Football: Keegan sets new agendas

Euro 2000: Caretaker's success will raise clamour for Fayed's man to lead England beyond the qualifying stages
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The Independent Online
ONE DOWN, three to go. Kevin Keegan's reign as England's coach began with such a satisfactory result at Wembley on Saturday that the clamour for his appointment on a permanent basis will soon be loud enough to drown even the sound ofFINAL wars.

His full-time employer, Mohamed Al Fayed, descended from the Royal Box after England's 3-1 victory over Poland to announce that he is prepared to bequeath Keegan to the nation. "If the nation wants Kevin and the FA wants Kevin," the chairman of Fulham FC proclaimed, "then I will give him to England. No problem." He has said this before, but the words took on a new relevance after England had made progress up the Group Five table in the Euro 2000 qualifying tournament. They now lie second behind Sweden, who beat Luxembourg 2-0 in Gothenburg and hold a two-point lead, with a game in hand.

Noel White, the chairman of the Football Association's international committee, responded by saying that there had been no contact with Fayed on the matter of releasing Keegan from his contract. The committee had drawn up a short list of candidates for a full-time replacement, but were still hopeful that success would tempt him to change his mind. "The fans can be very influential," White said, "and Kevin is a passionate man. But the final decision is his. We can't twist his arm."

Whether Keegan himself will welcome Fayed's gesture is a moot point. After manoeuvring himself with great skill into a position of maximum visibility and minimum risk, he is not yet ready to compromise his personal strategy by hinting at a willingness to reconsider the very clear terms under which he accepted the job. "It's been one of the best weeks of my life," he said in the wake of victory. "I'm very pleased. All I wanted was a win. You might think it's not a lot to ask, but we did what we had to do, and there were some heroic performances. So I enjoyed it. But I've said all along that I'll do the four games and try to leave the next manager in the position that I would want to be in." He added that, whoever his successor might be, he hoped he could stay on in a reduced capacity, to help coach the forwards.

He also paid tribute to the man who, he said, had made it possible. "Mr Fayed has been very good about all this. He had the right to say no, but he gave me the chance to manage England for four matches. I've still got to finish what we're doing at Fulham - not because I've got a contract or five per cent of the club but because I like the man and he trusted me with something at a time when I'd lost a bit of faith in people in football."

All sorts of agendas are at work here, and it may be that two of them - Fayed's interest in generating enough goodwill to persuade the Home Secretary (who was at Saturday's match) to grant him a British passport, and Keegan's reluctance to cut himself free from the Egyptian shopkeeper's payroll for an adventure that might suddenly turn sour - are in temporary conflict. But should England's results continue in Saturday's vein, it is inconceivable the FA would fail to devise a method of satisfying the perfectly understandable desire of the Yorkshire miner's son to maximise his earnings, thereby keeping him in the job.

He certainly fulfilled every conceivable requirement of the part-time role last week, reinvigorating the players and flattering the media, integrating old and new elements of the coaching staff, doing and saying lots of sensible things in that engagingly frank way of his and then, at the end of it all, producing the only thing that really mattered. As he intimated, the result counted for more than the performance, although the balance of those priorities may change even during his brief allotted span.

If Keegan's team do well against Hungary in their forthcoming friendly match, and against Sweden and Bulgaria in the Euro 2000 fixtures which complete his term of office, voices will be raised in support of continuing the present arrangement, under which the coach splits his time between England and his duties as Fulham's chief operating officer. But whatever results he coaxes from England in the three matches between now and 9 June, he cannot avoid the truth of the observation made by Bobby Robson last week, that it is no job for a part-timer. Confronting the world's best teams on a bigger stage requires all the resources that can be mustered, with no room for half-measures.

In that respect, beating the present-day Poland at home in a qualifying tournament proves very little. Since Poland had failed to beat England in seven previous visits to Wembley, the victory itself hardly came as a surprise - although, given the defeats in recent times by Germany, Italy, Chile and France beneath the twin towers, it was certainly a relief. Janusz Wojcik's side arrived with a nine-game unbeaten run behind them, but they turned out to be distinguished by little more than their size and strength. At times their physical build and agricultural instincts made them look like an Upper Silesian Farm Boys' XI hastily called to their country's colours. Only Jerzy Brzeczek, the little No 10 from Maccabi Haifa, appeared to have been pressed from a different mould, as we saw when he skilfully guided Miroslaw Trzeciak's cut-back past David Seaman's left hand on the half-hour.

That goal brought Poland back into the game at 2-1, and for the next 40 minutes England showed signs of unease. Not until Paul Scholes completed his hat-trick with the best of his goals, applying a firm and well directed header to Alan Shearer's flick from Gary Neville's long throw-in, did the England supporters among the crowd of 73,836 feel confident enough to express their support with the sort of fervour Keegan had requested.

Scholes's earlier goals were the fruit of his own opportunism and of

the ability of Alan Shearer and Andy Cole to work hard enough to occupy not just their man-markers but the third defender sweeping behind them. "We created the gaps," Shearer said, "and he came into them."

The ability of Shearer and Cole to function close to each other created the double ricochet from which Scholes struck the opening goal, while Cole's underrated awareness could be seen in the reverse-angle pass to David Beckham which prompted the superlative cross leading to the second goal, scored with a dubious combination of Scholes's body parts.

It was by pure coincidence that the clinching goal arrived only a few seconds after Keegan had made the first of his substitutions, replacing Steve McManaman with Ray Parlour. But it seemed somehow typical of the coach's famous luck, and seven minutes later he showed his common sense with another adjustment. Taking off David Beckham, who had hurt his lower back when falling in a goal-line challenge some time earlier, he moved Parlour across to the right wing and and sent on Philip Neville to occupy McManaman's space on the left.

Sadly, occupying space was all that McManaman had done during his 69 minutes on the field. Even making allowances for the fact that he was being asked to play out of position in order to maintain the team's geometry, and that he has played few games in recent weeks, he showed no sense of purpose or notion of how to combine with his colleagues. Do Real Madrid really consider him to be fit to put on the famous white shirt worn by the likes of Puskas and Di Stefano? On Saturday's evidence, their plan to pay him a salary of pounds 14m over five years could be taken for a particularly brazen piece of money-laundering.

Whereas the partnership of Beckham and Gary Neville on the right offers England a stable platform and occasional moments of inspiration, the left side presents Keegan with nothing but headaches. Graeme Le Saux's all- round limitations suggest that Philip Neville should be allowed to take over, while Lee Hendrie - such a promising debutant as a substitute against the Czech Republic - will come back into consideration for the friendly against Hungary in Budapest on 28 April, as the domestic season nears its climax. "I can see us having a weakened squad for that one," Keegan said, "and having to give some of the younger players a chance."

Victory over Poland has successfully launched Keegan's career as an international coach in the minds of the players, the public and, for whatever it may be worth, the press. To put it into a wider perspective, however, it was necessary only to spend Saturday night watching the telecast of France playing Ukraine in St-Denis, in another vital group match.

For a goalless draw, this was a game of absorbing technical and strategic quality, ceaseless in its ebb and flow, notable for the way players in all positions on both sides were given options by their team-mates. Compared to the stirring but rudimentary events at Wembley, here was football from another planet.