England to put accent on youth

Ian Ridley says the French trip will give Hoddle the chance to experiment
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The Independent Online
A tournament too far, the Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson called it, and it is true that the four-team Tournoi in which England compete this week extends a wearying season for Premiership managers worrying about the well-being of their players. Who, though, can say that any matches against Italy, France and Brazil are either wasted or worthless?

England's opening match against Italy in Nantes on Wednesday will indeed be a curious phoney-war affair with the nations meeting again in October in Rome in a crucial World Cup qualifying match. How strong the desire to establish a psychological advantage with a victory; how much to hold back?

In addition, England will be travelling to western France from more meaningful action in Poland, with injuries and fatigue likely to play a part. It is likely, in a tournament which could see all 22 squad members start a match, that England will field all but a reserve team.

Thereafter, against France in Montpellier next Saturday and Brazil in Paris the following Tuesday, the matches are likely to carry more significance. The two opponents, both at full strength, have not been playing qualifying matches for next summer's World Cup finals as hosts and holders and will treat the occasions as competitive.

"I feel the tournament on and off the pitch is about looking at players," says the England coach Glenn Hoddle. "It would be lovely to go and win it but that's not my main reason for looking forward to pitting our skills and tactics against three very strong nations."

Hoddle had planned to experiment radically in the case of Jamie Redknapp, who was to be tried as a libero coming out of defence. An injury to Redknapp now precludes it but we should still see the long-awaited debut in the centre of midfield of David Beckham. Other Manchester United kids in Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt can also expect their first starts.

"It's an opportunity for young players to play against the best," says Hoddle. "It will be interesting to see how they handle it. I might come away thinking 'he couldn't adapt' or 'he did much better than I thought he would'." Bonuses, he believes, are the opportunities to bond a squad over three weeks and to rectify failings the day after matches rather than wait until the next get-together.

"But the most important thing for me is the players learning about the environment and for me to get an insight into what it could be like in 12 months' time," he adds. "Is the travelling too much or yes, that's the way we would want to do it? In many ways it's an experiment to see if we can get ready for the World Cup finals if we get there."

"If we get there," punctuates Hoddle's comments these days and even if he does remain confident, he is wise not to sound presumptuous. The fear for many England observers going into last night's match in Poland was that it carried echoes of Graham Taylor's ill-fated campaign in 1993. Then, what looked like a reasonable result in Katowice, a 1-1 draw, was wasted a few days later with the 2-0 defeat in Norway. The squad then limped on dispirited and dishevelled to the United States for another summer tournament - in which they were beaten by the host nation and Germany and drew with Brazil - 12 months ahead of a World Cup finals.

Hoddle refuses to countenance comparisons at this stage and is unworried that England might be embarrassed. "We have got the players who can perform against the best," he insists. "The days when you get or give a hammering in international football are few and far between. To pit your playing skills and your tactics as a coach against these sort of players is exactly what we will see in 12 months time if we are there, and it's a great experience."