Les Ferdinand went back to Newcastle last night, still glowing with the memory of his fourth goal for England and, more importantly, his first under Terry Venables. He could only be happier if he was taking Teddy Sheringham with him.
When Sheringham is in the form he showed last night, one suspects even Mr Blobby would look good alongside him; he is certainly easier to play with than Faustino Asprilla.
Sheringham created Ferdinand's sixth-minute goal and linked well all night. He was the outstanding player as England looked as potent an attacking force as in any of their 15 matches under Venables. They had enough chances to match England's best under him, the 5-0 win over a weak Greek side nearly two years ago.
That they failed to do so will be of mild concern to Venables. Chances will be rarer in the summer, and will need to be taken. Bulgaria underlined this in the closing stages when they nearly snatched an undeserved draw. First Emil Kostadinov spurned a fine chance, then his last-minute "goal" was disallowed for Daniel Borimirov's handball.
A draw would have been hard on an England side which has given Venables some welcome selection problems. The midfield pairing of Paul Ince and Paul Gascoigne worked well, showing a good mix of discipline and creativity; Steve McManaman teased on the left flank while Gareth Southgate made a promising full debut in central defence. There was even a run-out for Robbie Fowler, though he had little chance to shine, especially as Sheringham's exit coincided with his arrival.
Bulgaria gave a curious display. Yordan Lechkov, seeking a transfer to England, impressed in the second half, and Bobby Mikhailov, the Reading goalkeeper, was excellent. But there was little else from a side with seven of the XI who lost to Italy in the World Cup semi-finals two years ago.
Even this pedigree attracted a sub-30,000 crowd, but those who came were quickly rewarded as Ferdinand scored his first England goal for two and a half years. Sheringham took possession just inside the Bulgarian half. He saw Ferdinand steaming down the centre and hit a marvellous, chipped through ball. Ferdinand's first touch took the ball on his chest and, after brushing aside the challenge of Trifon Ivanov, the second slipped it under the body of Mikhailov.
Within minutes Ferdinand was on the floor, nursing a bruised calf, as Ivanov took swift retribution. Emil Kremenliev, who had twice been turned inside by McManaman, countered with a body-check and a trip.
Eventually, after 32 minutes, Kremenliev was booked for yet another foul on McManaman. From the free-kick Steve Stone won a corner, taken by Pearce, which Sheringham headed just wide. It was the first of a series of chances as England, with Ince and Gascoigne commanding midfield, swept forward.
Ferdinand played an excellent one-two with Sheringham and outpaced the defence before losing control, allowing Mikhailov to save. The goalkeeper then rushed out to deny Gascoigne before producing an exceptional save from a Sheringham volley. From the resultant corner he was left clutching the ball on the goal-line after Ferdinand's shot had deflected off Ivailo Yordanov.
Next Sheringham released McManaman who went round Mikhailov but lost control, then a McManaman shot was turned on to the post by Ferdinand.
The only disappointing aspect of the England performance was the defensive shape. With Bulgaria playing two up, one defender should have been stepping into midfield to balance numbers. However, the back four remained rigidly within their comfort zone.
Within a few minutes of the second half it was clear that Venables had made the same point as Southgate moved forward, going past three players before taking a return pass on the right wing. The cross led to a Gascoigne free-kick from which Sheringham, ghosting in at the far post, headed weakly.
The Bulgarians, whose only goal against England was 28 years ago, had made three half-time changes and looked sharper. Six minutes into the second period Borimirov, one of the substitutes, broke through and was pulled down by Pearce just outside the box. Pearce was booked, and the free-kick wasted, but it was a revealing moment.
England continued to make - and miss - the better chances. On the hour Ince won a free-kick which Pearce shaped to thump - instead Gascoigne slipped a short pass to McManaman who thrashed the ball over the bar. It is a favoured Venables move, and he held his head in his hands at the waste.
All this time David Seaman had stood alone, although given his shirt was as garish as his team-mates' were drab he could not be said to be anonymous. Finally, after 72 minutes, he was called upon to make a clearance.
Ferdinand, who had stretched Dimitar Popov with a powerful shot, then turned potential provider with an excellent cross from the byline which went to waste.
It was his last act as Fowler came on, partnered by David Platt in the Sheringham role. On Bulgaria's last Wembley visit, in 1979, Glenn Hoddle made a goalscoring debut. Fowler had no such opportunity.
ENGLAND (4-4-2): Seaman (Arsenal); G Neville (Manchester United), Southgate (Aston Villa), Howey (Newcastle United), Pearce (Nottingham Forest); Stone (Nottingham Forest), Gascoigne (Rangers), Ince (Internazionale), McManaman (Liverpool); Ferdinand (Newcastle United), Sheringham (Tottenham Hotspur). Substitutes: Platt (Arsenal) for Sheringham, 77; Lee (Newcastle United) for Gascoigne, 77; Fowler (Liverpool) for Ferdinand, 77.
BULGARIA (3-5-2): Mikhailov (Reading); Yankov (Uerdingen), Hubchev (Hamburg), Ivanov (Rapid Vienna); Kremenliev (Olympiakos), Kiryakov (Anorthosis Famagusta), Lechkov (Hamburg), Yordanov (Sporting Lisbon), Ginchev (Denizlispor); Kostadinov (Bayern Munich), Penev (Atletico Madrid). Substitutes: Popov (CSKA Sofia) for Mikhailov, h-t; Genchev (Luton Town) for Ginchev h-t; Borimirov (1860 Munich) for Yordanov h-t; Kishishev (Neftochimik Bourgas) for Kremenliev, 84; Sirakov (Slavia Sofia) for Penev, 84.
Referee: G Benkoe (Austria).
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