Football: Anderton cheers before the jeers

The Tottenham midfielder looks to have put the years of hurt behind him. Andrew Longmore reports

IF the idea of pre-World Cup friendlies is to leave a bit of slack in the rope, England have strain to spare before Marseilles in three weeks' time. The United boys were coming back off leave, Alan Shearer and David Batty were returning to the scene of last Saturday's desolation in different colours and Darren Anderton was stretching his legs on the stretch of turf he last left heavy-hearted in the wake of Gareth Southgate's missed penalty when football was coming home. A kick-about in Hyde Park had more venom.

Hearing the updated version of Three Lions - shouldn't it be 32 years of hurt now? - seeing the fluttering flotilla of flags, feeling the uncut jingoism, Anderton must have wondered whether his last two years had been no more than a bad dream.

Anderton will tell you, in that soft voice of his, about the extra two years of hurt. Five hernia ops and more time than he cares to remember watching the Premiership from his post by the entrance to the tunnel at White Hart Lane; all the barbs about his nickname "Sicknote", invented by Andy Gosney, the reserve-team goalkeeper at Portsmouth where he was more usually known as "Shaggy" after the character in Scooby Doo; the litany of doctors' appointments and disappointments. A mere 21 League starts in two years, just two full games this season, which made a mockery of Glenn Hoddle's bizarre suggestion that he "was a naturally fit boy". When he's not injured, you mean.

If Anderton thought his torment was at an end, a section of the Wembley crowd had other ideas. Arsenal supporters, Gazzamaniacs or sheer ignoramuses? Anderton had to endure a flurry of boos in the second half as the admirably aggressive England line-up flattered to deceive and the rousing send-off, so enthusiastically engineered by the man on the microphone, turned into a lacklustre wave of the hand. Yet his vision and ability to cross the ball marked Anderton out for a plus in an equation of minuses.

In a week devoted to the chastising of Paul Gascoigne, the England coach was able to lend weight to his words of warning by selecting a creative England midfield bereft of the ageing tear-jerker. It was significant that Anderton, not Gascoigne, was given the road test, sporty convertible preferred to rusting charabanc, and just a shame that Anderton never quite found top gear.

There is time yet. Anderton lends a degree of imagination and unpredictability desperately lacking from the England line-up in recent months. An early 40-yard ball utterly surprised Shearer, who backpedalled furiously only to find the ball was meant to hit the free space behind him. Residents of Fawlty Towers have had more service than the Newcastle striker in the last two months. Another long cross produced a flashing header over the bar by the otherwise workaday Andy Hinchcliffe.

"People who were booing him clearly don't understand the game," Glenn Hoddle said. "He kept the ball well and tackled back strongly. His use of the ball was excellent." His assessment contrasted with the Gallic shrug with which he dismissed Gascoigne's 30-minute theatre.

If the question mark over Anderton was largely removed, a few others refused erasure. Anderton might be able to survive a gentle workout against Saudi Arabia, but can he be risked as the right wing-back in front of a three-man defence, a role which requires the stamina of a marathon runner and a heart the size of a melon? And is David Batty, an odd choice as man of the match, enough cover in front of the defence?

Not for the first time in an undistinguished build-up, England looked uncomfortable in reverse. The quicksilver Sayeed Al-Owairan could have embarrassed Adams and Co far more seriously had David Seaman not been at his most alert.

The Saudi Arabians, well organised by Carlos Parreira, the peripatetic Brazilian World Cup-winning coach whose record against England - with Kuwait, Brazil and Saudi Arabia - reads played five, won two, drawn two, created as many chances as England, the last of them the best when Ibrahim Sweid Al-Shahrani, handful and mouthful all afternoon, sliced a left-foot shot wide from 15 yards on the stroke of the final whistle. Had that been buried with the clinical efficiency of a Brazilian, Italian or, dare one say it, Tunisian, the final rousing chorus of Three Lions, which just drowned out the jeers, would have sounded even more outdated. The worrying thought is that England are a few cylinders short of full power. And the time for repairs is running out.

"On top of the world," blared the loudspeakers as England did a desultory semi-lap of honour. But only the most sanguine of souls departing the Twin Towers yesterday could seriously believe that a parade of the Jules Rimet Trophy will be part of the next Wembley convention in the autumn. "Comme ci, comme ca," as Hoddle said. At least the French accent had potential.

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