English spirit and slice of luck

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The Independent Online
Shortly before Euro 96 got under way, Alex Ferguson put forward a case for the team England defeated on Saturday. "Spain are my dark horses," the Manchester United manager stated on television.

When Terry Venables heard this, he felt that Ferguson could have made even more of Spain's chances. "I don't know why people are holding back on them," he said, "because to my mind they are among the favourites. They have extremely skilful players and are now much better prepared for the demands of a championship."

The respect Venables held out for Spain and their coach, his old Barcelona rival, Javier Clemente, was borne out in the first half of a gripping encounter. As the interval approached you could imagine Venables thinking that it would take a great deal of grit and passion to overcome Spain's technical superiority.

In his efforts to modernise England's national team Venables has come up against problems that arise from the intensity of play in the Premiership. Keeping the ball figures prominently in his teaching, along with patience and concentration.

Watching first from above to get a clear view of shape and tactical deployment, England's coach must have been alarmed by proceedings. One or two openings had been made but Spain looked the better team, playing with a relaxed fluency that even the most fervent English patriots found impressive.

By then you could sense bemusement in the audience. High on the chauvinism aroused by down-market tabloids, dolled up in give-away hats and favours, it was as though they could not understand why England had not taken a commanding lead inside 20 minutes.

Perhaps they will now understand that this is not a great England team but simply one that is responding to intelligent tution and powers of motivation.

As England made for their dressing room at half-time, a reasonable analogy was that of a boxer returning to his corner in in the middle of a fight in which he is being visibly embarrassed by a more adept opponent. He is still in the fight but needs his seconds to come up with suggestions. When interviewed before the match Venables emphasied the importance of an alternative strategy. "I'm sure it will be different from the game against Holland and depending on how it goes we may have to change a few things,'' he said.

When England came out again it was with a renewed sense of purpose, especially in midfield, which had belonged mostly to the Spaniards. Press earlier on the ball, would have been one of the things he called for. Picking up the pace, England immediately looked more threatening and got more out of Steve McManaman.

Most important, however, was the spirit for which British football is famous. As only a few thousand Spaniards were present in the crowd, England had overwhelming support and they made the most of it.

What must be said, too, is that England had good fortune going for them. Tony Adams was outstanding in a stout defence but had Spain possessed a quick-footed finisher they would surely have reached the semi-finals, and in any case are entitled to feel hard done by. Television replays showed that an offside decision against Salinas cost them a perfectly good goal and Alfonso, who was ludicrously booked for diving, had in fact been tripped by Gascoigne in the penalty area. These incidents may have strengthened England's sense of destiny but that much rub of the green amounts to a commercial for liniment.

When the teams drew breath before engaging in what turned out to be a maximum period of extended activity, one thing struck me as being historically interesting. I know these comparisons keep cropping up but before extra time in the 1966 World Cup final Alf Ramsey ordered his players to remain on their feet to establish a psychological advantage over the Germans who were sprawled on the turf.

Something similar happened on Saturday. England stood up. The Spaniards lay down to have their legs massaged. No metaphorical significance should be read into this because Spain went on to cause England considerable anxiety.

The idea that penalty shoot-outs are an ordeal for goalkeepers is nonsense. No blame is attached to them and there are opportunities to achieve lasting celebration. All the pressure is on the takers.

When Hierro strode up for the first penalty on Saturday the whistling was enough to have drowned out the noise made by Concorde at take off. I guess it would have been matched every where else in football but so much for the ideal of fair play Uefa keeps going on about. Having rarely put a foot wrong in the match, poor Hierro lost his nerve and shot against the crossbar.

David Seaman's save from Nadal finally put paid to Spain, but Hierro's miss was the moment of truth for them.