EURO 2000: ENGLAND v SCOTLAND: Plenty of commitment, sorry absence of style

IN AN attempt to put one more spin on the dizzy swirl of Hampden hyperbole, Kevin Keegan was invited last Friday to select from a list of emotional extras. Was he nervous, tense, excited, worried? "All those things," Keegan replied, his explanation simply that Scotland would have more going for them individually than the media appeared to imagine. "They've got players who can pass it and run with it," he said.

In the context of unfavourable comparison with history, the long shadows cast by notable past Scots heroes of the game, it struck one or two listeners that Keegan had taken a convenient opportunity to stress that his influence and that of Craig Brown would be less important than the outcome of events on the field. Not the conflict of coaching minds in which Brown was thought to have an edge but of technical accomplishment.

Thinking about that on the eve of the match, odds of 5-4 against an England victory looked like the steal that persuaded one Scot to take pounds 1,000 to pounds 800 on the basis that he could profit from misery.

Certainly, there didn't seem much to justify Keegan's cautious assessment of the opposition. The conclusion reached by one past England player who took part in matches against Scotland was that it would be enough to be fully concentrated and match Scotland's passion. "It's always been the case," he said, "but in my time you'd then think, yeah we can manage that but Denis Law will be rattling into us, Dave Mackay will be all over the place, Jim Baxter threading it through with his left peg and Jimmy Johnstone dribbling us dizzy. No more. You look at the Scottish team now and there isn't a terrific player out there."

Far from being an isolated view it pervaded the thoughts of supporters who were only in good voice for as long as England took to impose their will on the game. After that there was only irrefutable proof that academic influences in Scottish football have failed to compensate for the decline in natural development. Where have all the players gone?

If proportionally better off, England have similar problems so Saturday's encounter was never likely to leave us with encouraging impressions of class and inspiration or warrant the attention drummed up across the airwaves and in newspapers.

In truth all England had to do was approach in it the manner of a Premiership club coming up against Third Division opposition away from home in the FA Cup. Match their muscle, suppress their spirit, silence the crowd and take it from there.

A simple exercise of comparison suggested that while Keegan had no cause to envy of Brown's selections his own could have strengthened Scotland's team in every position. It was that simple. "You come up here with those white shorts tucked up around your arses, we play you off the park, lose one-nil and off you go without a hair out of place," a disgruntled Scot once said to Bobby Moore. "Something like that," Moore replied.

None of England's defenders today come close to matching Moore's composure but they have a resolute quality that made it extremely hard for attackers of limited ability to prosper. Despite Brown's assertion that Scotland spread enough alarm in England's penalty area to deserve goals when Kevin Gallagher shot against David Seaman's legs and Billy Dodds struck the underside of the crossbar, too much of their possession was held in midfield when penetration was the priority.

Given the circumstances England's jubilation was understandable but nobody should get carried away with the idea that they are fully capable of improving upon a 12th-placed Fifa ranking if Wednesday's match at Wembley provides the expected formality of advancement to next summer's finals in the Netherlands and Belgium.

A domestic dust-up obviated the need for Keegan and his cohorts to agonise over the problems brought by more subtlety than Scotland had in their locker and it has become pretty obvious that Keegan puts greater store by the traditional British virtues of pace and power than his predecessors, Glenn Hoddle and Terry Venables.

The modernisation Venables and Hoddle pursued has clearly been set aside. Keegan reverting to the more direct method that was ideal for Saturday's encounter but has failed too often in the past against more sophisticated opposition.

Proof that the ills besetting British international football can be found in development policies came last Thursday night when England narrowly defeated Scotland in an Under-15 match. At an age when they should be encouraged to explore the extent of their talents the players were constrained by imperatives that called their coaches into question.

At a birthday dinner in London on Saturday night I fell into conversation with Malcolm Allison, now in his seventies, and John Cartwright, who once headed the old Football Association school of excellence at Lilleshall. Both are in despair of coaching in this country. "When I watched that Under-15 game I felt like smashing the television set," Cartwright said. "No encouragement for initiative, no sign of class. After all these years the game at that level is still in the hands of educators who can't see beyond winning. Is it any wonder that there wasn't much evidence of class at Hampden?"

England's victory there was achieved by standing up to passion and Paul Scholes's eagerness to fulfil a role seen by some of us as that of an old-fashioned inside-forward. Up and down, getting it, giving it and putting his name on the scoresheet. It's called commitment. Style is something different.

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