Football: English history of befuddlement: Ken Jones on a national game at crisis level

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The Independent Online
NEXT month, or the month after, a committee is expected to sit in judgement on the England manager, Graham Taylor, whose fate probably was settled this week in Rotterdam.

However you look at cause and effect, events at the Feyenoord stadium gave rise to a sense of deja vu, especially when Taylor was held entirely responsible for a defeat that reduced England's chances of qualifying for the World Cup finals to a remote possibility.

Sir Alf Ramsey once said managers get too much credit and too much blame. Thus, and allowing for the prevarication consistently evident in his stewardship, Taylor ought not to be taking all the flak.

Having set his stall out for the job, he has not, in all honesty, made the best of it. But there are other issues involved, most damagingly the arrogant assumption that England remain a great power.

Of course it is as difficult for Taylor to lay this on the line as it was for his predecessors and, since England have been down this road before, even the best arguments are begining to look threadbare.

How many times has it been said that a ludicrously congested League programme, greed-inspired, seriously hinders the development of young players, ultimately to the detriment of four British national teams and the Republic of Ireland? How often have disappointments been traced to the frenzy of domestic football, exciting in its way but technically flawed?

Without ever being coherently applied, English determination and spirit produced opportunities in Rotterdam that might easily have changed the course of the game. But, once the Dutchmen shed their tension, the discrepancy in class was once again alarming.

You could go on forever about this. On the one hand making a case for commitment and morale, paramount virtues in British football. On the other, deploring flaws that result in part from an obsession with victory and the values implanted by television when celebrating mediocrity.

Crises quickly dissolve. Yesterday becomes tomorrow. A new manager. Fresh hope. But always familiar failings. Walter Winterbottom got nowhere with England. Sir Alf achieved rare success but was then cast aside. Once Don Revie saw the problems clearly he legged it. Ron Greenwood restored respectability. Bobby Robson, ageing perceptibly, almost reached the 1990 World Cup final.

Always the manager, you see. Never the system, the history of befuddlement. 'How do you explain it?' Jimmy Greaves and Ian St John asked of each other on television when England were eliminated from the European Championships in 1988. The English clubs appeared strong, and until the outcome of Heysel, had cut a swathe through Europe. Outstanding internationals themselves, they had forgotten the special demands of international football.

If the Netherlands go on to qualify for next year's finals they will be led by the Barcelona coach, Johan Cruyff, not Dick Advocaat, who understandably is credited with masterminding this week's victory. It is said that he would be quite happy if Advocaat kept the job.

That does not suggest much in the way of organisation, lack of which is the most serious charge levelled at England's administration. Haphazard? 'Of course,' smiled a veteran Dutch journalist after Wednesday's match. 'There is no point in us being organised be cause it wouldn't work.' What works for the Netherlands is an attitude to the game that encourages skilful footballers to come forward.

In his pomp, Brian Clough argued that no sympathy could be held out for the England manager if he was incapable of producing a consistently successful team from a pool of more than 2,000 professional players. Sir Alf, who was in charge at the time, knew that of those who were available, barely 30 were up to standard. On the evidence of England's performance this week, Taylor's successor will have even fewer to work with.