Football: Keegan gives his colts their England chance

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AFTER A week of horse-trading with the game's leading trainers, Kevin Keegan yesterday revealed a coltish England squad full of each-way bets but, he hopes, with enough thoroughbred favourites to prevent an embarrassing fall in Hungary next week.

Both Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, the managers of Manchester United and Arsenal, were given the opportunity to hold back a brace of players from the friendly international. David Beckham, Gary Neville, Tony Adams and Ray Parlour were thus excused duty in Budapest next Wednesday. "A common sense arrangement," Keegan said.

Of his own volition Keegan then omitted Paul Ince, Darren Anderton, Andy Hinchcliffe and Teddy Sheringham from the 22-man party. In their place come six uncapped players: Wes Brown of Manchester United, Jonathon Woodgate of Leeds United, the Sunderland pair of Michael Gray and Kevin Phillips, Frank Lampard, West Ham's England Under-21 captain, and Emile Heskey of Leicester.

Only Heskey has previously been called up, by Glenn Hoddle in September 1997. Phillips, at 25, is the oldest, 19-year-old Woodgate the youngest.

One or two of these players will get a chance, said Keegan, "to change their lives". He added: "They will either grab it with both hands - or it will be too much for them."

To judge from Keegan's hints, Gray is the most likely debutant. Left- back is a problem position with, Keegan said, "only six or seven" Englishmen of sufficient quality in the country. If the 24-year-old was picked it would cap a remarkable 11 months in which he has recovered from the despair of missing the penalty that kept Sunderland down last season to play a prominent part in their promotion to the Premiership this time around. If capped, he would be Sunderland's first England player since Nick Pickering 18 years ago.

Phillips, too, has shone in the Nationwide though Keegan admitted both were fortunate that he lives in the North-east and has thus been well aware of their progress. Not that the former Newcastle manager has yet been to the Stadium of Light, at least if he goes now he should get a warmer reception.

As Keegan's admission that he had not been to Wearmouth suggests, these are hunch picks especially as the pair have limited Premiership experience.

The others are not. The precocious quality of Woodgate and Brown - "at any other club, except Arsenal, he'd not only be a first-team regular but also be the best player," said Keegan of Brown - is well known while Lampard and Heskey are overdue promotion from the under-21s.

For all these fresh faces the core of the team, for a match which serves as the warm-up for the June European Championship tie in Bulgaria, will be based on the team that beat Poland last month. Nine of the starting 11 are included and Keegan is anxious to keep Andy Cole and Alan Shearer together in attack and Sol Campbell and Keown paired at the back.

Steve McManaman, a disappointment against Poland, is likely to get another chance, probably on the right. Keegan may play 3-5-2 rather than 4-4-2 but much depends who is injured at the weekend - Sunday's Leeds United- Manchester United game includes eight of the squad, while Rio Ferdinand and Martin Keown are already carrying knocks.

Chris Armstrong (surprisingly dropped having been called into the last squad) and Steve Guppy, who was unfortunate not to be picked, head the list of possible replacements.

Keegan, his England track-suit incongruous in the plush surroundings of a West London hotel, added that he had spoken to Ince and that both he and Anderton remained in strong contention for a place in the summer squad. So did Robbie Fowler, if he could maintain match fitness despite his nose operation and long suspension. Paul Gascoigne, like Teddy Sheringham, had to play more full games at club level.

With an average age, among the outfielders, of 23 it is one of England's least experienced squads. It is far from the weakest, however. As recently as 1991 England, while touring Australasia and Malaysia, capped six debutants: Mark Walters, Brian Deane, Gary Charles, John Salako, David Hirst and Earl Barrett. After their return they won five caps between them. The likes of Brown, Woodgate and Lampard are likely to have a more lasting impact.


Seaman (Arsenal)

Martyn (Leeds)

Campbell (Tottenham)

R Ferdinand (West Ham)

Keown (Arsenal)

Le Saux (Chelsea)

P Neville (Man Utd)

Brown (Man Utd)

Southgate (Aston Villa)

Woodgate (Leeds)

Gray (Sunderland)

Batty (Leeds)

Lampard (West Ham)

McManaman (Liverpool)

Redknapp (Liverpool)

Scholes (Man Utd)

Butt (Man Utd)

Sherwood (Tottenham)

Shearer (Newcastle)

Cole (Man Utd)

Phillips (Sunderland)

Heskey (Leicester).