China game still in doubt over pitch

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The Independent Online
The night of the long knives turned out to be no more ruthless than one with chopsticks as Terry Venables stayed his selectorial hand yesterday, writes Glenn Moore.

Instead of trimming his current squad for England's trip to China and Hong Kong next week the national coach actually increased the party to 26, adding Ugo Ehiogu to the group preparing for tomorrow's match with Hungary. Then he told the two contenders who are to be left behind - Gary Pallister and Steve Howey - that they have not yet been ruled out of Euro 96.

Several thousand miles away Ted Buxton, Venables' right-hand man, was also forced to vacillate as the now-infamous pitch at the Workers' Stadium in Peking again failed to pass a pitch inspection. Buxton sensed there were problems when the Chinese tried to prevent him even seeing the pitch at close hand and his fears were realised when they relented.

"I've had a little bit of a showdown with them," he said with typical understatement. "They did not want me to go on the pitch at first. I told them if I did not see the pitch there wouldn't be a game. They've got new grass in the goalmouth but other areas are still bare."

Buxton will stay on to oversee improvements but a final decision on the game will be taken when England arrive on Monday. It will be a hard decision. With so few games left Venables is desperate to play but equally keen to avoid injuries. Lazio did risk their limbs on it yesterday, when they beat China 2-1, but they do not have a major tournament to prepare for.

If the game is off the whole reasoning behind the tour falls apart. England would have gone to South Africa but could arrange only one game; they would have gone to North America but were worried about hooliganism. Now it looks as if they may get only one game - against a Hong Kong club side - for which security has been heightened because of fears that British expats will cause crowd problems.

Venables will not decide his final squad until 29 May. Until then 28 players will be chasing 22 places. The delay could put players on edge and lead to dissension, but to pick the squad now, as the coaches of Italy, Germany and the Netherlands have done, would be to become a hostage to fortune.

"They've been at this game longer than me so maybe I'm missing a trick," Venables said yesterday, "but what if someone gets injured before then?"

Quite, especially with up to three matches to play first. As it is, Pallister and Howey will be recalled only if someone is injured. Venables had anticipated that one of them would have made the tour, but, since neither has, Ehiogu has been called up.

Tony Adams is still doubtful, while Steve Stone and Darren Anderton were also having problems yesterday, but both are expected to play. Either Dennis Wise or Jason Wilcox is likely to be on the left with Rob Lee replacing David Platt inside them.

Alan Shearer is another doubt. Although he is doing 300 sit-ups a day he is still not entirely recovered from his groin operation. He trained yesterday but it would be an unnecessary risk to start with him against Hungary.

ENGLAND SQUAD (for the Far East tour to play China on May 23 and Hong Kong on May 26): Seaman (Arsenal), Flowers (Blackburn), Walker (Tottenham); G Neville (Man Utd), Adams (Arsenal), Wright (Liverpool), Ehiogu (Aston Villa), Southgate (Aston Villa), Campbell (Tottenham), Pearce (Nottm Forest), P Neville (Man Utd), Anderton (Tottenham), Stone (Nottm Forest), Gascoigne (Rangers), Ince (Inter), Wise (Chelsea), Platt (Arsenal), Lee (Newcastle), Redknapp (Liverpool), Wilcox (Blackburn), McManaman (Liverpool), Ferdinand (Newcastle), Fowler (Liverpool), Barmby (Middlesbrough), Beardsley (Newcastle), Sheringham (Tottenham), Shearer (Blackburn).