Football: Keegan's taste of England reality

Andrew Longmore watches the new guard display the same old failings; Road to Euro 2000: Sweden show tactical superiority as national coach's honeymoon comes to an end
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The Independent Online
KEVIN KEEGAN said he knew that there would be bad days as well as good. But, perhaps, not quite how bad. Standing in the dug-out roughly where Glenn Hoddle - and each one of his pre- decessors - had endured a number of tortuous afternoons, he began to understand what happens when heightened expectation meets reality head-on.

You could almost hear the clang as the halo slipped to the concrete floor. Unable to vent their wrath on King Kev just yet, the crowd confined their jeers to the departure of the Spanish referee, whose initial tolerance - notably in not penalising Paul Scholes for a foul in the opening minute - set the tone for a niggly match. England were even outmanoeuvred in the consequent roughhouse by Stefan Schwarz, comfortably the most accomplished player on the field, and Scholes' departure early in the second half hardly registered on the Richter Scale. The only shock was that he had survived so long.

"I'd like to have a day off tomorrow," said Keegan. "I don't think we should start jumping off the ship just because we've lost. I was disappointed and frustrated by the way we played in the first half and I told the players that at half-time. But what we will take out of the game is character and determination."

Wembley could not manage to maintain a minute's silence in memory of Sir Alf Ramsey, but their dignified silence when the final whistle effectively spelled the end of England's hopes of direct qualification was eloquence itself. Moments after the end, the pitch was left to a dancing huddle of Swedish players as Keegan strode towards the tunnel and his first taste of England reality.

The honeymoon ended after roughly 25 minutes when a ripple of discontent eddied around Wembley, announcing quite firmly to the new manager that cuddly press conferences and enthusiastic sound bites were no substitute for success. The problems facing the England team were no different just because the face behind them seemed a little more touchy-feely.

A well-organised side intent on protection needed very much more guile than England summoned in either half. But for the end of David Seaman's fingertips and the crossbar, England would be looking at a second defeat by the group leaders and the certainty of a nasty play-off to ensure qualification for Euro 2000. Now, there is just the probability. Sweden will have to do a Devon Loch not to qualify straight through now. On yesterday's intelligent performance, they deserve no less. Tactically, they were streets ahead of the home side. Only in the last 10 minutes did 10-man England mount a period of sustained pressure, however uncoordinated.

The Swedes were content to let England - and David Batty in particular - have the ball in midfield while safely policing the runs of Alan Shearer and the ineffectual Andy Cole. Of more concern was the ease with which the Swedish strikers breached the England defence in the air. And quite what had got into Scholes, goodness only knows. His first touch left a deep gouge on the right thigh of the ill-named Hakan Mild, who was stretchered off after five minutes, and he could have been shown the yellow card long before the referee chose to do so midway through the half. Red was not long in following.

Yet another high tackle on Schwarz, himself booked a moment earlier, and Scholes was jogging off straight down the tunnel, a very different set of emotions jangling in his head from the last time he made that journey, for United and England. Quite why he was accorded a standing ovation is one of the mysteries of English football, one of the curses, too, as if banishment was some strange injustice rather than due punishment for a brainless piece of machismo. All those celebrations must have left Scholes with some excess steam in the tank.

Of the much-vaunted United Brylcreem Boys, precious little else was seen. Cole falls well below international class in all but effort and David Beckham was largely subdued by the experienced Pontus Kaamark. Invincible for United maybe, but international football is a little more cerebral, more a Teddy Sheringham type of game. Yet United's super-sub was resolutely left to patrol the touchline, milking the applause for past glories. It was asking a lot for the United crew to pick themselves up for country when so much of their soul had been expended for club. Only Phil Neville, in for his brother Gary, did himself justice. Beckham's game - and, possibly, season - ended with him limping gingerly off aided by the England physio. Posh Spice, and a good wedding payday from Hello! await.

Sweden had much the better chances in the first half, Kennet Andersson heading over from five yards when he should have done better and little Henrik Larsson bisecting Sole Campbell and Martin Keown to direct another header just wide. Seaman's continued uncertainty under the cross did nothing to ease the discomfort.

Michael Gray came on for Graeme Le Saux at half-time - the Chelsea player suffering with a virus - and the hope was that the change would bring greater width to an England attack too reliant on sterile long balls from the deep to the outplayed Cole and Shearer. It almost paid immediate dividends as Gray, a converted winger, went outside Roland Nilsson and delivered a dangerous, low cross and a scrambled corner. But it took England all of an hour to work a decent cross for Tim Sherwood's head coming in from his station on the left. "Heavy legs," said Shearer later. Heavy hearts, too.