Fear of failure makes; England freeze

England 1 Switzerland 1
Click to follow
The Independent Online
A chastened England team will return to their Buckinghamshire hotel this evening to be greeted by a worried coach.

After the 1-1 draw with Switzerland at Wembley on Saturday, Terry Venables admitted he was "puzzled" by England's second-half performance. By now the puzzlement will have gone, replaced by the dread truth that his players were mentally, and perhaps physically, under-equipped to handle the pressure they were under.

England froze on Saturday, they became so paralysed by the fear of failure that they suffered the very thing they were scared of: opening day disappointment. Yet, with 40 minutes gone they seemed perfectly set up. Alan Shearer had finally scored, Paul Gascoigne was finding holes in the Swiss defence. The crowd, lifted by an excellent opening ceremony, were behind them and chances were being created.

But then Kubilay Turkyilmaz bamboozled Stuart Pearce on the right flank and, from his delightful cut-back, Marco Grassi somehow spooned his shot onto the bar. It was the sort of shock that sometimes wakes teams up, makes them think, "that was close, let's get this settled''.

Sometimes, however, the response is a negative one: "that was close, better be careful here''. That was England's reaction. It may well have been provoked by the series of missed chances which had followed Shearer's goal - the sort that make a team begin to believe fate is turning against them. Yet, instead of thinking, as Grassi hit the bar, "at least luck's not on their side either'', they thought, "next time that'll go in''.

Two years of anticipation, months of fighting for a place in the squad, weeks of suffocating attention, crystallised into the stark realisation that England had to win to avoid anti-climax.

Fear steeped into English veins. Legs became heavy with tension, confidence seeped away, players became wary of taking risks. They also began thinking too much about things they would normally do instinctively.

This collective miasma translated into stilted, sloppy passing, rushed clearances and an absence of movement. England retreated into defence, giving the Swiss defenders time on the ball, inviting them towards England's back four. Wembley could not believe it, there was England, their England, hanging on at home against an unremarkable Swiss side. And they, too, caught the mood, the tension catching in their throats, stifling the cheers of encouragement.

The penalty - harsh, but not a mistake - was almost a relief. It broke the tension and England, roared on by a now imploring crowd, at last attacked. But it was too late. England had been undone by their inability to handle the occasion, their lack of tournament experience finding them out.

It showed especially in the fatigue. England seemed worryingly exhausted, yet, while mildly humid, the weather was much easier than earlier in the week and a lot more comfortable than in Hong Kong. The tiredness was as much mental, as physical.

This could have been anticipated. Opening games, especially those involving the host nation, are often anti-climatic. The worrying thing for England is that it is not going to get any better. The build-up to Saturday's England-Scotland match will, if anything, be even more intense, the occasion more passionate, the stakes - after this result - even higher.

Venables' decision to let the players home at the weekend may then be a wise one, as long they were sensible enough to avoid being photographed "winding down". However, it is at odds with one of his main complaints about the England job - the inability to sit down with the team the day after the match to discuss it with them the way club managers do.

There is much to discuss, particularly on a one-to-one basis. Is Darren Anderton really fit? Is Gascoigne fit? Does Steve McManaman have the ability to cross with his left foot, and, if he does, can he discover the confidence to show it?

McManaman's substitution was the most perplexing of England's three. The introduction of Stone was, if anything, belated, but Anderton should have been withdrawn. Such has been Anderton's impact at international level one can understand Venables wanting to leave him on, but, from his early, mis-hit shot, nothing went right for him.

With Shearer, McManaman was England's most positive player and, although his final ball was often poor, at least he provided an attacking outlet. At least his opponent had to defend. His departure is hardly likely to bolster his confidence. Yet Venables said afterwards: "He can cross with his left. I've spoken to him about it and he has not a bad left foot at all, if he had real confidence in it." Not for the first time one pondered the absence from the squad of Jason Wilcox.

Gascoigne's exit was no surprise, he was shattered and his inability to pace himself through matches remains a concern. Venables tried to suggest he was no more tired than others - "I could have taken any one of eight off," he said - but, if that was true, would he really have withdrawn the team's most creative player? One suspects the comment was made to forestall headlines like "Gazza's knackered says Tel".

Given the opponents it is hard to imagine Gascoigne lasting 90 minutes on Saturday. As it is England are likely to stiffen the midfield with either Platt coming in, or one of the wingers playing a more central role. The alternative is to revert to the three-man defence. On Saturday's evidence, Southgate is more likely to be the central figure than Adams.

Wembley, too, will have some concerns for Saturday. Segregation was poor at both ends of the ground and the police made regular incursions into the West end to pull out troublemakers.

Goals: Shearer (22) 1-0; Turkyilmaz (pen 82) 1-1.

ENGLAND (4-4-1-1): Seaman (Arsenal); G Neville (Manchester United), Adams (Arsenal), Southgate (Aston Villa), Pearce (Nottingham Forest); Anderton (Tottenham), Gascoigne (Rangers), Ince (Internazionale), McManaman (Liverpool); Sheringham (Tottenham); Shearer (Blackburn). Substitutes: Barmby (Middlesbrough) for Sheringham, 67; Stone (Nottingham Forest) for McManaman, 67; Platt (Arsenal) for Gascoigne, 74.

England statistics: Bookings: G Neville, Adams. Free-kicks conceded: 25. Goal attempts: 14. Attempts on target: 7. Corners: 4. Caught offside: 5.

SWITZERLAND (4-3-3): Pascolo (Servette); Jeanneret (Neuchatel Xamax), Henchoz (Hamburg), Vega (Grasshopper), Quentin (Sion); Vogel (Grasshopper), Geiger (Grasshopper), Sforza (Bayern Munich); Turkyilmaz (Grasshopper), Bonvin (Sion), Grassi (Monaco). Substitutes: Koller (Grasshopper) for Geiger, 67; Chapuisat (Borussia Dortmund) for Bonvin, 67.

Switzerland statistics: Bookings: Vogel, Quentin, Grassi, Vega. Free- kicks conceded: 13. Goal attempts: 9. Attempts on target: 4. Corners: 6. Caught offside: 3.

Referee: M Diaz Vega (Spain).

Man of the match: Turkyilmaz. Attendance: 76,567.