Football: England cry freedom, and fly

For all its failings and foibles, the English game does have the capacity to dance its way into the world elite: Ian Ridley calls for an end to the maddening mind games played by Glenn Hoddle
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THERE are times when following England can be a maddening, frustrating occupation, the more so these days given Glenn Hoddle's cloak-and-dagger control-freak regime of attempted cuteness and cleverness in dissembling misinformation. It is aimed, one supposes, at throwing the opposition but instead merely confuses all and sundry - including, one suspects, some of his own players.

Then there are times like the night before last. England's 2-0 win over Colombia in Lens was a reminder of the potential of the national team and the game. Oft-maligned, oft-derided, for all its foibles, failings and faults, the English game does indeed have the capacity to muscle, occasionally dance, its way into the world's elite. Which is why there remains such a fuss and furore about it.

The initial reaction, quite properly old boy, veers towards self- deprecation and the inadequacy of the opposition. Certainly, the Colombians' stomachs did not seem settled for the battle but this time surely it was more that the English harried them immediately from their short-passing stride.

In doing so, England demonstrated - finally - the strengths of their game without the need for any justification. Performance and result spoke it. There will be those at this tournament who still mutter about direct play and long balls, probably enviously with David Beckham and Michael Owen delivering and chasing them. It should not now detract or distract. Where there is a quality to the work, the work is above derision.

At last we saw England setting a high tempo, moving the ball swiftly and sharply. Possession was still on occasions conceded too readily but there is now enough youthful energy in the team to win it back quickly, as Colombia were pressed into surrender. We also saw a tactical nous allied to a technical ability that makes the English spirit the trump card it should be rather than the limited leading gambit it often has been.

Afterwards Hoddle said that he had always earmarked Beckham and Owen for the Colombia game because of their pace against an ageing team. But no, he would not say it would be an unchanged team against Argentina; different challenges require different approaches, he reiterated.

Enough already. Enough of the I-told-you-sos, the mind games and the my-ways. It is time to shed the Camp Paranoia image that Hoddle has created around England - and which the majority of his bright and honest players find difficult to play along with, I believe. He should simply come out and say: "This is England. This is our best team. This is what we do well. Stop it if you can."

It is England's best chance against Argentina; frankly it may be their only one. Beckham and Owen must again have their heads as part of an attacking strategy. To worry about Gabriel Batistuta and Ariel Ortega unduly may be to overlook the messages the Argentinians themselves received on Friday. Let someone else do the worrying for a change.

Against Romania, there was a reactive look to England, as if the team was chosen to counter the opposition's strengths rather than play to its own. David Batty's presence illustrated it. Blameless and faithful though he may be, he is rarely likely to hurt the other team, other than literally. In addition, the signs of decline in the still-clever but jaded Teddy Sheringham sadly became too patent to ignore.

By contrast, Beckham is a proactive player, one who wants to move it forward quickly and who sees the furthest pass first, unlike Batty. It is something on which Owen can thrive. Watching the boy in flight is thrilling. There is expectation in England when he receives the ball, fear abroad when he runs with it. You only hope he never discovers how difficult this game really is.

"The manager told me there was no pressure on me and just to go out and play the way I do for Liverpool," he said afterwards. "When they had the ball in our half I had to drop off, just to help out the midfield and pick things up from there but otherwise I just had to do the things that got me here. We knew that they had a flat back four and one of our best ploys would be to knock the ball over the top and get behind them."

Most encouragingly, it was all inflicted on Colombia from the outset. At the kick-off, Paul Ince drove the ball forward for Alan Shearer to try to flick Owen clear. Intent was sounded and with an accuracy of long pass not always apparent when England have sought, notably under Graham Taylor, to play more directly. "It looked good straight from the off," said Shearer. "We pushed at them, we got at them, we didn't allow them space and when they did get space, we made them make mistakes. Everyone looked sharp in the tackle, everyone looked bright and everyone looked quick and it continued right through the game."

The goals were joyous reflection of England's lack of inhibition. Owen's cross coming to Darren Anderton for a rising drive into the roof of the net that completed his rehabilitation was exciting enough. Beckham's first goal for his country from a 30-yard free-kick - the best of a disappointing World Cup so far for such strikes - was simply sensational. The last time we witnessed such a certainty in his stride and on his face as he placed the ball was against Liverpool more than a year ago when he scored a similar goal, virtually clinching a championship.

Thereafter it could have been several more, the most sustained passage coming just after half-time. Paul Scholes saw a shot tipped over by the admirable Farid Mondragon in the Colombian goal, Anderton's bicycle kick shaved a post, Shearer had another shot saved and after Sol Campbell's splendid surging run, Owen almost poached the goal he deserved. It was especially heartening to see with the game virtually won already. "We had to go at them, the team was set up to attack," said Paul Ince. Indeed it is the English instinct to go forward, their forte, and while at times some restraint is advisable to save a team from itself, this vibrant nature should be nurtured.

Now with conviction and vindication, Hoddle can quietly point out how Beckham is now focused on the task; how he and Owen were always going to play their part. And, as Friday night turned to Saturday morning, he spoke of what a "controlled performance" it had been against Colombia. He also seemed to be saying that he had always planned to play Argentina next, anyway.

Now there are many things Hoddle is correct about; one being a refusal to bow to calls for 4-4-2 with its inability to accommodate enough of the attacking players who give England their strength. The value of Darren Anderton is another. On several other matters he has been stubborn to the point almost of self-destruction, however, and it cannot happen again this week.

Hoddle's assistant John Gorman never saw anything wrong, he says, with Beckham's attitude; a week ago, contradicting himself now, Hoddle could not give assurances that Beckham would play. And was Owen always going to play had Sheringham scored against Romania?

In addition, Colombia was, rather, a liberated performance and Hoddle was fortunate to get such a display, I believe, given his rigid regime. He may have outlined team and tactics but it was primarily players delighted to be off the leash who got the job done. Hoddle would not be the first to get lucky at a World Cup; Bobby Robson stumbled on Peter Beardsley in Mexico in 1986, then bowed to pressure to change formation at Italia 90.

Having listened intently to the man he most trusts in Alan Shearer, and recalled Beckham and Owen, Hoddle should have learned the lesson for Tuesday. Set aside the fear of saying something revealing, of putting a foot wrong. Freedom for the England 11. Let this team fly, its experienced spine empowering its young bones, and if it is to fall then it will do so by being true to the new English game.