Football: Injuries at the root of Taylor's decline: Steve Coppell argues that misfortune tipped the balance against the England manager but the scales were already loaded against him

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The Independent Online
THE perspective of time will rightly judge the overall effect of Graham Taylor's apparently powerless reign. Inevitably he will be castigated for failure in the European Championship in Sweden and the ultimate sin of not qualifying for America. But where did it all go so horribly wrong?

Graham's initial verve and enthusiasm led to some healthy results in the qualification period for Sweden. We were unbeaten in reaching the finals and looked potent enough to make a significant impact on a competition that previously had been unkind to us. During this two-year period I am convinced that Graham knew exactly where he was going and he knew the team he was going to pick to get him there.

Then disaster. Two years specific planning was blown to pieces when Gary Stevens and Lee Dixon were both injured making any right-back selection an embarrassment. The warm-up Finland game then proved particularly costly with John Barnes' ruptured Achilles and Mark Wright's subsequent mysterious withdrawal from the squad.

The poor performances in Sweden and the politically incorrect decision to substitute Gary Lineker saw the birth of 'Taylor-baiting' which over time has generated a major following.

In retrospect, the only criticism that could justly be levelled at Taylor was that his final squad was not flexible or strong enough to cover the loss of the injured players. Any manager will tell you that to lose three key players just before a match is tantamount to losing an arm.

Somehow after Sweden the whole tenor of the England camp changed. The attitude of the England journalists towards Taylor deteriorated. Respect was replaced by suspicion and in some cases barely disguised insults.

Good results were required to arrest the popularity slide of the manager. Bad results, however, followed and ensured that harsh criticism and not appreciation was filling each match report.

Last week's bizarre encounter in Bologna sealed England's fate in the World Cup. A manager must accept responsibility and Taylor has done that quite willingly. He will probably pay for that with his job.

With one or two minor changes things may have been so different. With San Marino in the group it would have been a disaster for the concept of the World Cup if qualification had been determined by the numbers of goals scored against the weakest team as opposed to head-to-head combat. Thankfully Norway and the Netherlands qualified on merit, but, without chewing on sour grapes for too long, the 10-0 hammering of San Marino must have given Norway a huge psychological edge against England before our first game of the competition.

Irony also dictated that a mistake produced a history-making goal for the minnows last week. A goal that the England players will rightly never be allowed to forget. The mistake was one of many that cost England vital points against the Netherlands and Norway. I am convinced that an England win against the Netherlands at Wembley would have dramatically changed the whole complexion of the group. Such is fate, a cruel bedfellow.

When I resigned as manager of Crystal Palace, Taylor wrote me a kind letter showing understanding for my feelings, and telling me not to lose faith in my ability. Through this column I would say the same to him. A good manager does not become a bad manager in such a short space of time. I am sure that either with club or country he will enjoy deserved future success, and may even be heard to mutter, 'I told you so'.

In hindsight Taylor's tenure may still prove to be the most significant period since England decided to get rid of the selection committee. Change must happen. I have read stories of restructuring and coaching revolutions and I just smile. There is not much wrong with our game and any of these changes will take years to filter through. We cannot wait that long.

Immediately ahead of us is the European Championship in 1996. It will take place in England so we have two major advantages. First, we do not have to qualify and, second, we obviously will be playing all our games at home. We must not waste this opportunity.

Whoever they choose, the Football Association must decide a management structure sooner rather than later. In the next six months the manager must look very closely at football in the rest of the world and decide what is best and what we can pinch and use for ourselves. He must study the World Cup and reach quick conclusions as to how our football must be played.

After the World Cup we have 24 months to prepare for the European Championship. For us to have a realistic chance of winning the trophy there must be a fair amount of fixture manipulation so that the squad has a fair preparation period when our players will be fresh and raring to go rather than leg-weary and brain dead. For fixtures to be rearranged all clubs must be subservient and not allowed to arrange any extra money-making games or summer tours. They know that they will be reimbursed from the competition profits and from the bigger gates a successful England campaign will bring in the future.

At the beginning of next season certain changes should be announced.

(1) The bottom six clubs in the 1994-95 season should be relegated with only two clubs promoted from the First Division. So that for the 1995-96 season only there would be 18 Premiership teams. The outcry from a lot of chairmen would be quelled by the knowledge that in the season itself two clubs from 18 would be relegated and four promoted leaving a steady 20 teams in the Premiership.

(2) From an international point of view there should be six blank Saturdays in the 1994-95 season and eight in 1995-96. Quite enough for an adequate number of internationals to be played. Grounds apart from Wembley should be used, in case we have to play outside the capital in the championships. For everyone's convenience these fixtures should be played on Saturdays.

(3) The 1995-96 season should finish at least four weeks before the start of the Championship, giving adequate time for minor knocks to heal, and leaving no excuses about poor preparation.

The effect of these measures would be that players would have an opportunity to practise and not just play. We constantly abuse our players for having no first touch and not being able to pass, yet our fixture schedule leaves them no time to acquire these skills. Our players are certainly as good as any in Europe if we give them a chance.

These changes are dramatic and I am sure could quite easily be argued down in many circles, but we have a great chance to rebuild and repair. The despair and frustration of not qualifying for the World Cup would be nothing to the massive shame of an acute failure as hosts in the European Championship. A poor show could damage our domestic game for years to come. Winning it would mirror the 1966 effect.