Football: England staying in good shape: Gascoigne back in training as Taylor maintains his belief in continuity

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The Independent Online
IT HAS been a long time in coming, but England are at last in good shape - literally, as well as metaphorically - and the profile is one they will keep for Wednesday's World Cup qualifier against the Netherlands, regardless of injuries.

The formation devised to maximise Paul Gascoigne's brittle talent is now set in stone, and Graham Taylor would retain his midfield pyramid, even in the unlikely event of its raison d'etre having to give way to Nigel Clough.

The increasing likelihood is that the understudy will not be needed. Taylor insists that Gascoigne's knee is sound, his strained calf had mended sufficiently for him to train yesterday and the manager foresees no further alarms.

Changes, to tactics and personnel, are to be kept to a minimum, so we can expect John Barnes to continue on the left side of midfield in a 4-3-1-2 deployment which has Gascoigne or Clough just behind the two strikers. In the absence of Shearer, Wright, Hirst etc., these are likely to be Les Ferdinand and David Platt.

The manager approaches what he acknowledges to be his most important game at Wembley with a normally untroubled sleep pattern invaded by a dream and a nightmare.

The more enjoyable of the two fantasies has England winning well on Wednesday, and walking off to choruses of 'Land of Hope and Glory' from a full house. The darker scenario sees the Dutch victorious, with Wembley booing not just Barnes, for another anaemic performance, but Taylor, too - for overlooking Chris Waddle.

'I think I'll get more booing than Barnes,' he said, apparently oblivious to the dangers of putting ideas into excitable heads. 'I just have the feeling I'll get it because of the campaign to get Waddle back.' The pros and cons of that particular controversy have had a good airing but, in fairness to Taylor, it is a fact that the players appear not to share media enthusiasm for the most accomplished forward in the country.

Typical is the view offered by Paul Ince, who said unenforced changes were undesirable, and might have an adverse effect on a burgeoning camaraderie and morale. 'The lads in the present squad have done well, get on particularly well, with no cliques, and the manager is right to stick by them,' Ince said.

Taylor's preference for what he calls a high-tempo game rather than a composed build-up also militates against Waddle, who can be over-elaborate at times. The managerial belief is that the best chance of beating the Dutch lies in 'keeping the tempo up - as we did against Turkey at home'.

He said: 'If we're not careful, we change when we play international football, and give the ball to the front men three passes later. If you play it up to the strikers quicker, and get your midfield players coming up very quickly in support, you arrive first when an attack breaks down, and get the sort of thing Ince did against Turkey at home, when he won a good tackle to set up Gascoigne's second goal.

'When the tempo drops, the midfield player is 15 yards further back than Ince was, and we miss out.'

Pressing football is what Taylor meant when he spoke recently of 'ruffling' the Netherlands. The intention is to hustle them out of their stride.

'The way we're playing gives us the strength in midfield to do that, and to sustain our attacks. These are things British players do regularly on a Saturday, yet sometimes, when they come to play for their country, they back off.'

The new framework, with Gascoigne licensed to roam across the breadth of the front line, backed by an umbrella of three orthodox midfield grafters, was one in which the team felt both comfortable and confident.

'The lads like the way we're playing,' Taylor said. 'Keeping the same formation also gives us a better chance of coping without Gascoigne, if we have to. If he's not there, it won't affect the way the others have to play. Somebody else just slots into his position.'

The manager has given much thought to the implications of playing Barnes at Wembley, where the crowd were jeering his every touch by the end of the last home game, against San Marino.

'I have to consider whether, if it happened again, there might be an effect not just on Barnes, but on the whole team. Other players do get affected if the atmosphere is not right.'

Taylor found it 'very sad' that he had to worry about Englishmen booing an England player, and said an improvement in behaviour would be appreciated. It was not only bad manners to boo the visitors' national anthem, it could also be counter- productive.

'It's one thing to do it to little San Marino, but when you boo the Dutch or German anthem those boys bristle, and we've enough on our plate against Holland without providing them with extra motivation.'

The indications are that Barnes will play. Why else would Taylor be at pains to acquaint the public with his changing role?

Injuries having taken their toll, Laidback of Liverpool is no longer a penetrative winger, capable of leaving a trail of defenders in his wake. His old mentor and loyal champion explained: 'Maybe we have to reassess what his role is going to be. He is not going to go past three or four players any more, but we haven't got a left-footed player who likes to play on the left side of midfield, and perhaps he can do that - providing for others, tracking back and filling in.'

Gascoigne, Walker (calf strain), Palmer (cut toe), Winterburn (ankle ligaments) and Steven (bruised Achilles tendon) have all been under treatment, but were able to train yesterday.

Ferguson (Rangers), McKimmie (Aberdeen), McInally and Bowman (Dundee United) have overcome injuries and are fit for Scotland's tie in Portugal.

Melville (Oxford), Symons (Portsmouth), Bodin (Swindon) and Pembridge (Derby) came through Saturday's First Division games unscathed and were able to join up yesterday with the Wales party who play the RCS in Ostrava on Wednesday.

Football, page 28