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Football: England hope for flying start

EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP: Time for talking to stop as Venables' team take on Switzerland at Wembley in opening game
By the time England's coach cruises through Wembley's big oak gates this afternoon, the opening ceremony of Euro 96 will be well under way. On the pitch volunteers will be enacting scenes from the development of the English game, from 500-a-side peasant village matches, to the advent of international football in 1872.

Just over an hour later we shall discover if, under Terry Venables, the national side has reversed the trend of recent years, thrown off the burden of that heady heritage, and regained a place at the forefront of the game's development.

Just two days after the Premiership's helter-skelter football received a pounds 743m seal of approval, the national side will attempt to play a different game of the type usually seen on Eurosport rather than Sky. The emphasis will be on passing and possession.

Patience, Venables conceded, will be required, not least because the Swiss may not be as divided as advance reports suggest. "It would be nice to win and entertain but it will be a tight game and we need to be patient," Venables said yesterday.

Given a choice he, the bulk of the capacity crowd and all English supporters will settle for a drab win as long as it is a win. A draw would put immense pressure on England in their remaining games while the consequences of defeat do not bear thinking about. For the tournament too, an England win may be more important than an open game. The two together would really set the next month up.

It may have been the heat but Venables, usually so cautious, even allowed himself to dream a little yesterday. "It would mean a great deal to win it," he said, "perhaps more than anything I have tried to achieve. It is a big responsibility. It means so much to everyone, but I am looking forward to it.

"We are an improved team. We are better organised, the players enjoy what they are doing, there is quality in the team. We have good technically skilled players and we have strong characters."

One of those is Tony Adams. Although neither he, nor Venables, were giving any clues yesterday it increasingly looks as if he will be captain with David Platt on the bench. Adams certainly sounded like a leader of men yesterday as he spoke about the little things a captain can do to give his side the edge.

"In the dressing-room before the game I'll be doing whatever is necessary, motivating those who need motivating, calming down those who need calming down. If a player looks edgy I'll have a word. Some players like omens. If I can I'll find one for them - and if I can't, I'll make one up."

That, he recalled, is what he did with Steve Bould before Arsenal's European Cup-Winners' Cup final in 1994. "Steve likes an omen," Adams said, "so I said to him - `you see that, we're playing West Ham the Saturday before the final. Last time we did that we won the final, so we're bound to win now'."

Had they played West Ham the previous time? "No, it was all rubbish but Steve didn't know. He played a blinder in the final. Anything to give us an extra edge.

"We can win it. I do not think we give ourselves enough credit. We are second to none in our heading ability, we are strong and we are good in the tackle. Terry has put intelligence into our game. A few years ago the foreign impression of English football was that it was passionate but a bit stupid. In the last few years Terry has educated the players."

That education is about to be tested. The Swiss are in some disarray but Venables, in an unfortunate choice of phrase, said he did not expect them to "roll over". Adrian Knup, their scorer in the 3-1 Wembley defeat in November, has been left behind but they still have three potent forwards - Kubilay Turkyilmaz, Marco Grassi and, Stephane Chapuisat, a Bundesliga winner with Dortmund.

The possibility of all three playing, and the need to take at least a point from the game, means Venables may opt to start with four defenders. Gareth Southgate would thus fill the floating role, pushing into midfield if the Swiss play with just two up. Paul Ince could then concentrate on nullifying the influence of the coveted Ciriaco Sforza, Switzerland's outstanding player.

However, it is important for England to be positive because Switzerland's weakness is at the back. With Marc Hottiger suspended both flanks are especially vulnerable. Thus Steve McManaman could get the nod ahead of Platt. Although Venables is loath to lose Platt's scoring power McManaman provides balance on the left.

Les Ferdinand is doubtful with a groin strain but he was only likely to a substitute anyway. Coaches can have all 11 reserves on the bench but can only bring on three.

From Wembley the tournament slips quickly into fast forward with matches tomorrow at Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield. Another six potential winners will be in action, notably Germany, Spain and Portugal. From then on it is a rollercoaster ride to 30 June. Hang on, and enjoy it. May England - and Scotland - do the same.