Football: Hoddle leans towards experience

Glenn Moore looks at the relevance of England's Swiss friendly to the real thing
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The Independent Online
FOURTEEN World Cup finalists, almost half the summer entry, played warm-up friendlies on Wednesday night. Just three, Brazil, Spain and Denmark, gained a victory; Bulgaria, France and Austria lost to non-qualifiers Macedonia, Russia and Hungary respectively; and only Germany-Brazil attracted more than 25,000 spectators.

In that context England's scrambling draw with Switzerland in Berne does not look as shabby as it appeared at the time. One does wonder, however, what is the point of all these phoney wars.

While the England coach, Glenn Hoddle, moans that Brazil, with their pre-finals programme of non-stop friendlies, are "a motorway ahead of us'' in preparation, the world champions have only one further match, against Argentina in Rio next month, arranged while he has four. His seven- match build-up since qualifying is also well ahead of Spain's quartet of matches and Italy's three-game itinerary.

But does it matter? Denmark players prepared for the 1992 European Championships, which they won after being summoned as a late replacement for Yugoslavia, by sunbathing or home-decorating. England only discovered their winning 1966 side in the quarter-finals. The problem is assessing the relevance of performances in friendly matches to the real thing.

Certainly Hoddle will have learned little from Wednesday night. Martin Keown, Gareth Southgate and Rio Ferdinand are all good defenders with limitations in possession, Paul Ince is a key player in the midfield battle, and England look better balanced with a linking striker, like Teddy Sheringham, than two out-and-out forwards. But we knew all that already.

Worringly it also underlined a message from the defeat to Chile last month. Without Paul Gascoigne England lack creativity. In three hours' football without him they have created less than a handful of chances.

"It was such a difficult pitch I'm not sure that even Paul could have shaped that game," said Hoddle but he added: "At his best he can control the game and in the last four performances he has done that.''

Johan Cruyff recently suggested that 30 minutes of Gascoigne were worth 90 from most players and England should pick him even if they only got half an hour from him. "It is an interesting point," said Hoddle, "because no player can dictate for 90 minutes anyway. If you are looking for someone to control different parts of a game for 20 to 30 minutes then Paul could do that whether we say 'we'll give you 60 minutes and take you off', or bring him on. He has that ability."

Of other players he thought Steve McManaman "had a real go though the pitch didn't suit him and was as good as any in the second half''; Michael Owen "found out it was a lot tougher at this level but it was part of his education''; Paul Merson "took his goal well''; and Rio Ferdinand "needs time to be nursed into the position, it was his first full game and he did ok".

The sweeper plan is beginning to look too ambitious given the timespan. Ferdinand can defend and Jamie Redknapp, who swept in the B/Under-21 team's Tuesday defeat, can open the play with long-passing from the back but neither can do both. Redknapp is being groomed long-term; if he is in the squad for France it will be as a midfielder. The final squad will be based on experience. Mentioning Paul Ince and Alan Shearer, Hoddle added: "I found out the experienced players come back to the fore.''

Terry Venables realised the same. In his first match, in March 1994, his team was built around the spine of David Seaman-Tony Adams-Paul Ince- Alan Shearer. That was still the axis for Euro 96 and remains Hoddle's preferred core. But, due largely to injuries, the quartet has played together only eight times in 39 matches under the two managers, and only once under Hoddle.

England are yet to lose with all four in the side and Venables was fortunate in that he could play them for four of the five Euro 96 matches. Hoddle will be hoping for similar fortune next summer.

He names his final 22 on 2 June after friendlies against Portugal and Saudi Arabia at Wembley, and Morocco and Belgium in Casablanca. Hoddle has so far called 54 players into his squads of which 39 have been capped. "It would," he admitted, "be very difficult for anyone to break in now." Earlier in the week he spoke of 13 certainties, this is how the other hopefuls are placed.

IN: Seaman; G Neville, Campbell, Southgate, Adams, Le Saux; Ince, Beckham, Gascoigne, Batty; Scholes, Shearer, Sheringham. PROBABLE: Flowers; Keown. POSSIBLE: Martyn; R Ferdinand, P Neville, Hinchcliffe, Pearce; Redknapp, Lee, Butt, *Parlour, McManaman, Merson; L Ferdinand, Barmby, I Wright, Cole, Dublin, Owen. UNLIKELY: Walker, *Hislop, *Pressman; Pallister, *Matteo, *Howey; Ripley, Collymore, *Heskey. DISCARDED: James; *May, *Scales; *Platt, *Stone, *Draper, *Bowyer, *Clark, Le Tissier; Sutton, *Eadie. INJURED: *Anderton, Fowler. *called up but not capped under Hoddle.