Football: It's so hard to shed tears for Taylor

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OF COURSE Graham Taylor should not resign because England lost a friendly match in Spain and fed the tabloid war machine with a welcome alternative to royal bashing, but sympathy becomes increasingly difficult when the only consistent thing in the last few months of his era has been the cry 'don't blame me'.

There has not often been a more troublesome time to be an England manager. Unusual talent is scarce. Gary Lineker, one of the finest goalscorers in international football, has gone. One of the most original talents of recent years, Paul Gascoigne, is still unavailable. Arguably the most effective central defender in Europe, Des Walker, is unsettled by his move to Italy. The new Premier League is in disarray and, without strong leadership, is still far from offering England proper co-operation. Taylor is in the middle of it all.

What has to be asked is whether, accepting all his problems, Taylor is making the best of his material. His incessant changes, not only in personnel but philosophy about the way England should play, lead to the conclusion that one or two early defeats in the World Cup qualifying competition would raise serious doubts about his future. Not that obvious successors readily come to mind.

It would be pointless at this stage to create another crisis while one nearer the roots of the game already exists. We now know football at international and Premier League level is currently manipulated by a minority of influential club chairmen, who are pursuing nothing more than self-interest and, in some cases, a misguided notion that before long they will be invited to be a part of a television-orientated, small, select European Super League, an enterprise long lurking in the shadows but soon likely to re-emerge as a viable notion. Half a dozen Premier League clubs think they are big enough and famous enough to be invited but probably only Manchester United are commercially attractive enough to take part, which could explain why they now feel so powerful they can dictate to the Premier League and the England management.

That the Football Association had lost control of the Premier League was obvious weeks ago but international football is still supposed to be under its jurisdiction. Even that seems to have been usurped. It was outrageous the England management should have allowed themselves to be be bribed into obtaining the United player, Paul Ince, by giving an assurance this player, who had been dispensable internationally for five years or so, was suddenly so important his place could be guaranteed. It would have been difficult to justify such a commitment even if the match had been the one upon which England could succeed or fall in the World Cup.

Taylor says all the players are as committed to playing for England as they ever were. Possibly his own undoubted dedication makes it difficult for him to believe some are more cynical than others. The Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson, has won these cynics the right to refuse to be a part unless they are assured of a place in the team.

It would be unrealistic to blame Ferguson, or any other club manager, for trying it on. His thinking was that Ince had played in an arduous match on Sunday and, he said, was suffering from a virus. It would be better if the player did not have to travel to Santander only to sit on the bench. If club managers are going to be able to demand to know whether or not their players will be in the England side, we could end up with a travelling party of 11 pre-selected players. Taylor and McMenemy will be fortunate if they have not made a rod for their own backs.

The Ince decision merely added to the unedifying sight of a rudderless England being out-witted, out-classed in terms of skill and, more unusually, outrun and out- elbowed by an equally untried Spanish team. The poignant question is whether Taylor can do anything to improve the situation before next month's World Cup match against Norway at Wembley. It is all very well for him to complain about losing so many 'good players' but, Gascoigne apart, who are they? Most are merely useful club men.

The failure in Santander was indicative of a lack of technique and compounded by tactical inflexibility, especially in the overwhelmed midfield. Certainly the withdrawal of Ince into Lee Dixon's position at right back weakened the middle but, unless Taylor can persuade David Platt to be more dominating, it would be better to let Paul Merson have the job. Here, at least, is a physically strong player, who is useful playing wide but could be better used moving forward powerfully from midfield in the German style. Gascoigne has that ability and so much depends on his return.

The international retirement of Lineker is manifestly unfortunate but, for the moment, Alan Shearer must be given the benefit of the doubt about his ability to become a successful successor. He was unlucky against Spain, as was David White. The failure of the tactic of having two men playing wide was not so much one of unfulfilled attacking but an inability to support the midfield pair. Apart from being found wanting on the night, Taylor's 4-2-4 caused further confusion about the way England want to play. As if that was not enough, the defence collapsed. The hitherto dependable Walker was clearly off-form and Mark Wright may have been given a terrible battering but extended doubts remain about his constructive abilities. Stuart Pearce is also struggling against loss of form in a weak Forest team and is allowing the responsibility of captaincy to undermine his natural atacking ability. Rob Jones must be cursing his shin injury because otherwise the right-back position is his for a long time ahead.

Some wan relief was expressed that England did not resort to hoofed clearances high into the opponent's penalty area. No, they simply whacked the ball low and long through midfield. One of these days Taylor may stand up and say, 'this is the way I want England to play'. Until then he will be criticised for considering direct methods and harangued for attempting to build some half-way house on the weak foundations of players of inferior technique.