Football: Keegan's crew fit for action

Football: England coach is delighted to have full squad available for two crunch Euro 2000 qualifiers
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IT WAS a typical England training ground scene. On the pitch Kevin Keegan put his players through their first session preparing for Saturday's European Championship qualifier with Sweden, off it a group of men sat idle, watching and wondering when they would be involved.

This time there was a twist. Normally the spectating group consists of injured players, yesterday it was made up of medical staff. Even Martin Keown, who had begun the session nursing a hamstring strain, was loose enough to join in the last half-hour.

"We've a clean bill of health, everyone present and correct," said a scarcely believing Keegan. "I don't think any England manager has had this before, I've had to lay off a doctor and a couple of physios. They don't know what to do with themselves."

Keegan's ebullience came as a welcome antidote to the gloom which has descended upon England's summer sport and, while he was reluctant to add to the criticism being heaped upon the nation's cricketers, Keegan did accept that it put an extra onus on the footballers. "Our job," he said, "is to make sure we give the country something to get behind by 4.45 on Saturday."

There is every chance of that. Sweden beat England 2-1 in Stockholm in September but that was a dispirited England team which started well, leading for half-an-hour, but crumbled after conceding two goals within a minute.

Keegan's squad is not carrying a World Cup hangover, or the baggage which surrounded Glenn Hoddle's dressing room tales. The mood is positive, the lead taken from Keegan, who intends to reveal his team tomorrow lunchtime - a far cry from his predecessor's preference for keeping it secret until 30 minutes before kick-off.

Keegan said: "I'll know it by then and I want the players to know it. We can then work on set-pieces properly and players can prepare themselves. It's not kidology, I'm sure I could name the Swedish team within a player or two. They know us and we know them - but, if they do change their team because we've released ours, good."

The training session was a lively one, the bulk of the players needing a good work-out, having had a break since the domestic season ended on 16 May. Not that they had been lagering up on the Costas, Keegan insisted. "When we did nothing, that was Nothing with a capital N. Players at the highest level today are so well-tuned they say they've been doing nothing when they've been going to the gym, doing some weights and a jog," he said.

The Manchester United players, of course, have been to Spain. A few of them may also have had a lager or two. The boost to their confidence should outweigh any celebratory excesses following their European Cup win, but Keegan is aware that he must get them to raise their game twice more - after the Sweden game England travel to Bulgaria. In the aftermath of Ajax winning the European Cup in 1995 the Netherlands lost to Belarus, forcing the Dutch into a play-off to make Euro 96.

Of the five United players in the squad Teddy Sheringham, though a key player in Barcelona, is likely to be most easily motivated. Recalled nearly a year after his last international start, Sheringham is playing for his future at club as well as international level.

The glorious end to his season has not dimmed the frustration he felt during it, and he admitted yesterday he was considering his future at Old Trafford. If he does leave, it will be with an abiding memory. "I knew what winning the Cup meant to the club," he said, "but it really came home to me when we went through the city, every street was packed without a spare inch anywhere."

Keegan, meanwhile, was thinking of another man whose season had a happy ending: Graham Taylor, one of his predecessors as national coach.

Taylor was vilified with England but will be back in the Premiership next year after leading Watford to promotion in the play-offs on Monday. Keegan said: "I was delighted for him. We go back a long way. His dad was the local reporter when I was at Scunthorpe and we used to do this routine with me sitting on his knee in which he was the ventriloquist and I was the dummy. Graham has shown great resilience. You must not underestimate what he's achieved, he has the respect of everybody."

Congratulations registered, attention inexorably returned to Saturday's game. "We have to win," Keegan said. "If we win both games we will be top of the group. Sweden will still be favourites but at least they will be under pressure."

At the moment the pressure is on England, but there is no sign of it affecting Keegan - and that may be his greatest strength on Saturday.