Football: Ince to be brought to book?

Andrew Longmore reads a new chapter in England's sorry story

AFTER THE vanity, publish the horror fiction. The Terrible Night England Began to Believe Their Own Publicity. It is still too early to write the epilogue to England's chances of qualifying for the European Championship in the summer of 2000 - one down, seven episodes to go - but the next few chapters need to be a lot racier than this one if the ending is to be suitably romantic.

The pre-match billboards advertised the battle of the strikers, Shearer v Owen. But the images conjured from a sunlit evening in Stockholm reflected not the golden goal of St Etienne, but the Swedes and Turnips of Graham Taylor's vegetable past. An equaliser deflected into the net via Tony Adams's left arm and David Seaman's prostrate stomach, the winner, a bobble off the knee of Paul Scholes; England reversed the trend by turning from kings to cabbages. The one thread stretching between St Etienne and Stockholm was mathematical. England ended both games with 10 men. For David Beckham read Paul Ince. Rightly expelled for two yellow cards, the Liverpool midfielder is becoming an increasing liability for his country.

That Scholes should be found so deep in retreat said much for the speed with which England, supposedly the wiser side after the experiences of France, hit the panic button. Rather than reading the next instalment of the coach's World Cup Diary or their centre-half's compelling life story, the England side should confine their bedside reading to the FA Book of Defending; 4-4-2 or 3-5-2, formations are irrelevant in the midst of rampant incompetence.

Not far away, the strike force designated by the assembled script writers to settle their personal issue must have wondered whether they had wandered into an episode of the X Files. The speculation centred as much on Alan Shearer's reaction to the rise of his partner as the extraordinary unconditional adulation accorded Michael Owen from the normally unassuming Swedes. Presumably, we will have to wait for the book to discover the innermost thoughts of Shearer. His demeanour in a spiky press conference earlier last week as question after question was directed at the little boy beside him suggested a man consigned to unwanted shadows. What was it Oscar Wilde said about publicity? The only thing worse than having it was not having it. The truth of that aphorism slowly dawned on the England captain last week.

It is a measure of Owen's instant celebrity that the sleep of the Swedish defenders had been disturbed not by the physical presence of Shearer but the elusiveness of England's Peter Pan. Shearer had wisely kept his counsel, trusting his eloquence to his boots. Yet anonymity, relative though it may be, is a priceless asset for a striker too. Shearer, desperately short of goals for club and country, knew he could profit from the defenders' divided attentions. In less time than it took to read the front cover, Shearer had opened his European Championship account. And if there was a touch of good fortune about his free-kick - not least that he profited from the absence of the usual dead-ball specialist, Beckham - then the celebrations had the question "who's the No 1 striker now?" written all over them.

For the first half, there was only one striker in the game and he was not christened Michael. The first imprint Owen left was on the ankles of the Swedish left-back, a tackle which would have brought him an immediate red card had it been committed on French soil a month and a half earlier. This is the other side of Owen, not so much Michaelmania as manic Michael, a scythe not dissimilar to the tackle on Ronny Johnsen which brought a red card and the people's vote as the second worst crime in the Premier League last season. The one glimpse of his more notable talent came with a delicate chip over the goalkeeper, exquisitely struck from an acute angle, but from an offside position.

Not until the second half did he get the time and space to run at the Swedish defence. The slamming of the door will become a familiar sound to him, now that defenders have satellite-beamed proof of the dangers of youth. Sweden worked on the lines of supply and kept Owen with his back to goal as often as possible. Inexperience, and a worrying injury to Darren Anderton, did the rest. Owen and Shearer are still a fledgling pairing. Too much of their time was spent outside hailing distance. The understanding will emerge; the future of England and, quite possibly, their coach rests on it. But, for the moment, no one will want to buy the paperback rights.

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