Football: Embarrassment of no riches

Wilkinson left bemused as England are bewitched by the sorcery of champions of a different world
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The Independent Online
Before the game, the camera flashes sparkled around Wembley as couples and groups seized one of the last opportunities to snap themselves in front of one of the world's most famous backdrops. Never mind the Taj Mahal, or the Pyramids, these are The Twin Towers. Among them, a group of young supporters parading a banner caught the eye. It contained a daubing of the World Cup trophy accompanied by a plaintive message: "It Should Have Been Us".

You thought about them as England capitulated by degrees, and so imperceptibly at first to seduce some into thinking England were actually France's equals. Afterwards the banner was presumably slung in a corner of the old stadium condemned to demolition, probably along with the more rusting components of Howard Wilkinson's team, and the belief that England are equipped to tackle the world's best.

On Friday, after nearly two days to contemplate an England performance that he oversaw in a detached fashion, Wilkinson's preference was for a diplomatic appraisal. "On a personal basis I'd have loved to have been sat there basking in a 6-0 stroll," he said drily. "But it wasn't the massive disappointment it might have been had I been the manager for the previous 12 months."

He added: "The players will be disappointed, as we all were, with the performance and the result. But the worst parts of the game weren't a true reflection of their ability. We're not as bad as that by a mile. If we were going to play them again in a month's time I would say, 'No, it will definitely not be as bad.'"

Well, yes, but mostly no. Of course, Wednesday night's "match amical" must be evalued in a perspective that considers both the opposition and the context of a national football establishment in something of disarray. But better this than being lulled into a sense of false expectation. It always takes the most demanding examination to reveal shortcomings accurately.

Since England fell to Argentina in France 98, they have lost two, drawn two and won only one game, the latter against Luxembourg, so it is not as though the 2-0 defeat was entirely unexpected. Only against Holland under Terry Venables, in Rome when Hoddle enjoyed his finest hour, along with the first half against Argentina, could anyone seriously argue that England's players are as good as they would have us believe.

Wilkinson may be correct in his assessment that this was an abyss out of which England will clamber to regain their stature, but he will also have recognised that at times England's play was disturbingly inept, as though we have learnt nothing from the continent in the last decade, hence the French coach Roger Lemerre's frequent use of the expression, "le grand ballon", when describing England's ploy. Roughly translated, it means the long ball.

In a month's time England do not face France again, but Poland in a crucial Euro 2000 qualifier. Whether, by then, there has been a Wilkommen for Wilko and he is confirmed head coach or has reverted to the FA's technical director remains to be seen, but either way he will have significant influence over the direction English international football takes.

He has already strongly advocated continuity, so that when, God forbid, another coach is sacrificed to sate the voracity of the mob's demand for blood, the next candidate, or maybe two or three, have formed an orderly queue and are thoroughly familiar in the ways of international football and have a comprehensive knowledge of the players at their disposal, albeit that they arrive from a club environment.

But there is also a far more challenging task than this, given the frenetic nature of much of the Premiership, which is to encourage technical excellence, in control, passing and movement, and to assimilate the best of continental, indeed world practices. Wilkinson referred, at one stage, to having "open minds and good hearts" and that is precisely what England require if they are to progress.

Because it would be erroneous to suggest that, against France, it was merely a rough day at the office for his adopted players, the result of the distracting influence of Hoddle's departure and his own installation. Or that the outrageously gifted Zinedine Zidane, whose balding pate gives him the appearance of a monk, which perhaps explains why he is blessed with so many attractive habits, dictated the show to England's discomfort.

Just about everywhere on the pitch were mesmerising examples of instructive play by Frenchmen for their English counterparts. It is not merely that England do not have a Zidane, the world footballer of the year, who, by the end had rendered his marker Paul Ince redundant. They also do not possess an equivalent to the dashing Youri Djorkaeff, the Internazionale midfielder, who flourished extravagantly in the second half and whom Manchester United must reckon with in their Champions' League quarter-final, or an omnipresent Emmanuel Petit. The list doesn't end there. Any number of the watching English managers, including Gerard Houllier, Arsene Wenger and Ruud Gullit, would have liked to decamp with the diminutive but highly versatile Bixente Lizarazu in their pocket.

When questioned about Zidane and the absence of an English rival for those talents, Wilkinson contended: "He is an exceptional player and did nothing to give you any doubts about that. But Roger Lemerre might look at our four strikers sitting on the bench and think 'I haven't got one, or two, of those' and be slightly envious."

Which could be construed as deliberately missing the point. In truth, just how many England players would Lemerre have selected who might have made his squad? Only David Beckham and Michael Owen, it might be suggested, although the former, for all his undoubted industry, fashioned precious little for the former other than from a dead-ball. Almost certainly not that one-time central "spine" of Tony Adams, Ince, who surely no longer represent England's future, and, sadly though one must concede it, the rarely inspirational captain Alan Shearer.

Wilkinson wasn't of a mind to discuss Shearer's shortcomings, neither did he venture an opinion on his pairing with Owen, although his explanation for not doing so was an implied criticism of his midfield. "I don't know whether they [Shearer and Owen] were a force, because I don't think Wednesday night was a fair test. I don't think they had the service they required."

With England's rearguard solid enough, and the Arsenal back three plus Graeme Le Saux understandably relishing the change to 4-4-2 and with Sol Campbell and Gareth Southgate to return, with the likes of Rio Ferdinand in the wings, it is in midfield that England's failings were so apparent.

Jamie Redknapp and Ince rarely got to grips with their illustrious opponents and when they did the passing was lamentable. Darren Anderton was equally ineffective, and as he and Beckham constantly drifted inside in the first half there was as much width about the England midfield as Twiggy once had around her midriff. Beckham worked tirelessly but he generated few opportunities. Maybe the Manchester United man should be deployed in central midfield, to exploit the full gamut of his passing talents, even if he does not appear to possess the true presence of a Paul Gascoigne at his most destructive.

One can debate strategies, formations and individual flaws until England fail to reach the European Championship finals. The fact is that for all the xenophobia surrounding the supposed excellence of the Premier League, England's embarrassment was acute as France, from the 20th minute, built up their momentum like the yellow jersey wearer moving through his gears on the Tour de France. By the end they were running at optimum efficiency.

England must watch and learn from such displays, not close insular eyes to what is occurring across the water. To his credit, Wilkinson did not attempt to deny that truth. "Given the circumstances surrounding that game, in terms of Glenn's dismissal, my appointment, injuries, drop-outs, call-ups, the first half was reasonable, we had a few chances, defensively we looked all right." Admitting that "the team selection under anyone who might have been in the job for six games might have been different", he added: "I was quite optimistic for first 20 minutes, given that they [England] were under a new bloke. I thought that they'd be a little bit nervous at first and that they'd start improving slightly as they went along, which shows how good a judge I am."

He accepted: "I'll be judged by the result, or the last 15 minutes, or both." But he maintained: "There's enough good news for someone, given enough time, to get them good enough to beat Poland." The evidence suggests that "someone" will be him, which is not quite winning the National Lottery. Sorry, Wilko, but "it could be you".

Whether there will be banners declaring "It Could Be Us" in Holland and Belgium next year is a different matter.