Football: Keegan takes brave decisions

European Championship: Sheringham and Fowler recalled as teenager Woodgate makes England debut
Click to follow
The Independent Online
ADVERSITY OFTEN reveals the true nature of a man and Kevin Keegan yesterday reacted to his first setback as England coach by taking the bold option. He has met the challenge of beating Bulgaria tonight by selecting a side with three strikers and a debutant centre-half. In all there are six changes in personnel and another in formation. He could hardly have taken a bigger gamble in the casino adjoining the team hotel.

In come Jonathon Woodgate, Leeds' 19-year-old defender and Keegan's eighth new cap in four matches; Michael Gray, who makes his first start, at left wing-back; Robbie Fowler, making his first start since 1997; Teddy Sheringham, making his first start since the World Cup; Gareth Southgate, for his first appearance in eight months; and Jamie Redknapp, for his first start under Keegan.

Fowler and Sheringham are to play just behind Alan Shearer in an adventurous front three, Redknapp will partner David Batty in midfield with Phil Neville and Michael Gray on the flanks. Southgate will marshall a three-man defence. Four of the players who started against Sweden on Saturday are unavailable but Andy Cole and Tim Sherwood are dropped, as is Rio Ferdinand, who played the last 56 minutes.

"I had to make changes," Keegan said, "I had to freshen it up." Keegan was speaking in the Palace of Culture, an unattractive building whose exhibits were gloomy enough to depress the laughing policeman, but they failed to dim Keegan's enthusiasm which, 72 hours after the Wembley debacle, was back to its customary stratospheric level.

"We need a win and it is a team built to go forward, to cause them problems, but also provide some security," he said, adding, "there are good defenders in the side."

One of these is Woodgate, who began the season in Leeds' youth team. It is a meteoric rise but, Keegan said: "It is difficult to put a young player into a game of this importance but I believe in him, I think he could be around for a very long time. I've seen him in training and big games and seen nothing to make me change my mind."

Woodgate, a Middlesbrough lad who cites Gary Pallister as his main influence, was equally confident, stating boldly: "It's one cap tomorrow and I hope I can go all the way to 100 caps. I'm young but nothing fazes me.

"When we played Man United the boss [David O'Leary] said I wasn't fazed by it and I wasn't. I'm sure it will be the same tomorrow night though there will be a few nerves before."

The other radical choice is Fowler, who has not played since mid-April due to his suspension for imitating cocaine sniffing and baring his backside to Graeme Le Saux. He has only started twice for England in three years but he scored on both occasions.

"Robbie is fresh but fit because he's not been injured just suspended," Keegan said. "He is a great finisher, his record stands up to anyone, and he gives us a threat on the left side. He has made mistakes but that is something that seems to happen to those players who give you something extra. He's not an oddball, he's just different. We have to remember he's still young [24]."

With the Bulgarian side expected to be based on Liteks Lovetch, who have just completed a successful title defence, both sides are likely to feature seven of the players who were involved in the dull goalless draw at Wembley in October. Then England produced one goal attempt, a tame header by Andy Hinchcliffe.

More than that is expected tonight and if England fail it will not be for lack of intention. Invention is another matter and Keegan added that it was a chance for Redknapp to answer the criticism that he only shines when England play well, that he cannot turn a game around when they are struggling.

"Jamie is in there because he can pass short and long and does it quickly. Having wing-backs should help him, we are better balanced than on Saturday," the coach said.

Redknapp, who played with wing-backs in the home tie with Bulgaria, has never started a match with Batty and has played only 40 minutes in tandem with him. As both like to sit deep there will be an onus on Sheringham to drop into midfield and provide the link with the attack which was missing on Saturday.

Passing may not be that easy as the pitch is less attractive than the location. The People's Army ground, the 20,000-capacity home of CSKA Sofia, is ringed by trees and overlooked by the snowcapped Mt Vitosha, but the surface is undulating and there are bare areas in the goalmouths in which glass and bolts were found yesterday.

England were polite about the pitch but upset by the absence of markings for their training session. With Keegan going for width it may prove unexpectedly narrow tonight but, whatever the difficulties, England will have to get their lines right if they are to maintain their chances of reaching the European Championship stage next summer.

Richard Williams, page 28

Today's Teams In Sofia

BULGARIA (probable)


Levski Sofia


Litex Lovech


Litex Lovech


Lokomotiv Sofia


Litex Lovech


CSKA Sofia


Slavia Sofia


Levski Sofia


Litex Lovech


Levski Sofia


Kashiwa Reysol, Japan





Aston Villa




Leeds Utd


Man Utd








Man Utd