Football: Business as usual for an island in isolation: British clubs concentrate on domestic disputes as Ardiles, Ferguson and Keegan show way ahead

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WITH A sigh of relief British football can turn inwards today to resume domestic programmes that have always stirred far more debate and passion on the terraces than foreign entanglements. As the Leeds chairman, Leslie Silver, put it: 'I'd rather see Leeds win the championship than England win their next match.'

To put Silver into context he was discussing the possibility of losing Howard Wilkinson to England but his views do reflect those of most football supporters: they prefer to cheer British teams playing British style to win British trophies. We all know what the answer would be if these two questions were put to every fan this afternoon: given the choice would you prefer your club to win the Premiership or England to win the World Cup? And, given the choice, would you prefer your club to win the Premiership or a European trophy?

Such a national attitude prompts clubs to produce domestic, not international, winners so it is hardly surprising Graham Taylor failed. How many European-class players - never mind world-class players - has he to choose from? Was there not a weary admission in his reply, before San Marino, to a question about defence: 'We shall stick to a back four; the players understand that.'

Soon after 3pm today the back four will be moving up in a line, accompanied by the clank of closing offside traps, defenders will be told to 'get rid of it' from bench and terrace. The standard of play last weekend, from Stoke City v Leicester, allegedly near the top of the First Division, was appalling as it was in most of the FA Cup ties shown on television, a glimpse of sunlight coming only from little Gretna, at Bolton.

The future lies with those handful of managers who are smart and persuasive enough to blend the speed and muscle of the British game with foreign skills: Ossie Ardiles, Alex Ferguson and, most surprisingly, considering his background, Kevin Keegan. Newcastle are currently playing the best football in their post-war history.

Spurs face a resurgent Leeds who, without David Batty, are thankfully less destructive. Manchester United will have all their good resolutions tested by Wimbledon's strength and awkwardness although since United put their pitch to rights there have been far fewer hit-and-run raids at Old Trafford.

Keegan says that Newcastle are now good enough to finish second, a fair assumption conditioned only by the proviso that his squad may not be strong enough to withstand the loss of two or three senior players. Tomorrow, St James' Park will be able to compare the two fastest-rising strikers in the Premiership, Andy Cole and Robbie Fowler. The latter's cause will be helped by the possibility of a return for John Barnes.

Who knows what difference a fit and in-form Barnes might have made to Graham Taylor's prospects in the last two years? Who knows what difference he may make to Liverpool in the second half of the season? 'I'm 100 per cent fit,' he says, 'and hoping to be involved.'

Barnes brings a gentle, smiling intelligence to his play and it is the application of intelligence that the British game most needs, at administrative, coaching and playing levels. Football's rewards are now so enormous that it should be possible in economic terms to field Premiership teams with players of graduate status.

Joe Lovejoy's five-point plan to save national game,

Team news, Diary, page 26