Football: England failings shrouded by fog of war

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The Independent Online
NOTHING distorts constructive criticism of an England football team more than a spot of adversity on some foreign field. The more the firecrackers, coins and stones rained down on the press and VIPs at the Ataturk Stadium in Izmir on Wednesday, the more we were prepared to see England's performance against Turkey in heroic terms. Platty and St George went riding into the headlines, together and indomitable.

The game itself was actually no more intimidating than dozens England have played all over the world, but the combination of a particularly spiteful crowd in uncomfortable proximity to the press box and a few ruthless early assaults by Turkish players made it inevitable that the endemic cynicism England always have to break down before they get credit for any performance was immediately overwhelmed by a spirit of togetherness embracing manager, team, fans and the media.

There is nothing wrong in gaining from the experience. If nothing else, it reinforced the foundations of squad comradeship, and, after all, the collapse of fraternity has sometimes been the undoing of such talents as the Dutch, Italians and Brazilians, leaving less gifted but more companionable sides to take advantage. So it would be unwise to knock the profits of adversity.

The squad Graham Taylor took to Izmir, which will remain largely unchanged until the end of the qualifying competition, cannot be faulted on spirit, determination and self-control. But these are not qualities often found wanting in England players. More importantly, he seems to have created a balance of management style resting pleasantly somewhere between the oppressive seriousness of Don Revie and the delightful, carefree caretaker stewardship of Joe Mercer.

Last Wednesday the extra dimension of having an unruly young mob in the main stand and a strange early outburst of thuggery aimed inexplicably at Lee Dixon merely made it that much easier to praise the qualities of Taylor's team without the usual caveats. Reassuringly, Taylor himself was far from taken in.

While on the return flight the estimable but then still cloud- walking David Platt enthused over England's ability to take on the Dutch and Poles with confidence, Taylor was later much more cautionary, suggesting that after a win players always tended to 'go over the top'. Against those teams, character and strength will be important, but other things will be even more instrumental, not least keeping possession, the one aspect of England's game in Izmir that was, frankly, pathetic.

The real quality of the side is still contained in only two players, Paul Gascoigne and Platt. So the fact that Gascoigne is still not fully fit and has just had two less than exceptional games for England becomes a worry since, against the Netherlands in particular, the guts and sweat style which succeeded in Turkey will probably mean less than the ability to do the unexpected. Gascoigne did that twice in Izmir, once scoring, and he did a lot of good supporting work, but more is expected and desired of him. His lack of fitness remains a considerable hindrance, just as the excess weight John Barnes is carrying is directly linked to the fact that he has lost pace.

Taylor was full of praise for Barnes's valued left-side-of-the- field work, and, of course, his free- kick for the first goal was a gem, but athletes in other sports must wonder how it is that a player who resumed action six months ago can remain overweight and clearly struggling. Equally, Gascoigne has had ample time to regain a better fitness level, and although Taylor continually talks of the players who miss pre-season training being unable to recover, there have to be some doubts about his commitment and supervision.

To have Gascoigne in the team acting merely as another support player which, apart from his delightful goal and a few improvised contributions, he was against Turkey - and even more so against San Marino - is a terrible waste. There are already enough support players and, if Ian Wright is going to carry on looking naive internationally, the team will continue to rely far too heavily on Platt.

The fact that Platt is loving every moment of being indispensable is no bad thing since it clearly provides England with a player rising above his club form, whereas too often the reverse is true. However, the danger is that while a few months ago Taylor was saying 'pray God nothing happens to Gascoigne' now he could exchange the name Gascoigne for Platt.

Taylor is committed to retaining Stuart Pearce as captain but not to bringing him back into the side simply because he starts playing again. The captaincy situation may resolve itself. England under Platt lose nothing in terms of grit but they gain a good deal in credibility from having an impressively smooth talker. Not that his command of Italian allowed him to talk his way out of having his name taken on Wednesday. Fortunately, Gascoigne kept his small vocabulary of Italian adjectives to himself, so perhaps he is learning some self-control. Both players are on a tightrope since another yellow card will bring about a match suspension. For the moment, Platt would be the bigger loss.

Having had a modest success in the second easiest of the away tests they face in the qualifying competition, and sitting alongside the Netherlands in the group but having played a game less, England have made acceptable progress since they departed the European Championship finals without much credit and later sank to a miserable defeat away to a depleted Spanish side.

In Turkey it was a case of ducking the bricks rather than turning deaf ears to the sort of brickbats so often experienced at Wembley. All good character-building stuff but more to do with laying foundation stones than topping out.