Football: Keegan swears by his tale of the tape

Nick Townsend hears England's coach salute his backroom boys
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The Independent Online
IT WAS 20 years ago, almost to the day, that a bubble-permed Kevin Keegan scored in England's 3-0 defeat of Bulgaria in a European Championship qualifier, under Ron Greenwood. Peter Barnes and Dave Watson provided the others. Keegan, now greyer and undoubtedly wiser, barely recalls the match, but the England coach is acutely conscious that if his team are to qualify this time a repetition of that result is essential on Wednesday, England's first return to Sofia since that day.

Bulgaria will not be regarded lightly, despite being defeated in Sofia by both Sweden and Poland, who also beat them 2-0 at home on Friday night.

In truth, it was not so much defeat in Sweden that has so impaired England's ambition of qualifying outright back in September, but the uninspired home goalless draw with Bulgaria that followed in which barely a chance was fashioned. Whether or not it can be attributed to the fall-out surrounding Glenn Hoddle's controversial diary and the furore surrounding Eileen Drewery, it was an unnaccountably sterile display against Stoichkov and company.

Keegan, who was in the ITV commentary box that day, admitted: "I've seen that happen a few times at Wembley where you start thinking to yourself, 'Hold on, this isn't a friendly. This is actually a qualifying game'. It was an important match because we'd just lost to Sweden, but we never got up to speed. It wasn't a good performance and, to be fair, without wanting to kill us, they had their fair share of the ball and had one chance where they should have scored."

Though immediate attention in the England camp has focus-ed on yesterday's draw against Sweden, behind the scenes the preparations for Bulgaria have been no less thorough. The FA's technical director, Howard Wilkinson, dispatched former Norwich manager Ken Brown to watch Poland's game against Bulgaria - a tape of which will be studied by Keegan this morning - and the head coach does not understate the importance of the backroom boffins, who produce statistics on such areas as set-pieces, comparable with any research scientist.

"I know people had concerns at first and were saying, 'Where's Howard's role in all this?'," Keegan admitted. "But I haven't. I'm really comfortable with the set-up. Howard and Faz [Derek Fazackerly] work on things like set-pieces. Howard is a master at those sort of things; it's his real strength. I wouldn't get the computer out and start doing it myself because it doesn't appeal to me, but that doesn't mean that I ignore it."

He added: "We have this romantic idea that football is about five passes and a great goal, but often it's not. At Fulham, I used to work with Frank Sibley and we scored around 25 goals from set-pieces. That used to be down to Frank's work with the players. Every time a goal went in, I used to say 'That's another one, Frank. You've done it again.' Maybe one day I'll get more interested in that side of it, but for the moment I say, 'Eh, you do that better than me, Howard. Kevin Keegan is better employed elsewhere.' I don't think I'm ever going to be running coaching clinics for Fifa."

Talking of whom, Keegan agrees in principle with proposals, announced last week by the world governing body's president, Sepp Blatter, to reduce the number of foreigners in club sides. Under Blatter's plan, put to European sports ministers, at least six players on the pitch "should be eligible for selection by the national team of the country where the championship is played".

"I'm not sure if it's workable because of European legislation and it could only come in by agreement," said the England coach. "But somewhere along the line something's got to be done like that. I think there will come some restriction like that, if only to stop this massive circus of players moving, and not ending contracts before they're moving again. If I were a club manager, I'd welcome it, although it would mean I'd have to work a little bit harder on my home-grown talent."

In the long term, the policy would benefit the national team, although more immediately it would drastically affect clubs like Chelsea who have invested in large numbers of foreign players. Keegan added: "I don't blame clubs for buying foreign players. When I was at Newcastle, I enquired about one player in England and the fee was beyond belief, two point odd million for a lad who'd never played for England at any level, so I went abroad and paid pounds 450,000 for Marc Hottiger, a defender who'd played for Switzerland 50 times."

Fortunately for England, there is still a plentiful supply of young players emerging, as demonstrated by the progress of the Under-21 team.