Football: England need midfield magician

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The Independent Online
SINCE THEY will spend the next month in limbo, neither in nor out of the European Championship, it was perhaps appropriate that England spent the immediate hours after Wednesday's goalless draw with Poland neither here nor there.

Technical problems stopped the team's flight from leaving Warsaw until 5am on Thursday morning, forcing them to travel back and forth, from airport to city, to eat, attempt to sleep, perchance to dream.

Nightmares would be more likely after another grim night for the game but, to the undoubted anger of their club managers, they probably did very little sleeping before finally reaching their beds around the time most England supporters were arriving at work and bemoaning their heroes' inadequacies.

They were not alone. Kevin Keegan, while ever-supportive of his players' character, admitted there was a lack of quality on the night. "We are capable of better than we have shown," he added. "Maybe I've not found the right formula yet. We do have quality but we do not have a good left- side balance and still do not have a real creative midfield player."

From that it can be deduced that Keegan thinks, accurately to judge by their performances, that David Beckham and Jamie Redknapp are not up to the role of playmaker. So the conversation turned, inexorably, to Paul Gascoigne, with Keegan extolling the example of Gheorghe Hagi, Gascoigne's Romanian equivalent.

"I saw his comeback for Romania [on television this week] and he was in fantastic condition," Keegan said. "He retired but he wanted some more of it and he'll go to the championship. I look at him and think `well done'."

What, one wonders, does he really think when he looks at Gascoigne who, at 31, is not even fit enough to play regularly for Middlesbrough and hardly rips up defences when he does. It is like clutching at straws in a gale, but there is no-one else and building the alternative, a team which is disciplined and organised enough to cope without a Gascoigne, like Sweden, seems beyond Keegan's reach and desire.

There is the same sense of deja vu when it comes to discussing the travelling support's behaviour. They were, as is often the case now, attacked first, but a significant minority, not a small one, were only too keen to respond. Since all but a few were members of the Football Association-supervised England Travel Club, this was especially disconcerting.

Steve Double, of the FA, sought to deflect blame and downplay the seriousness of the incidents, but he did concede it was "very disappointing".

The violence moved some to suggest it may be better, with England's World Cup 2006 bid to be decided next autumn, if the national team are not playing in the low countries next summer. Double said: "That is not the view of the FA. We believe through our long expertise in policing we have the right solutions [for next summer]."

Of more immediate concern, for the bid, was the presence in Warsaw of Sepp Blatter, the president of Fifa, and his No 2, Michel Platini. "We think he [Blatter] will recognise, more than anybody, that we have the situation under control at home," Double said. "Abroad we are dealing with the unfortunate situation where England fans find themselves the target of hooliganism rather than its perpetrators."

Blatter, who personally backs South Africa for 2006, gave credence to this view when he said: "This will definitely make no difference to England's bid to host the 2006 World Cup. These scenes sadden and hurt me but the problem was the stadium. Just look at it. It is like a prison, it is no place for a football match. There is a direct correlation between fences and fan misbehaviour. If you treat people like animals they will behave like them."

Blatter has long campaigned for the removal of fences ,having been impressed by the atmosphere without them at Euro 96, but this view is naive. Taking down fences does not, in isolation, reduce fan violence. Doing so in conjunction with a package of measures, including close-circuit television surveillance and high-quality police intelligence leading to the probability of arrest and conviction, is required.

This does not happen abroad. FA officials made great public play of the small number of arrests but privately wished there had been more. Without convictions it is difficult either to impose exclusion orders through the courts, which prevent known troublemakers from travelling, or expel individuals from the England Travel Club.

Keegan must wait to see if Poland can take the point in Sweden on 9 October which they need to knock out England. "The Swedes could experiment, but their players are very professional, I trust then to try and win it," he said.

The following day England play Belgium in Sunderland, but Keegan will not know whether to experiment or maintain continuity for the play-offs. Whoever is chosen, the match must serve as the first step in rebuilding fragile belief. The win over Luxembourg, and the subsequent show of confidence, was an illusion. Teams who believe in themselves frequently score late goals. England have scored only three second-half goals in 13 matches, two of them against Luxembourg, and have not scored a result-changing goal in the final 15 minutes for 26 games.