England's caretaker manager is treating the friendly against Holland like a job application for Euro 2012 but the odds are against him staying in charge beyond this match
For the second time in a few days a penalty shootout took place at Wembley, only this time the stadium was nearly deserted as, one by one, the players set out on that lonely walk from the centre circle. Stuart Pearce stood at the side, holding a clipboard, making notes and looking every bit like a man not just preparing for a game against Holland but building his dossier for Euro 2012.
Pearce has made it pretty clear he wants the job on a short-term basis and his players now know it too, given that this was him starting the business of finding the best penalty-takers for Poland and Ukraine. Even the goalkeepers were tested for their accuracy from 12 yards. Only three players – Ashley Cole, Theo Walcott and Scott Carson – missed out of the 22.
On the one hand, one has to admire the thoroughness of Pearce's work. On the other, it is difficult not to wonder whether he is wasting his time.
However extensive his notes, whatever team is chosen, whoever gets the captain's armband, Harry Redknapp will almost certainly have other ideas if he gets the job – if, that is, the Football Association decides to look beyond Pearce, in keeping with the popular assumption. There is an old saying – particularly relevant to the FA, one could say – that you should never assume, in case it makes an ass out of u and me. Nobody, in truth, can be sure who is going to be involved this summer.
This is the kind of uncertainty that has been swilling around England's camp since Fabio Capello's final arrivederci and will continue to do so until the FA finally gets round to accelerating the process of appointing a proper replacement. In the meantime one can only wonder what they make of it in, say, Spain or Germany. On Thursday it will be 100 days before Poland against Greece gets Euro 2012 under way in Warsaw and, for now, England offer very little but confusion. No manager, no captain, no sense of order – and no Wayne Rooney, of course, for the first two games.
James Milner, one of the squad's diplomats, described it earlier in the week as "not ideal" and Hart rolled his eyes knowingly when reminded of those comments. "It never is," he said. "There's always something interesting going on, let's not lie about it. 'It' happens. I won't say the real word, but you know what I mean. 'It' happens. That's what we are. There's always something. You just have to roll with it."
This is why all the fuss about the captaincy is a strangely overrated sideshow when the truth is that whoever gets that little piece of black cloth might have to return it within a few weeks. No other country is so obsessed about the captaincy and, quite frankly, there are more important issues. Pearce even slipped out of FA-friendly talk to refer to John Terry as "the current captain". Which was perhaps the one time since taking over as caretaker manager that he has been in danger of putting his foot in it.
Most of all, Pearce spoke of it being an opportunity for the younger players and he was justified to do so because the lesson of history is that these February fixtures can have a telling influence before major tournaments. In 1992 Alan Shearer made his debut against France and went to that summer's European Championship. In 1996 it was Robbie Fowler's turn. Two years later an 18-year-old Michael Owen played his first England game in a 2-0 defeat by Chile and everyone knows what happened at the World Cup four months later in St-Etienne. Steven Gerrard and Gareth Barry received their first call-ups for the 2000 friendly against Argentina.
Twelve years on Gerrard's injuries have deprived him of an England cap since the France game in November 2010. He sat out the eight-a-side match Pearce had arranged in training, easing himself in after the rigours of Sunday's Carling Cup final. Yet Gerrard is keen to be prominently involved, on the basis he has never before played with such as Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Gary Cahill and Daniel Sturridge.
Elsewhere Micah Richards has plenty to prove after being marginalised in the Capello era. Pearce has made it clear, in the politest way possible, that he could not make sense of Capello's reluctance to involve Richards, and the Manchester City player's chances of going straight into the team have been significantly enhanced by Glen Johnson following Kyle Walker in withdrawing from the squad.
Joleon Lescott's call-up is merely to provide cover, given that Pearce had left him out of the original squad on the basis he wanted to look at younger alternatives for the central defensive positions. Of those Smalling has been more dependable for Manchester United than Jones and probably deserves to play alongside Cahill. Pearce may even start with both United players but, even if not, one can expect a raft of substitutions in this time of experimentation.
As for Pearce, he too must feel under trial. A bad result and his job application can be discarded in the nearest shredding machine. This is why the inexperienced players will have reassurance alongside them in the form of Gerrard and Ashley Cole. Pearce later revealed he had already tweaked some of the logistical plans building up to the summer – little things such as hotel and training arrangements. Again this felt like a man preparing to be around in June and, once more, it was tempting to wonder whether he might be in for disappointment. Earlier this week Capello sent him a text message carrying the simple message "good luck". He may need it.