building up to the qualifying campaign to build a team spirit, and also mould a team in his philosophy. 4 wins and a draw didn’t do much harm for confidence either.

Qualifying started in much the same vein, an easy win against Andorra in the opener was followed by a magnificent 4-1 win in Zagreb, less than 10 months after McClaren was jeered out of Wembley against the same opponents.

This seemed to be a catalyst for hope amongst England fans, now firmly behind their team. And the wins kept on coming, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine were all soundly defeated, and with a certain style that led to England being top scorers in the 2010 qualifying campaign, finishing with a total of 34 in 10 games – 1 better than Brazil, who played 8 games more.

Capello had quickly found a formula that worked. Solving the Steven Gerrard - Frank Lampard conundrum by playing the Liverpool skipper on the left but ably supporting Wayne Rooney seemed the main masterstroke, but equally as decisive was the partnering of Wayne Rooney with Emile Heskey, particularly in the early qualifying games.

Rooney was given the liberty to play his own game, playing off and around Heskey, Gerrard and Lampard. This responsibility undoubtedly paid off, with Rooney topping the goal scoring charts with 9 in 10 games.

England qualified with 2 games to spare courtesy of another thrashing of Croatia, this time 5-1, showing just how far England have come under Capello.

But feet remain firmly on the ground, at least as far as the Italian is concerned. Defeat in Ukraine in the penultimate qualifying game wasn’t acceptable, and he let his team know about it in no uncertain terms.

And there are still up to 8 places still up for contention in the 23 man squad bound for South Africa. It is Capello’s aim now to maintain those high standards set by his players throughout the build up to the World Cup – and beyond.

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