Football: Lessons ahead for Taylor's class

European Under-21 Championship: One-goal victory over Bulgaria hides young England's need for cohesion
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The Independent Online
NOW THAT the fairy-dust kicked up by Kevin Keegan's appointment is starting to settle, it can be seen that, at international level, England are in transition. The sacking of Glenn Hoddle four months ago prefaced the dismantling of an entire echelon of command, and the last vestige was stripped away yesterday when Peter Taylor sent his final Under-21 selection on to the pitch at the Hristo Botev Stadium in Vratza, a mountain town about 50 miles north of Sofia.

Taylor's results in the qualifying round of the European Under-21 Championship have been more than satisfactory - played five, won five, 16 goals scored, not one conceded. At a level where other commitments and youthful exhaustion sometimes disrupt even the most careful preparation, this represents a considerable achievement. The night before Keegan's senior squad struggled to a goalless draw with Sweden last weekend, for example, Taylor's proteges were roundly defeating their Swe-dish counterparts 3-0, with two goals from Carl Cort, the lanky Wimbledon striker.

Yet the statistics of their victories have sometimes been more impressive than the manner. Nerves and unfamiliarity often militate against coherent football, never mind self-expression, at this level. In their anxiety to impress, players often tighten up, curb their inclination to take chances, and lose their fluidity.

England produced some workmanlike football in the first half yesterday, playing in warm late-afternoon sunshine under wooded Balkan peaks. Vratza has a strong footballing tradition, although economic factors - principally the semi-closure of its large chemical factory - mean that its team, Botev, named after a 19th Century hero of the wars against the Ottoman empire, may never again fight its way out of the Bulgarian Second Division to rejoin the elite which it left almost 10 years ago. In this country, too, money buys footballing success. But more than one in 10 of Vratza's 75,000 population turned out last night, keen to see the young Bulgarians - most of them from the big clubs, such as Litex, CSKA and Lokomotiv Sofia - do well against the glittering starlets of the English league.

Taylor made four changes from the team that started the match against Poland, after losing Richard Wright, Kieron Dyer and Danny Mills to the senior squad - itself a tribute to his selection policy - while Gareth Barry was left on the bench. They lined up in a 5-3-2 formation, with Jamie Carragher, the captain, dropping back into the sweeper's position that Gareth Southgate will occupy with the seniors in Keegan's rearranged defensive formation in Sofia tonight, while Wes Brown and Paul Robinson were deputed to the man-making roles. A narrow three-man midfield supported two strikers, Cort and Richard Cresswell, with John Curtis and Seth Johnson ready to move up and use the space on the flanks.

This made a lot more sense, in terms of England's overall international strategy, than it would have done in the event of Keegan hanging on to the flat back-four with which he sent his team into the match at Wembley on Saturday. Clashes of style between seniors and Under-21s are not uncommon - when Arrigo Sacchi was Italy's manager in the early Nineties, his unwavering reliance on a back-four formed an obvious contrast with the tactics favoured by Cesare Maldini, whose Under-21s stuck to the traditional Italian sweeper- based rearguard. But such conflicts are rarely helpful, and sometimes when the Under-21s are more successful the natural conclusions can turn out to be downright misleading. A tactic that succeeds with footballers who have yet to reach their maturity may not survive a more rigorous form of examination at the highest level.

England coped well in the first period with the attacks of Svetoslav Todorov and Georgi Tchilikov, prompted by Martcho Daftchev, although it was Svetoslav Petrov who troubled Steve Simonsen in the England goal with a fierce 20-yard volley struck with the outside of his left foot after 37 minutes. In their next attack, Zamari Sirakov sent a drive just over the bar from 30 yards. Krasimir Tchomakov ended the half with a fine pass curved around the left flank of the England defence, only for Daftchev to lay the ball back into empty space.

England's composure was rattled throughout the second half, particularly when Simonsen parried Tchilikov's powerful drive after 68 minutes. Bulgaria, lying second in the group with two wins and two draws, were certainly well ahead on points when Tchilikov raced down the right wing in the 74th minute, sent over a low cross, and saw Todorov's hooked volley fly across the beaten Simonsen and come back off the inside of the post, Wes Brown clearing the loose ball.

England had created comparatively little in reply - particularly in midfield, where Hayden Mullins' industry could not compensate for Jonathan Greening's anonymity - until a smooth build-up down the right two minutes from time produced a deep cross from John Curtis. Cort, moving inside his marker on the six-yard line, reached the ball with a diving header that beat Iordan Gospodinov. Disappointment for the fans clustered under a large portrait of Hristo Botev was mitigated by the enjoyment of a rare visit by an international team, but they would have been right in feeling their own side had done enough for victory.

The stewardship of the Under-21s now passes to Peter Reid, the Sunderland manager, who has been recruited as part of a policy to identify future England coaches in plenty of time to get them accustomed to the role. Reid, unlike Taylor, will do the job part-time. Effectively, this would appear to mean that control of the junior side passes to Howard Wilkinson, the Football Association's technical director, whose increased visibility within the Keegan set-up has been quite startling.

A marginalised figure under Hoddle, Wilkinson supported Keegan's candidacy (once his own had foundered against France at Wembley in February) and the two Yorkshire miners' sons are now firmly in partnership, with Wilkinson concentrating on the tactical details while Keegan creates a warm and constructive ambiance. In theory this sounds acceptable. In practice it can lead to such strange sights as that of Keegan, during the training session at the CSKA stadium yesterday, wandering around collecting balls and laying out plastic cones while Wilkinson conducted an intense mid- pitch discussion with Southgate, Sol Campbell and Jonathon Woodgate, during which he was clearly outlining to them the theory of the three-man central defensive system.

If Wilkinson can get the senior team's tactics right, he will earn everyone's gratitude. If he can forge a clear and productive link with the Under- 21s, so much the better. The reduction in the top-level opportunities for young English players created by the post-Bosman influx of foreigners means that exposure at this level is likely to become increasingly significant. At any rate, the England party left Vratza last night hoping that Taylor's ability to conjure good results from moderate performances will not leave with him.

BULGARIA (5-3-2): Gospodinov (Litex); Komitov (Etar), Jelev (Litex), Raytchev (Razgrad), Tchomakov (CSKA), Stoykov (Lokomotiv Sofia); Sirakov (Levski), Petrov (Dobrujia), Daftchev (Lokomotiv Sofia); Todorov (Litex), Tchilikov (Neftochimik). Substitutes: Peev (Lokomotiv Sofia) for Stoykov, h-t; Dimitrov (Minyor) for Tchilikov, 80.

ENGLAND (5-3-2): Simonsen (Everton); Curtis (Manchester United), Brown (Manchester United), Carragher (Liverpool), P Robinson (Watford), Johnson (Derby County); Greening (Manchester United), Mullins (Crystal Palace), Woodhouse (Sheffield United); Cort (Wimbledon), Cresswell (Sheffield Wednesday). Substitute: Morris (Sheffield United) for Cresswell.

Referee: S Piller (Hungary).