Football: Diplomats' theatre of the absurd

Euro 2000 Battle Of Britain: Andrew Longmore hears the rival coaches defuse potential for conflict in a phony war

KEVIN KEEGAN has a favourite phrase, one much loved by counsellors and public relations executives. "I know where you're coming from," he tells inquisitors, meaning he understands both the question and the headline which a slip of the tongue might generate in response. The luvvie side of the Keegan persona, the one which makes him the ideal New Labour football coach, was much in evidence last week. His handling of the potentially explosive confrontation between Alan Shearer and Andy Cole, a partnership which could yet take England into the first of the two play-off games in Glasgow on Saturday, displayed a masterly grasp of diplomacy.

If Cole was not aware of the lie of the land before his "teacher's pet" accusation against Shearer in his autobiography, he was after reading Keegan's interpretation of the offending paragraphs. The England coach is clearly a disciple of Voltaire - "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" - but he was not about to be drawn into any compromise over the attributes of his No 1 striker and captain. Come back to me for a whinge, Andy, when you can put 28 goals on the international scoreboard. Creative tension, one of Keegan's well- thumbed business management texts would doubtless term it, but the coach might legitimately muse that history ancient and modern will produce quite enough hostility without the additional burden of strife within his own camp.

The two coaches are doing their best to defuse any potential for conflict in the phony war. As Keegan and Craig Brown, his opposite number, shuttled from room to room in the conference suite of a Heathrow hotel late last week, servicing different groups of journalists, they exuded nothing but mutual admiration and respect. Not many rival coaches thrust into such an explosive engagement would agree to be interviewed jointly. Keegan played up his own lack of international coaching experience - "He's been in the job six years, I've been in it six months, he's had 36 games, I've had seven" - while Brown, in that impressively quiet way of his, countered that between them they had 63 international caps - "63 of them to Kevin". The England squad boasted far more international experience than his own, Brown added, just in case any absurd notions of equality should enter a perfectly imbalanced equation.

Brown and Keegan make an odd couple. They share height, dignity and position, but their route to the top job could not have been more varied. Keegan has arrived by way of a sunny smile and an impeccable playing record. He is a motivator not a coach, who profited from being everything that Glenn Hoddle was not: articulate, popular and mercifully free of wacky beliefs.

Brown, though he did win a championship medal as a journeyman midfielder with Dundee, has a qualification in Physical Education and worked his way through the backrooms of the Scottish Football Association, coaching under-16, youth and under-21 sides before succeeding Andy Roxburgh as coach to the senior side six years ago. A tabloid attempt to taint him with religious bigotry this year ended in predictable failure. Quite simply, no one could believe it of such a patently decent man. Where Keegan is open and confident, Brown is more shy and studious. In an era in which managerial values are measured more in medals and column inches than coaching expertise, he has earnt his respect the hard way.

The draw has pitched these two into a grimly inevitable tango, and their camaraderie is prompted at least partly by a shared understanding of what will await the loser. "I will get slaughtered," said Keegan. "I too will get slaughtered," said Brown. "Or maybe not slaughtered, heavily criticised." Brown's future as Scotland coach will be in doubt if a qualifying campaign almost as patchy as England's ends with nothing. Defeat for Keegan would not be job-threatening, but would condemn England to a year of international loitering.

Keegan's plausibility in the interview room has yet to be matched by his tactical appreciation on the pitch, though, to be fair, he would be the first to admit the failing. Just as well then that the proceedings at Hampden Park on Saturday afternoon and again four days later at Wembley will have the tempo of a Merseyside or Old Firm derby and the tactical sophistry of a demolition derby. This promises to be his sort of game, one in which the p's - passion, pride, power, pace - will mask the obvious lack of q for quality. The problem is that the Scots can put the same assets into the field.

It is hard for those of us on this side of the press box to put some perspective on the tie. No longer is this a parochial little dust-up over bragging rights on either side of Hadrian's Wall. At stake is a place, albeit through the tradesman's entrance, in the finals of the European Championship in Holland and Belgium next year, with all the attendant commercial benefits for the respective football associations, the travel companies, the manufacturers of shirts, mugs, stickers and fluffy teddy bears and the whole crazy sub-economy which thrives on football's skewed importance.

In the light of such pressures, both coaches rightly stressed the importance of composure. "Moments of studied, calm play," as Brown said. "It was those moments of skill, calmness and brilliance which got the goals for England last time."

In England's 2-0 victory in the last European Championship, in case you had forgotten. There is no Paul Gascoigne to produce such cameos, as Brown said, but then neither has he found a natural goalscoring successor to Ally McCoist or Mo Johnston over the past three years. With Paul Scholes, Dennis Wise and, if he is in schoolboy mode, David Beckham included, the England squad has a worryingly indisciplined streak. Brown said he would deliver the same message to his players as he always does. "I ask them not to react adversely and get opponents into trouble. I tell them to get up and get on with it," he said. But, though Scottish and English players do not come across each other as frequently now at club or international level and the referee, to be announced 48 hours before kick-off, will want to impose his authority, a little provocation comes with the terrain. Keegan's message should be equally forceful.

"It's all about finding the right balance," he said. "Yes, we will watch each other's games, I will look back at Scotland's games against Bosnia or whatever, but the preparation is more about setting up a team to be in the right frame of mind, capable of playing in an atmosphere which is bound to be intimidating."

Keegan's most taxing questions concern a partner for Shearer, the choice between Phil Neville, Steve Guppy and Stephen Froggatt for the role of left wing-back, assuming Keegan chooses to play 3-5-2, and whether Paul Ince will return to his familiar holding role in midfield. For all the growing concern about David Seaman's form, he is unlikely to prefer Nigel Martyn at this late stage.

Keegan says he will not think much about personnel until he reviews the injury list on Monday evening. No point in putting out a fantasy team, he says. By rights, England should be capable of fielding two or three sides capable of scrambling into Euro 2000. In Beckham, they have the outstanding dead-ball specialist, in Shearer the best striker, in Tony Adams the most accomplished defender.

That should be enough, though both coaches would agree on one more thing. Logic and form have had mere walk-on parts in football's oldest drama. It is unlikely to be any different this time.

LIKELY LINE-UPS

SCOTLAND (3-5-2)

Neil Sullivan Wimbledon

David Weir Everton

Colin Hendry Rangers

Christian Dailly Blackburn

Craig Burley Celtic

Paul Lambert Celtic

John Collins Everton

Barry Ferguson Rangers

Callum Davidson Blackburn

Billy Dodds Dundee Utd

Don Hutchison Everton

ENGLAND (3-5-2)

David Seaman Arsenal

Philip Neville Manchester Utd

Tony Adams Arsenal

Martin Keown Arsenal

David Beckham Manchester Utd

Paul Ince Middlesbrough

Jamie Redknapp Liverpool

Paul Scholes Manchester Utd

Stephen Froggatt Coventry City

Alan Shearer Newcastle Utd

Michael Owen Liverpool

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