Football: Keegan calm before his biggest test

Euro 2000: England's professionalism and Shearer's instinct for goal augurs well for Poland trip

AS HE returned to his seat on the bench for the second half of Saturday's European Championship qualifying match against Luxembourg, Kevin Keegan accepted the offer of a handful of Hula Hoops from an eager young fan in an England replica shirt. There have been times, not so long past, when an English manager might have felt it prudent at such a moment to send for the sort of food-taster employed by unpopular dictators down the ages. Keegan, bless him, popped the snack straight into his mouth and sat down to enjoy England's most emphatic victory during his brief but eventful term of office.

The nation wants Keegan to succeed. It wants all England managers to succeed, of course. But the special warmth directed at Keegan seems to reflect a feeling that he would be able to share in any success that happened to be going more easily and generously than most of those encumbered with the job over the past 30 years. The fans sense that, at heart, he is one of them, no matter how much his wage packet might contain. Their desires and imperatives are essentially the same, and it will take great deal of failure to deprive them of their faith. The same might not be true of Keegan's newspaper critics. But Saturday's 6-0 victory at Wembley was just what the coach and the supporters needed as a prelude to the crucial game against Poland in Warsaw on Wednesday, when England's hopes of remaining in contention for a place in the European Championship finals will be in the balance.

Victory in Poland would give England second place in Group Five, and put them into a play-off. A draw would leave Poland needing only a point from their concluding fixture in Stockholm to ensure that the hosts of Euro 96 will not be invited to the finals. After the disappointing results achieved by Keegan's team against Sweden and Bulgaria, Luxembourg came along at exactly the right time. The days of landslide victories over the minor footballing nations are over, we were told. Luxembourg's results in Group Five to date had not been impressive, but they would still need to be beaten, and there was no great confidence that England would have the practical capacity to match the theoretical gulf between the two sides.

Anyone who took the trouble to attend the Under-21 fixture between the two nations at the Madejski Stadium in Reading on Friday night would have been given an unusually precise indication of the course and outcome of the following day's senior match. Such portents are often deceptive, but on this occasion the watching Keegan and his first-team players were given a clear idea of the pleasures in store.

Undermanned in attack and ill-equipped in defence, Luxembourg's junior side offered no sort of challenge to the side sent out by the new management team of Howard Wilkinson and Peter Reid. Two goals in the first half and three in the second could have been tripled without doing injustice to the visitors, whose five-man defence prostrated itself time and again before the increasingly confident incursions of Francis Jeffers, Emile Heskey, Lee Hendrie, Frank Lampard, Carl Cort and Luke Chadwick, an 18- year-old right winger from Manchester United whose eventual destiny might be to enable David Beckham to settle into his desired central midfield role for both club and country. Stephen Gerrard, making his Under-21 debut, patrolled the area in front of the back four displaying the kind of physical command and shrewd tactical appreciation with which, in Liverpool's shirt, he had overshadowed the mighty Patrick Vieira a week earlier.

Sitting for an hour in the gridlocked car park after the game, there was plenty of time to regret the inability of Britain's sporting leaders to translate such regular displays of abundant promise into consistent achievement at a higher level. Then, on Saturday afternoon, England's representative footballers for once looked like a stick of rock with the same message printed right the way through.

All the virtues of the Under-21s were reproduced. The back-four made light work of the opposing attackers, allowing the full-backs scope to overlap. David Batty enforced order in the midfield, leaving the creatives to do their work, while occasionally taking advantage of the opportunity to add a grace-note of his own (in itself, eloquent evidence about the standard of the opposition). Up front, Alan Shearer and Robbie Fowler went about their work with a presence and a professionalism befitting their status.

Five goals in the first half had Keegan giving vent to all his natural effervescence, with the much-criticised Shearer's hat-trick a particular source of satisfaction. "Everything's gone well for him over the two or three weeks, hasn't it," the coach mischievously suggested. "It'll give him a tremendous boost, both for England and for Newcastle.

"I didn't see him grab the ball afterwards, and I didn't see the referee give it to him, but he was carrying it when he came into the dressing room. I just wish sometimes that people would look at his good points, instead of the character assassinations we sometimes see. Now he's answered his critics in the most positive way. It's good news for Bobby Robson, isn't it?"

With curious but happy timing, Robson was the guest of honour at the match, and had the strange experience of walking up the red carpet to be formally introduced to the man who exerts such influence in the dressing room of his new club. Shearer's first goal opened the scoring after 10 minutes, and Keegan was obviously speaking from personal experience when he pointed out the pressure that the captain was under. "Try to imagine the worst thing that could happen to him, after a build-up like he had last week. A penalty at 0-0 after 10 minutes, right?"

Someone asked Keegan if he considered Shearer to be still the same player as the man for whom he paid pounds 15m to take to Newcastle. "I do. I'd spend it again. But then I believe in him. Other managers don't. I know that from the things they've been writing about him. Football's all about opinions, and we're all entitled to them. But I'd pay that money for him again, without a shadow of a doubt."

Shearer's second and third goals certainly confirmed the impression of a man in touch with his old instincts. For the second, he ran on to Fowler's shrewd little diagonal return pass to hammer a shot in off the goalkeeper's gloves. For the third, it took the replays to show how he had appreciated the trajectory of Kieron Dyer's low cross an instant before anyone else, moving in to slide it home like the penalty-box predator of old.

There were also two first-half goals for Steve McManaman, his first for England in his 25th appearance, both of them the product of intelligent anticipation. Keegan's decision to start the match with McManaman on the right and Ray Parlour out of position on the left was widely questioned, but by getting them to switch wings half-way through each period the coach got the best out of them, kept them fresh, and retained their loyalty. But it

would be good to see young Hendrie, who made such an impressive debut as a substitute against the Czech Republic last year, given another chance to address the problem on the left side of the attack.

Not surprisingly, the second half was a flatter affair, with chances going begging all over the place. "It was 105 degrees out there on the pitch," Keegan said, "and it felt even hotter than that. You'd have to be a bit disappointed with the second half, but Luxembourg were never a threat in their attacking third of the pitch, although they dug in and got men behind the ball."

He had particular praise for Dyer, who lasted only 45 minutes but flew up and down the right wing to dynamic effect before being replaced by Gary Neville. "We don't know whether it's cramp or whether he got a knock," Keegan said. "When you go as fast as he does, you have to slow the video down to find out what happened."

Keegan clearly relished Dyer's effect on the spectators, who were chanting his name after the fourth goal. "When you see the crowd getting on their feet when someone goes down the touchline," he said, "it's because they think something's going to happen."

The manager's awareness of the crowd's reaction is a telling characteristic. He enjoyed Michael Owen's remarkable injury-time goal, he said, but wished that it had come 15 minutes earlier. "I hate it when the Mexican wave starts. It usually means the game's dying on its feet." If Ramsey or Hoddle had noticed such a phenomenon, they would never have let on.

Owen's return to international activity naturally excited the crowd when he replaced Beckham after 64 minutes, in a double substitution which also brought on Philip Neville for Tony Adams and allowed the team to reshape itself into a nostalgic 4-3-3 formation. In truth, it could have been 2-3-5 and Luxembourg still would not have threatened. But Owen's scampering runs, sublime touch and unselfish passing reinvigorated the attack, and it would be a surprise if the 19-year-old played no part on Wednesday.

Looking ahead to a test of a far more rigorous order, Keegan wisely refused to allow his emotions to get the better of his realism. "It's been an OK day," he summed up. "I wouldn't go overboard about it." But at this stage of the game, even an OK day seemed like a bonus. And on Wednesday night in Warsaw, OK would do very nicely indeed.

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