Football: England undermined by poor planning: Spurs' Norwegian winner gives his verdict on a country in crisis. Joe Lovejoy listens to Erik Thorstvedt

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The Independent Online
THE clattering which accompanied England's World Cup ruin was not the bricks Graham Taylor dropped in selection but the sound of a team taking a tumble, yet again, between two stools.

Taylor's instinct, and the inclination of the nation's footballers as a whole, is to play the blood-and-guts British way, but at international level there is a grudging genuflection to the great god sophistication. The consequent hybrid offers the worst of both worlds, getting us nowhere.

In trying to play their bastardised version of a passing game, England were always going to be out-passed and outclassed by the Dutch on Wednesday. Meanwhile, irony of ironies, little Norway were winning Group Two, and booking their place in the finals, playing the long ball, or English football, as they call it.

Erik Thorstvedt, who has a foot in both camps, returned from their latest triumph - a 3-0 win in Poland - to supply a damning indictment of the way the national team has been run in his adopted home.

Tottenham's Norwegian goalkeeper blames bad management for the failure to realise the full potential of England's superior resources, citing vacillation over tactics and personnel and bad planning as the prime reasons for their under- achievement.

'We're a small nation, with only four million people,' he says. 'We haven't got the talent that's over here. We haven't got that many players to choose from, so we've got to make the most of what we've got. Our manager, Egil Olsen, has done that. Yours hasn't'

Olsen had dominated the qualifying series, from first to last, by identifying a style of play to suit the limitations of his players and by making up his mind about his best team and keeping faith with an unchanging group. Taylor preached continuity, the Norwegians practised it.

After careful consideration of all the options, Olsen had plumped for the percentage game. 'We're playing a way most teams don't like to play against,' Thorstvedt explained. 'Our manager is a big fan of English football, and says ours is just a nicer version of the Wimbledon style.

'We knock the ball long - never to the sides or backwards. That's the aim, at least. It's a very direct method - English rather than European. It's not just long-ball stuff, but when we get it in midfield we don't mess about playing possession football, we head for goal instantly - just go for it.

'We don't run with the ball in midfield, we knock it early - and always in a forward direction. We play with only one striker, so we knock it up to him, and he'll usually flick it on for the midfielders to come running through.

'We have our big guy, Jostein Flo, on the left or right of midfield, and we use him when the opposition are in balance, as we say. If they've got all their men between the ball and their goal, we don't think we're good enough to play our way through. Our manager thinks it would take too long anyway, and the chance of success is small, so I give it to the full-back and he whacks it up for Flo, who heads it down into the box for the midfielders to run on to.'

Simple, but effective. For those who scorn the rustic approach, Thorstvedt has the perfect answer. Seven wins and two draws in nine qualifying games. Jack Charlton would love it. He espoused Route One years ago, refining it to scrawl the most successful chapter in the Republic of Ireland's history.

So should England renounce subtlety and adopt the same spartan regime in pursuit of prosperity? Heaven forbid. We should be nurturing the Paul Gascoignes of this world, not the Carlton Palmers. Progress will come with the right balance - the cleverness of a Waddle, a Samways or a Crook to complement Paul Ince's dynamism in midfield.

'There is always that dilemma with England,' Thorstvedt muses. 'How are they going to play? The long ball or not? There are more skilful players in the England team than there are in the club sides, so they think they should use that extra skill and pass the ball around more.

'It is finding the right balance that is difficult. They don't want to lose what their opponents fear most about them. The Continental countries hate playing against a physical game. Look at Ireland. OK, they lost on Wednesday, but they've had a lot of success with it. The question is: Do people really want to see England playing the direct way? If you look at the Premiership now, there are quite a few teams playing really nice football, and people go and watch their games and enjoy it. I think that's the way they want to see England play, as well.'

Norway were enjoying unprecedented success, but any lessons to be learned from it were more to do with organisation and preparation than style and tactics, Thorstvedt felt. 'We shouldn't be so big- headed that we start to tell everyone else how to play. England got to the semi-finals of the World Cup as recently as 1990. Standards here can't have gone back that far in three years.

'Don't forget that when we drew at Wembley, they outplayed us for much of the game. Individually, they've got better players than we have. It's just that they wasted their opportunities. They were in front against us and Holland at Wembley, and had chances to finish it off both times, but ended with two draws.

'When they played us the first time, I sensed their attitude was: 'Well, we're better than them anyway, so we'll go through, whatever happens here'. They were wrong, of course. You've got to take your chances when they present themselves.'

England missed theirs. By the time the two sides met again, in Oslo last summer, attitudes had changed. Taylor's team arrived tired and dispirited after a difficult game in Poland, and Norway were on a high, the nervousness of Wembley long gone.

The Norwegians were confident, their self-belief reinforced when England put out a pig's arse of a team, to borrow Taylor's memorable malapropism, designed to counter Flo and co.

Thorstvedt says: 'The two games England played in the summer, in Poland and Norway, were crucial. That was bad planning. They should never have arranged to play two tough games on the trot, especially when a long, hard season had just finished. Players are fed up with football then and just want to have a break. Those two matches should have been fixed for another time.

'We were pleased to be playing England in such circumstances. We'd seen them play in Poland, a few days earlier, and saw there was nothing to be frightened of. I had been a bit nervous beforehand, but the nerves went when I saw they weren't on top form. They hadn't played well in Poland, and we fancied our chances.

'They changed to 3-5-2, or 5-3-2, depending on how you look at it, but we knew something like that was coming, and it didn't worry us. We weren't changing anything, and thought that if they felt they needed to, it was a sign of weakness. It definitely worked to our advantage.

'What they tried to do was eliminate the threat of Flo, which they managed quite well by putting Gary Pallister on him, but doing that upset their balance elsewhere.

'Perhaps because they were uncomfortable, not playing to their own strengths, they didn't play with their usual English passion. It was the only game in which they let themselves down, and I think it was probably because they didn't fully understand what they were supposed to be doing.

'We played really well that day, but apart from that we haven't played what I would call storming football. What we have had is the knack of doing the right things at the right time. Big Jostein gets his head in there and we always seem to nick something.

'That's the big difference. We've nicked results when we shouldn't really have had them and England have dropped points when they shouldn't really have done so.'

Taylor is clinging to the hope that Poland might beat the Netherlands next month to prise open England's coffin lid, but the scenario is one Thorstvedt rejects as unrealistic.

'Holland are never going to lose to Poland - no way. The Poles were so bad on Wednesday, we could have won by six - and that was when they still had a slight chance of qualifying. Now they've got nothing to play for, and the Dutch will walk all over them.'

No World Cup for England, then. So where now? 'You've just got to start getting the best out of your players. A change of manager might help, but who wants the job?

'It should be someone who is more charismatic, mentally strong and decisive, and can see eye to eye with the media. That antagonism with the tabloid press undermines the whole thing.'

Hmmm. Sounds more like Big Ron than Big Jack.

(Photograph omitted)

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