Football: It's the way we make 'em: The system, as much as Graham Taylor, should be blamed. Norman Fox reports

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The Independent Online
SO ACCORDING to Graham Taylor it was only passion that England lacked in Oslo last Wednesday night. He must have been choking on his words when he put up that asinine smokescreen after a performance of almost unmitigated ineptitude against the competent but less than outstanding Norwegians. Passion and aggression are advantageous. They are also the last resorts of the outclassed and badly organised, and they are certainly not the foremost requirements.

If, on the day, the absence of passion had such an important bearing on the defeat, it came entirely as a result of the confusion inflicted by the manager. But the manner of defeat, from which Taylor disassociated himself, was also the consequence of praising false gods in English football over several generations.

Unless the Netherlands and Norway are struck down with similar incompetence, Taylor will resign in the autumn. 'I will know when to go,' he has said, and that could be within a fortnight. A lot depends on whether his failure to take responsibility for the way England played in Poland and Norway ('I take the blame for the result, not the way in which it came about' was one of the lamest and most self-protective excuses ever put forward by an England manager) has turned the players against him.

Unless the Football Association's international committee members are even more gaga than some appear, and continue to think that duty is what you avoid at Luton airport, three defeats (or no victories) in the United States over the next fortnight should result in Taylor's going immediately; but equally the US Cup offers him the chance to field a team not debilitatingly and permanently looking to the declining Paul Gascoigne, who these days does little but flap his elbows and demand the ball, only to become about as dangerous as a cuckoo in the nest.

Probably Taylor's most serious mistake recently was his retaining Gascoigne, though hindsight is a wonderful advantage to which he was not privy. It was said that to drop the former hub of the side would have been to destroy him. Quite the reverse could have been true. Gascoigne's priorities in life seem to be playing football and what Taylor euphemistically and with a dreadful sense of timing called 'refuelling'.

Whether the 'private' (Taylor's word) problems are booze or whatever, to have deprived Gascoigne of his place could have brought him to what passes for his senses. Sadly, if he doesn't improve physically soon, his international career will end at the same time as Taylor's.

But back to basics. For a time over the past year, the fact that few international sides seemed exceptionally talented or well organised tempted the thought that if Taylor continued with his post-European Championship policy of continuity and club spirit, perhaps England could camouflage their weaknesses in technique and not only qualify for the next World Cup but do at least as well as three years ago. That was wishful thinking. English-style football is an irrelevant sideshow and these days when its best players leave to test themselves in the real world of the Italian league and find themselves struggling to keep their places, the proof is beyond dispute.

When an imp of a player such as Norway's part-timer Erik Mykland, whose chest measurement (32in) is not much more than that of Gascoigne's thigh - let alone his paunch - can kick sand in the faces of the entire England team, the whole idea that the outcome of this watershed match can be put down to a lack of passion has to be treated as an aside to the main problem. Taylor says, 'We are not good at tournament football.' Wrong, 'we' are not good at playing anyone who is. In any case, why 'we'? His unhinging of the team he had just about got together now poses fresh questions about who exactly are the 'we'.

The fact is that while defeats have not been numerous, under his management victories have usually been against thirdrate opponents. Expectation is always unreasonably high, but qualifying for the World Cup finals is not an unreasonable demand from players who, as the fans in Oslo so vociferously pointed out, earn vast sums yet get outplayed by men who in many cases are considered second-

class. But none of the criticism of Taylor seems to have taken into account the fact that England's position on the fringe of the real powers in international football is not new and probably would not have changed under any other manager.

This column has tended to be something of a safe harbour for Taylor, but he cannot be forgiven for his spiteful substitution of Gary Lineker in the European Championship nor last Wednesday's squirming attempt to 'take responsibility' without accepting the blame for what actually happened on the field. While he lambasted the players, he did not feel that it was within his brief to criticise the widespread misguided coaching methods which contributed to the fiasco.

The England manager is not going to be excused the sort of selection and tactical boobs Taylor perpetrated last week, but year in year out he is restricted by a style of domestic football that is hugely popular, ironically in places like Scandinavia, because by comparison with most other areas of the world it is a hugely popular freak show; a blood and guts sport unrivalled in its masochism. Unfortunately, and perhaps also ironically, Taylor is beginning to be hoist by a version of the agitated, over-physical football he hardly railed against when at club level. Surely, if he wanted England to have a balance between the small amount of skill and plethora of strength available in Norway, he would have believed that Tony Adams, Des Walker, Carlton Palmer and Lee Dixon offered ample cover against the power of Jostein Flo and retained the constructive ability of Tony Dorigo. And what of Paul Merson - who was not even on the bench? Merson may be another who would benefit from a few less visits to the refuelling station but he is still a limousine among the trucks.

Taylor knows only too well that the questions about British football's priorities have been asked over a period of several footballing generations and will continue to be questioned when England fail to qualify for the next World Cup. The same problems will remain when Gerry Francis, Howard Wilkinson, Kevin Keegan, Glenn Hoddle or any other sucker is brought in to do the impossible. All will remember that every previous manager was criticised for failing to build teams around the one or two gifted players who survive the domestic turmoil, but when Taylor committed himself to do that with Gascoigne he was let down.

That Taylor lost his bottle and made changes which confused the players in Oslo is of immediate consequence to England's future, but a mere fissure amongst the cracks within the structure of the game in England. When seven of the under-21 team end the season needing hospital treatment for deep-seated injuries, someone at the FA should be taking cover. And when England's better players against Norway are Palmer and Adams, there is indeed something wrong with the whole production line.

Another smokescreen went up when Lawrie McMenemy returned from Stavanger saying that if England followed Norway's system and kept young potential internationals together and took them from youth to senior level as a group things might be better. Strange. Is there not something called the 'School of Excellence'? Most of the inmates seem to come out well-muscled, team-spirited and bored. Until greater emphasis is placed on encouraging players to prize ball skills nothing will happen and England will continue to find themselves trying to spread a little talent too widely . . . and fall back on 'passion'. So now that Gascoigne has declined, Walker has lost all confidence and speed, and David Platt feels burdened with the captaincy, there is not much wit and originality left. But before throwing all the blame in one direction, just ask who bred the headless chickens.

(Photograph omitted)

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