Football: Adams and Steven out of England reckoning: Taylor holds fast to his 'dream' of World Cup qualification

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The Independent Online
HE HAD been walking in the grounds with his personal PR man and came in with the Martin Luther King routine: 'I have a dream'. Unfortunately, Graham Taylor bears closer resemblance to poor old Luther Blissett, the scattergun striker they used to call 'Miss-it', and England need not so much a dream as a full-blown miracle if they are to get to the World Cup now.

The requirement was 'very simple', Taylor said. England had to beat San Marino by seven goals in Bologna on Wednesday while the Netherlands were losing in Poland. Simple? Hardly. Scoring seven in such a pressure situation is never easy, and the likelihood of the Poles beating the Dutch was rendered infinitesimal by the exclusion of all their foreign-based players.

England travel in hope rather than expectation, the manager's persecution complex convincing him that the hope some are travelling with is a perverse one. 'Certain people want me to fail,' he said. 'It's a personal thing - one of the baser sides of human nature.'

If there are such people - and he refused to name names - it has all been going their way of late, Taylor's team winning just one of their last eight games.

The day he took charge, he spoke of lifting the World Cup. Three years on, his 'dream' is merely to qualify. What had gone wrong in the interim? 'The dream changed when reality set in,' he said, sadly.

He tried hard to be positive, but the upbeat stuff was forced, and lacked conviction. 'Poland relying on their home-based players might be a good thing, who knows? Would you rather be going to San Marino looking for a good win or to Poland looking for a draw? Perhaps it's not over yet.'

If it was, what would Thursday hold? He laughed, without amusement. 'Never mind Thursday, what about Wednesday night and the reception at Luton airport?'

Taylor preferred to seek comfort in another vision. 'Everybody has to have a dream, and the dream I have is qualification. While it's a distant dream, it's not over yet.' Some people had lost faith and 'stopped believing', but he was looking to players who were 'still holding on to their dream'.

One player certain to be straining every sinew is Stuart Ripley, the Blackburn Rovers winger, who has been told that he will definitely be making his debut on the right of a four-man forward line.

Such is the poverty of the opposition - San Marino have conceded 39 goals while scoring one - that England are unlikely to miss the defensive strength of Tony Adams, who dropped out yesterday with flu. Trevor Steven has also withdrawn, with a groin injury, and Alan Shearer is considered too great a risk after missing a week's training with back trouble.

Taylor has decided not to summon reinforcements, content that he still has a big enough sledgehammer to crack this puniest of nuts.

Keen to maximise England's scoring potential, he considered reverting to the old WM formation, with a front three supported by two inside-forwards. The notion was abandoned, reluctantly, ' because players today don't know what you're talking about when you mention the old WM'. Instead, England would deploy in 4-2-4 shape 'which the players understand'.

Norway rattled in 10 against San Marino, the Dutch six at home and seven away. England scored six and missed a penalty at Wembley, so their half of Wednesday's requirement is not beyond them. Pressure is likely to prove a more difficult opponent than the bus drivers and postal clerks from this real life Ruritania with a population the size of Penzance.

Taylor acknowledges the problem and will be stressing the need for patience and mental strength. 'Every shot that misses, it will be, 'Crikey, time is running out and we've missed', but the players held their nerve very well at home and came on late to finish strongly.'

There is some sort of precedent for the scenario England need, an improbable win by Scotland in Bulgaria having brought the Republic of Ireland an unexpected place in the 1988 European Championship.

What would be the managerial reaction if his 'dream' came true? 'Up yours,' he said, with appropriate hand signals.

Dream on . . . unless. The man from the Guardian may have hit on the answer. 'Have the FA considered bribery?' he wondered. Even Taylor had to laugh.

More football, pages 34 and 35