Football: England's misplaced spirit

European Championship: Patient Swedes reveal glaring flaws in Keegan's strident exhortations
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The Independent Online
THE GLOOMY sight of two premature exits through the Wembley tunnel on Saturday - the long walk of Paul Scholes, dismissed after a series of reckless fouls, followed by the forlorn departure of the hamstrung David Beckham, his arms draped around the necks of two physiotherapists - provided a grim closure to an otherwise often exhilarating English football season, an outcome all the more depressing for the sense of optimism that had ruled the build-up to what Kevin Keegan had announced was "a must- win game".

After his team's goalless and joyless draw with Sweden, Keegan described himself as "a realist, despite what people think". The reality, he said, was that qualification for Euro 2000 could now be achieved only through finishing second in Group Five, either by right as the best runner-up, or after a play-off round. Tommy Soderberg's admirable Sweden, with 13 points from five fixtures, are over the hill and far away. Poland, after their 2-0 home defeat of Bulgaria on Saturday, have nine points, one more than England, meaning that their meeting in the Silesian coalfields on 8 September is likely to become an eliminator. "There is some football to be played and points to be got," Keegan said, containing his disappointment. "And if we get there, we'll have as good a chance as anybody." So much, Saturday's paying customer might think, for realism.

Something, surely, will have to be done about the damagingly overhyped sense of anticipation that increasingly accompanies England's adventures in international sport. A week earlier, David Graveney had spoken rousingly of his cricket team's showdown with India as being "a day for heroes", only to watch his batsmen queue up to be presented with white feathers. On Saturday, all the fine words about good performances in training turned to ashes in Keegan's mouth. Something similar may well be in store for Clive Woodward at the Rugby World Cup in the autumn. And you cannot help but wonder whether a more temperate outlook, while unhelpful to the tabloids, might not be of more use to the players.

In the run-up to Saturday's match Keegan tried to be sunny but sensible. His team, however, still took the field, as England so often have, powered by a curious and delusional sense of entitlement. Stick to the script, act like an English professional, and the goals will come. When they do not, as they did not in the face of the patient and resolute Swedes, confusion descends.

In fairness, Keegan has had a mere three games with which to get his bearings as an international coach, while coping with the difficult qualifying position bequeathed by his predecessor. He is also in the early stages of working on a partnership with Howard Wilkinson, in which the FA's technical director deals with the tactical specifics while Keegan concentrates on picking the team and setting the mood.

But to say, as he did on Saturday evening, that his side will need to show "the real bulldog spirit" in Wednesday's meeting with Bulgaria is to misunderstand the predicament of English football at international level.

The bulldog spirit was exactly what Scholes displayed as he tore into Hakan Mild before 60 seconds had elapsed on Saturday in a two-footed assault that inflicted so many punctures from chest to thigh that the Swede looked as though he had been hit by a burst from a Gatling gun and required treatment from something resembling a small field hospital improvised on the touchline. Two further displays of the bulldog spirit cost Scholes his participation in the last 40 minutes of the game, denying Keegan the chance of the sort of late tactical adjustment that might have produced a last-gasp winner.

Not that his team deserved it, any more than Manchester United "deserved" their victory over Bayern Munich on the balance of an entire match. There were so many things wrong with England's performance that it will be difficult for Keegan to know where to start as, taking account of the mental and physical wounds, he attempts to reconstruct his side in time for the meeting with Bulgaria, knowing that this time a victory really is the sine qua non.

Some of the flaws - such as Beckham's substandard crosses and the failure of Alan Shearer and Andy Cole to convert the single chance that each received - were the players' own fault. Other defects can be laid at the coach's door. Had he, for instance, warned Scholes at half-time about the need to need to watch his behaviour after that unpunished opening foul and a 28th-minute booking? He had not. As a result, England were to lose the only man capable of playing the kind of short, incisive ground passes from which Cole and Shearer might profit - and to lose him to the kind of act that, for heaven's sake, David Batty and Tim Sherwood were there to commit. Why else pick them?

Martin Keown's departure with a pulled hamstring after 34 minutes, replaced by Rio Ferdinand, could not have been envisaged, but Keegan must also now be regretting his decision to allow Graeme Le Saux to declare himself fit to play, despite having suffered from a virus during the week. After barely half an hour's play the left-back was

in respiratory trouble, forcing Keegan to replace him with Michael Gray at half-time and thus use up the second of his three substitutions.

As the match ground past the hour mark, the stadium expected the third substitute to be Teddy Sheringham, in the hope of a repeat of the miracle of Barcelona. Instead, with 18 minutes left, Keegan instructed Robbie Fowler to prepare himself. "If I had to give a reason," Keegan said, "it would be that he's left-footed." The coach is paid to know better than the rest of us, but this will always seem a perverse decision. In any case, a minute later Beckham was sinking to the turf, clutching his thigh. Suddenly Fowler was back in his warm-up jacket, Ray Parlour was readying himself to fill the imminent hole on England's right side, and Keegan had run out of options.

But the worst aspect of the performance, as the coach noted, was the lamentable quality of the passing. Every single outfield player, even Beckham, gave the ball away at least once in a position that allowed the Swedes to create danger on the break. The underlying reason for this alarming syndrome is the absence of a great passer to whom the rest can instinctively direct the ball, leaving him to take the risks. So they all take it upon themselves, and normally reliable players are suddenly committing schoolboy blunders. Never was the need for a Haynes, a Wilkins or a Gascoigne more apparent than against this honest, intelligent but essentially mundane Sweden, who came for a draw and were unlucky not to go home with three points.

Not one England player brought that kind of presence to the pitch. Scholes and Cole can pass the ball perceptively, but not from the sort of position that permits a broader vision of the game. Beckham is too intuitive to play the role - and too hot-headed. Jamie Redknapp, who was on the bench, is the right type, but lacks the speed of thought and the quality of touch.

In the circumstances, the promotion of such green and unspoilt talents as Kieron Dyer and Joe Cole can hardly come too soon. If posterity is unlikely to view Keegan's tactical acumen as his gift to the England team, perhaps his legacy will be found in his willingness to identify, encourage and provide the setting for young players of real flair and imagination. But it won't happen in time to affect this qualifying campaign. And on Wednesday, yet again, bulldog spirit will have to do.