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The Camden Cad
Aug 24, 2004
North London
Happy Birthday Fabio! It's now exactly a year since Mladen Petric rifled in Croatia's third goal at a rain-soaked Wembley, mercifully bringing an end to the Steve McClaren era. A year since Fabio Capello wondered if he might be able to do a better job. The Italian manager told reporters last night that it was, "impossible," for his first year to have gone any better and, looking back, he's absolutely right.

"We've played 10 games," he said, "and after every game I've seen the players taking another step forward. This evening I saw us take another step forward because a lot of players played very, very well. Like a team. When I started my job, I had to recover the confidence. I think all the players in this team understand and have experienced this. You can see that the confidence is coming back, during training and during games. This is very important."

Any examination of Capello's record requires a reminder of just how bad England were under McClaren. Stripped of confidence, they were incapable of stringing passes together, made errors that would shame a pub team and were weighed down with foolish tactics. There was no fight, no desire and no pride. It was a disparate band of players all looking for somewhere to hide.

When Capello arrived he was like a doctor talking to a patient in shock. What's your name? What do you do? Yes, that's right, you're a footballer. Can you do something for me? Can you? Can you just pass the ball to that bloke in a white shirt? Look, he's only five yards away, you can do it.

For the first thirty minutes against Switzerland in February, that's all that England did. They just passed the ball backwards and forwards, trying to remember what possession felt like. The England fans, at their bovine best, booed until they were blue in their fat, stupid faces. Cautious, patient possession based football? That's not what we do round here!

Defeat, in a tired March friendly, to the World Cup runners-up followed, but that was to be the first and last of the year. A comfortable victory over a poor American side and summer trip to Trinidad set the players up nicely. before a disappointing performance against the Czech Republic brought the boo-boys back into the picture.

But all the while England were improving the little things, the basics of football that they seemed to have forgotten. Even in their most sub-standard displays, they were still showing the urgency, the desire to win that had been lacking under McClaren. They were still passing the ball. Players spoke of a new discipline in the squad. A manager who didn't refer to them by their nicknames and expected them to work if they were going to play. Success in the World Cup qualifiers was almost inevitable.

England are only looking so good because someone has finally taken command of the team and built them up from the foundations. There's a lot left to do before they can consider themselves challengers for the World Cup. The players are still over-confident when leading, there is a lack of quality in goal and no-one's entirely sure how the Galacticos in midfield will fit in when they return. But these are debates for another day. If every year under Capello is as impressive as this one, then may there be many, many more to look forward to.