Yesterday, as England flew towards the Balkans, Kevin Keegan sought to show the game's better side and enable some good to come out of the increasingly pointless trip to Hungary for tomorrow's friendly. Keegan, in tune as usual with the popular pulse, asked the players to donate a portion of their match fees to the Kosovo Crisis Appeal. It will not be that much, the players are on pounds 1,500-a-man fees, but it showed that the sport was not entirely unaware of the society in which it operates.
"It is something I believe we should do," said Keegan, "a gesture to show we care. We are about to enter an area where there is a war going on next door and I definitely believe this is something the England football team needs to do."
Budapest is 200 miles from Belgrade and there was some nervousness about tomorrow's fixture with Sol Campbell, who has since withdrawn through injury, expressing his disquiet at the weekend. Now England are here, however, the only indication of any concern is a slight increase in security. Keegan added: "I am happy with the security arrangements. We wouldn't be going if there was a problem. One thing I know, the game should go ahead."
Most of the players here would agree - for several it represents a massive opportunity. Francis Jeffers could have been playing for Everton in tonight's FA Youth Cup semi-final, instead he will be training with the national team. The 18-year-old could even make his debut tomorrow though fellow Merseysiders, team-mate Michael Ball and Liverpool's Jamie Carragher, who were also called up on Sunday evening, are more likely candidates for an international start.
"Carragher has a very mature attitude and won't be out of place in an England squad," said Keegan. "He can fulfil a number of positions but I believe his place is on the right side of a back three. It allows me to change the formation. Ball has been on the fringes of the squad and has progressed in a difficult season for Everton. The chance for Jeffers has come very, very early but his confidence is sky high. He scored a terrific goal on Saturday with a very clever run, an international-type run. I liked that. I am a firm believer we have got to reward the kids when we have a chance."
Which is one way of putting it. Cynics might suggest that, with Premiership managers reluctant to release players, Keegan is better off bringing in youngsters whose clubs appear to have little to play for. It is unlikely that Ball and Jeffers would both be here if Everton were still in the relegation mire.
Keegan, as ever, was positive. "I don't see the point of falling out with managers, we have to work in tandem. They have all played ball with me, when they've pulled players out they've said `do you want him to come down for a medical?' But what is the point of asking an injured player to sit in a car for seven hours? If Alex Ferguson tells me Andy Cole has an ankle injury I trust that."
The absence of Cole and Campbell prevents Keegan continuing with the two partnerships he particularly wanted to use, Campbell and Martin Keown, Cole and Alan Shearer. Nevertheless, he added: "People say what is the point of the match? There is always a point to an England match. We have the nucleus of a good team sprinkled with stardust and we will take something from this game. A few of these youngsters are going to return as full internationals and they could make a fantastic impression."
Three of the uncapped squad members could start: Emile Heskey or Kevin Phillips will probably play alongside Alan Shearer; Ball or Michael Gray should start on the left; and Carragher or Brown will be included if Keegan, as expected, opts for a 3-5-2 formation.
The coach has fond memories of the Nepstadion. In June 1981 he and Trevor Brooking scored the goals that earned England an unexpected World Cup qualifying victory which helped them reach Spain the following year.
As now, it was not a game which had been approached with enthusiasm. He recalled: "I was captain, we had just lost to Switzerland, and I wished I was on holiday rather than playing football. I thought this was no way to spend the summer but we came here - and it was an unbelievable atmosphere because it was the first time Ferenc Puskas had come back [after the 1956 uprising] - and we got the win."Reuse content