Football / FA Cup Final: 'If Lee Dixon can play for England so can I': Sheffield Wednesday's Footballer of the Year, to the bewilderment of his many admirers, cannot find a place in Graham Taylor's affections. Joe Lovejoy reports

 

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The Independent Online

George V requested 'Abide With Me', Graham Taylor prefers 'Pomp and Circumstance'. Why not 'The Enigma Variations' when the Cup finalists trot out at Wembley this afternoon? There could be no more appropriate greeting for the man of the moment.

Like most Merlins of the touchline, Chris Waddle polarises opinion. An overwhelming majority may favour the North-east pole, but the division is there all right.

Typically, his last two appearances on the grand stage, just a fortnight apart, had the pro and anti lobbies chorusing 'I told you so' in turn. Waddle was at his bewitching, beguiling best when Sheffield Wednesday overcame their local rivals in the semi-finals of the FA Cup, yet two weeks later he was anything but The Real Thing when he was flattened by the Arsenal steamroller in the Coca- Cola final.

Up and down. The wizard of the dribble in a nutshell. Inconsistent, bleated the straight-line brigade. Unfair, countered those not averse to a little lateral movement to go with their lateral thinking. Even George Best was stymied without the ball.

The two factions remain firmly entrenched. Waddle has been around a long time - he is 33 in December - and opinions are unlikely to change as the hill's downslope beckons. In fairness, very few are still unconvinced. When it comes to taking sides, it is Taylor and . . . well, the French government and their claim for back tax versus Debrett. At the last count, Waddle could call on Bobby Robson, Bobby Charlton, Gary Lineker, Jean-Pierre Papin, Glenn Hoddle, Trevor Francis and Uncle Tom Cobley in the shape of the football writers, who have just chosen him as player of the season.

No matter. Taylor, it seems, would pick almost anyone rather than have Waddle add to his 62 England caps. When he announced a squad of 22 for last month's World Cup tie against the Netherlands, the manager stonewalled questions about Waddle with the assurance that he was among 30 players under constant review. When he chose 30 (25 plus five stand-by reserves) for the matches against Poland and Norway and the US Cup, guess whose name was still missing?

Why? Taylor's explanations are all unconvincing. He says he prefers not to change a winning team, and that if Waddle was in the squad he would feel compelled to play him.

The plaintiff calls Gary Lineker, who says: 'I haven't worked that one out. Why not have Chris on the bench, and if things are going wrong with 20 minutes to go, at least you have a little bit of something special that could turn it.'

Taylor seeks to justify his preference for John Barnes by insisting that Waddle, who is left-footed, is best deployed on the right. Step into the witness box, Bobby Robson. 'Chris is more consistent than Barnes, and is able to play with equal effectiveness on either flank. He has the ability - the skill and the pace - to get beyond the full-back, and that's trouble for any defence. It is a difficult choice between him and Barnes, but Chris has done it more often for England.'

Robson's successor views Waddle as something of a maverick, difficult to accommodate within the framework and tenor of a team. Not so, according to Papin. 'Being different from the rest should be a bonus, not a problem,' France's goalscorer extraordinaire says. 'Chris and I worked brilliantly together at Marseille. He was always tightly marked, but could beat four men and make room for himself. His dribbling was phenomenal.'

Yes, but Taylor has to build for the future, and Waddle is too old at 32. Bobby Charlton shoots that one down. 'I know he might be getting on a bit, and hasn't always produced for England, but he's a better player for his time abroad and I can't understand why he isn't being given a chance. When Wednesday played Manchester United at Old Trafford recently, I feared for us every time he got the ball. He's a constant danger because of his skills. It is very difficult for defenders to read him, and he is a wonderful passer of the ball.'

To sum up: Waddle is more consistent than Barnes, can be used effectively on either wing, his dribbling is phenomenal, his passing wonderful. The defence rests. What can m'learned friend from Lancaster Gate come up with to outweigh such testimony?

The answer amounts to very little. Nudges and winks to the effect that the shuffling Geordie is only influential when he is allowed time and space, his preference for the right flank when England's perceived need is on the left and the idea that changing the team would damage morale.

Opinions will always differ, Taylor says. Down the years, there have been countless campaigns for the inclusion of players the manager of the day has seen fit to ignore. Shackleton, Matthews and Hoddle, for example. True, Graham, but history has shown those crusades to be as justified then as this one is now. His case is a flimsy one, serving only to give credence to Lineker's theory that the two men are chalk and cheese. The master striker had differences of his own with Taylor, and says of Waddle's continued omission: 'I don't believe it's a football issue. I think they just don't get on. I think it's more of a personality clash. Chris is quite opinionated on the game. There is no reason, football- wise, why he shouldn't be in the squad.'

The England manager maintains it is not a question of conflicting personalities, and that he and Waddle have been on speaking terms again since the start of the season, but there is definitely a history there.

There is something of the scoutmaster about Taylor, whose songs- round-the-campfire regime is alien to, and could be undermined by, independent-minded thinkers like the Wednesday wanderer. It will not have been forgotten that on one free Saturday before an international, Waddle asked to be excused a clay-pigeon shoot (it is go-karts these days) to go and watch Swindon Town. Permission was refused and he sat on the coach, reading, while the rest of the squad blasted away. No brownie points there.

The newspaper article in which he accused Taylor of setting back English football five years was another black mark, and complaints about his brief on his last appearance for England, against Turkey in October 1991, left him at the very back of the class.

As Waddle tells it, Taylor originally gave him the free role he wanted, and told the press as much, then said just before the game that he was to play as an orthodox winger. Anchored to the line, his contribution was minimal, was derided as such, and he was dropped for the trip to Poland the following month, never to return.

Never? Francis, the Wednesday manager, is sure of it. 'Chris could not play much better than he has this season. As soon as he was left out of the Dutch game, we assumed his international career was finished.'

The plural is right. The man himself seems to accept that playing for his country is now a memory. 'I was glad England did well against the Dutch,' he says. 'Maybe I will stop being an issue now. Maybe it will all quieten down.' I wouldn't count on it. If he casts his spell this afternoon, he is sure to be pushed as the logical choice to replace Paul Gascoigne, who is unavailable for the US Cup games against the United States, Brazil and Germany next month.

The surest way to avoid that clamour is for Waddle, and Wednesday, to allow themselves to be overpowered by Arsenal, as they were at Wembley four weeks ago. The contention that he is a fairweather player - a matchwinner when the tide is flowing his way, a passenger when the going gets tough - is unfair, but it was not without substance that day. It is a theory he is anxious to disprove.

It is not that he cannot stomach losing. He can - and a mite too easily for some tastes. 'Losing is part of the game,' he says. 'You learn to accept it. If you come off the pitch and think: 'I couldn't have done any more', you have no reason to feel that bad. The 1987 Cup final, when Tottenham lost to Coventry, was a terrific game, and I actually enjoyed it. We lost, and there was disappointment, but it was a memorable final, and a pleasure to be part of it. I can't say I felt like that after the Coca-Cola.'

Wednesday had been the more gifted team, Arsenal had the organisation and the desire. Not for the first time in the hurly-burly of British football, the blue-collar attributes carried the day.

'They wanted to win more than us, it was as simple as that. It was the worst we'd played for six months. Against Arsenal, you have to work hard. That's essential. If we do that, we can do ourselves justice - something we didn't do last time.'

For those of us who voted for him, in preference to outstanding candidates like Paul McGrath, Eric Cantona and Paul Ince, the hope is that the Footballer of the Year will put on a performance worthy of the title. If he fails us, we are assured that it will not be for the want of trying.

'There are a lot of good, talented players at Wednesday, and no matter what happens in the final, we can go on to win things. I want to be part of that. I feel I'm playing as well as ever, and the appetite is still there.'

Are you listening, Intransigent of Lancaster Gate? I think not.

(Photograph omitted)

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