Fans switching allegiance

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The Independent Online
KEN JONES

An irrefutable truth about English football is that the days are long gone when the national team was more or less guaranteed to draw a full house for friendly fixtures at Wembley.

An attendance of barely 20,000, the lowest at the stadium since Terry Venables took over as coach, did not reflect disenchantment with his stewardship but simply an over- whelming preference for club football. Considering also extortionate pricing in the Premiership, the cost of a night out at Wembley - pounds 7 to park and pounds 4 for a programme on top of a match ticket - and that Sky television's advance publicity reaches only a small proportion of the public, it was not surprising that the great majority of seats were empty.

There is a substantial case for staging these matches in provincial settings, but because of the Football Association's contractual obligation to Wembley, preparations for next summer's European Championship will not be enlivened by fervent support.

This was the same last night because England gave by far the most purposeful and encouraging performance under Venables, what he is seeking in terms of collective endeavour becoming clearer against opponents of high quality.

That progress was achieved at the expense of some anxiety in defence will however cause England's coach to think even more deeply about the problems that unquestionably lie ahead.

It was a quite extraordinary match with numerous shooting opportunities falling to both teams and Colombia's flamboyant goalkeeper Rene Higuita once clearing a shot with his heels after performing a handstand worthy of any circus acrobat.

Combining instinctive trickery and intelligent grouping with sudden switches in play and successful attempts at luring England's central defenders out of position, Colombia confirmed the reputation that preceded them to last year's World Cup in the USA, one that was to collapse in mysterious circumstances.

However, England's movement off the ball and their spirited attempts to gain possession was always commendable and an encouraging blend quickly developed between Alan Shearer and Nick Barmby. Twice in the opening 15 minutes Shearer looked like improving his goal count for England, first with a lob against the bar with Higuita beaten and then with a fierce shot from Barmby's pass that caused the Colombian keeper considerable anxiety as he stretched to palm the ball away.

As Venables sent out a young team he has every reason to approach the coming months with some optimism, even if there are plenty of things to occupy his attention.

In all, England struck the woodwork three times but as David Seaman was required to be at his best in the England goal, making at least two outstanding saves, it was never a game that England could be confident of winning.

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