Football / Commentary: Game in need of a time-out

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The Independent Online
WHAT'S Wrong With English Football (Radio 5 version) produced the eyebrow-raising theory at the weekend that, far from playing too much, the pampered professionals are exercised too little.

Picking up on a discursive thesis in one of the morning newspapers, Sport on Five had Lou Macari, Stoke City's manager, supporting the contention that our players are not as dedicated as they should be: that they needed to accept the Continental regime of training twice a day if they are ever to match the best in Europe.

An interesting hypothesis, though not one aired too often in the pre-Heysel decade of 1975-85, when English teams contested the European Cup final on nine occasions, or even as recently as last year, when Manchester United overcame Barcelona to win the Cup-Winners' Cup.

Of course clubs, and players, should always be striving to improve their standards, but more hard slog on the training ground is the last thing needed at present, with games being played faster (courtesy of the back-pass rule) and more frequently than ever.

The worst fault in the domestic system is one which should have been cured with the advent of the Premier League. Too many matches. Tottenham would welcome more 'time on the grass', as Bobby Robson used to call his coaching clinics, but, following Saturday's 1-1 draw with United, tonight's Coca-Cola Cup tie at home to Brentford is the second in a sequence of four games in nine days, and the management feel rest is more valuable than training just now.

Manchester United, who could play 60 matches to Internazionale's 40 this season, take a similar view. Alex Ferguson is very much a work ethic man, but he is preaching the need for R and R - especially for his young prodigy, Ryan Giggs.

Ferguson and Terry Venables would love to have more 'quality time' on the training ground in which to hone their players' skills, but time is the operative word. Until there is more of it available, which means fewer midweek games, the norm will continue to be 'crisis management', to use Howard Wilkinson's phrase. Ingraining mistakes, to borrow another.

In the case of the England team, it means Graham Taylor will have to make do and mend, and try to make a better fist of maximising his limited resources. Given the paucity of skilled players, it is encouraging to learn that he has been mending fences with Peter Beardsley, who is back in the frame for the World Cup qualifying series. With Beardsley, Paul Gascoigne and perhaps even Chris Waddle returning to the fold, England would at least have the potential to play a penetrative, passing game.

Gazza's suspect fitness seems increasingly likely to rule him out of the first of the qualifiers, at home to Norway on 14 October, in which event Norwich City's presence at the top of the League should encourage Taylor to consider the many merits of Ian Crook, their accomplished playmaker.

Mike Walker, the Norwich manager, believes Crook deserves his chance at international level, and even Tottenham, who sold him for just pounds 90,000, are inclined to agree.

How his old club could do with him now. A frustrating side, Spurs. Like an old banger, they never seem to get everything in full working order at the same time. When their strikers and midfield were of championship quality, they were handicapped by a marshmallow defence. Now, having put that right by hiring two hard-nut centre-halves, they have sold Gazza and Paul Stewart, and find themselves short in midfield.

At least their attitude cannot be faulted, which has not always been the case in the past. Even those of bus-pass age and elephantine memory struggled to recall the last time the opposition had complimented Tottenham on their determination and resilience.

'It was a hard game for us,' Ferguson said. 'Spurs worked very hard for their point, and deserved it.'

Spot on. Second best for long periods, they gritted their teeth and battled back to score a lovely, uplifting equaliser through Gordon Durie.

United arrived at full strength (everyone seems to discount Bryan Robson these days), and on the back of five successive League wins; Spurs had lost to Coventry in midweek, and were without Darren Anderton, Vinny Samways, David Howells, Gary Mabbutt and Nayim, among others. In the not so distant past, the game would have been won and lost in the mind, before a ball was kicked.

The new Spurs are made of sterner stuff, and understandably so, for they don't come much sterner than Van den Hauwe, Ruddock and Cundy.

United stroked the ball around nicely, as is their wont, but Ruddock or Cundy got a foot in when it mattered, and Tottenham had gone closest to scoring, through Teddy Sheringham and Durie (twice) when the roof fell in on them on the stroke of half-time.

Poor Dean Austin had just been left lame by a damaging collision with Darren Ferguson when the ball arrowed in on his chest and escaped his control, enabling Giggs to seize possession. What followed will go down as one of the goals of the season.

The young Welshman (can he still be only 18?) darted away from Austin and past Cundy before dragging the ball wide of the advancing Ian Walker. Too wide, we all thought. In evading the goalkeeper, Giggs had left himself with the tightest of angles, out on the left, but his aim was unerring, the left-foot shot drilled into the far corner at singeing speed.

Some goal. If the lad was English, Taylor would sleep a lot easier at night.

Spurs sagged, but bounced back quicker than the bank rate to equalise early in the second half, when Peter Schmeichel failed to cut out Sheringham's low cross from the right, leaving Durie with a tap-in at the far post.

A well-earned point for Tottenham, whose coach, Doug Livermore, said: 'We're improving all the time.' The next test of that improvement comes against Brentford tonight, followed by Lazio on Wednesday and Sheffield Wednesday away on Sunday.

More training in between, perhaps? 'Give us a break.' Quite.

Goals: Giggs (44) 0-1; Durie (52) 1-1.

Tottenham Hotspur: Walker; Austin (Tuttle, 45), Van den Hauwe, Gray (Hendry, 62), Cundy, Ruddock, Sedgley, Durie, Turner, Sheringham, Allen. Substitute not used: Thorstvedt (gk).

Manchester United: Schmeichel; Irwin, Blackmore, Bruce, Ferguson, Pallister, Kanchelskis (Wallace, 73), Ince, McClair, Hughes, Giggs. Substitutes not used: Martin, Walsh (gk).

Referee: R Groves (Bristol)

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