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October 13, 2006 3:00 am
Steve McClaren enjoyed a short honeymoon as England manager, which was abruptly ended by last Saturday's goalless draw against Macedonia and Wednesday's dismal 2-0 defeat in Croatia. His only consolation is that he at least has time on his side as he attempts to woo back a disillusioned nation.
England's next qualifying match for the 2008 European Championships is not until March, when they travel to Israel. This will not be an easy fixture - the Israelis are unbeaten in 13 competitive games, dating back to a defeat in France three years ago, and they have not lost a qualifier at home since 1999. Ashley Cole will also miss the game through suspension, after collecting his second yellow card of the campaign in Croatia.
The pressure would have been cranked up to maximum if McClaren had had to take his team there next month, with confidence shattered and the likes of Owen Hargreaves, Joe Cole and Aaron Lennon not yet ready to return. Another quick defeat might even have forced the Football Association to consider the manager's position.
But the five-month break from competitive action allows McClaren and his assistant Terry Venables some breathing space, time to rethink their strategy and hope someone or something emerges from the debris of Zagreb.
For now, however, they have to live with the tactical disaster of switching to a 3-5-2 formation from the 4-4-2 that had at least provided defensive steel during and since the unimpressive World Cup performances. McClaren accepted that it "obviously didn't work" and that "a lot of things have gone wrong".
Among the issues he must reflect on before March are the apparently chronic inability of so many English players to master the basic technical skills of controlling and passing the ball; the lack of adequate replacements when the best players are absent; whether the speed of the domestic game prepares the national team for international competition; and the amount of foreign stars in the Premiership that condemns native players of the ability of Shaun Wright-Phillips to substitute appearances.
But none of these factors will change before March. And Israel, who along with Macedonia and Croatia are level on seven points with England at the top of Group E, will not be trembling at the prospect of hosting McClaren's men. Israel and Croatia have also played one game less.
The England manager can only hope that in March he will be able to call on at least a near-full strength side, which was probably the only extenuating circumstance in Zagreb.
*FOOTBALL Tony Mowbray on Thursday said his farewells to his Hibernian players before travelling south to discuss personal terms over becoming West Bromwich Albion's manager. The Edinburgh club and Albion have agreed compensation regarding the former Ipswich player and coach.
Hibs chairman Rod Petrie said: ''Tony joined us asan experienced coach two-and-a-half years ago and if he leaves, he leaves as a very talented manager. Tony made no secret of the fact that his ultimate ambition is to be a manager in the Premier League and if he is appointed manager of West Brom that takes him one step closer to it."
Former Newcastle assistant manager Kevin Bond, who was fired by the club last month after the Panorama programme on alleged corruption, has been appointed manager of League One side Bournemouth. Bond, 49, who made over 100 appearances for the Cherries as a player, replaces Sean O'Driscoll after he quit to take over at Doncaster four weeks ago.
Bond joined Newcastle in July but had his contract terminated after the BBC programme made allegations about him. He has strenuously denied any wrongdoing and announced he will take legal action.
*CRICKET Captain Andrew Flintoff impressed in his new role higher up the batting order as England warmed up for the ICC Champions Trophy with an emphatic victory over a Rajasthan Cricket Association XI. Flintoff hit 59 from number three and there were half-centuries for Ian Bell and Jamie Dalrymple in a 144-run win.
The solitary warm-up game before Sunday's meeting with hosts India also saw all six bowlers used claim wickets as coach Duncan Fletcher enjoyed the spectacle of the majority of the squad gaining useful and impressive playing time.
It was Flintoff's typical innings, off just 53 balls, that set the early pace as his second-wicket partnership of exactly 100 with Bell laid the platform for a reasonable total atthe KL Saini ground. Afterwards, he refused to confirm where he would bat in the three group matches of this event, his first international action since the Test series against Sri Lanka at the start of the summer because of a surgery on an ankle.
''You look at the depth of batting in the side and there are all different ways we can use the order," Flintoff said. ''That is something myself and the coach will discuss, there are a number of different routes we can go down, and it is about where is the best place, not just for myself, but for the rest of thelads, too."
*TENNIS Tim Henman's coach Paul Annacone is in line to become the new head of men's tennis at the Lawn Tennis Association, according to LTA chief executive Roger Draper.
American Annacone, who also helped Pete Sampras to a record 14 major titles, has been in discussions with Draper, who is convinced the way to enhance his organisation's potential is to appoint some of the most respected names in the sport. Brad Gilbert is already on board as a coach, primarily to British number one Andy Murray.
Draper told BBC Radio Five Live: ''We are talking with Paul. We would like to think he is in the running."
Peter Lundgren, the former coach of world number one Roger Federer and Marat Safin, who assisted the British team during their recent Davis Cup match in Ukraine, is also in contention.
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