Football: McManaman free to prove point

A STADIUM full of ghosts will this evening be infused with the spirit of youth. By design as well as necessity Kevin Keegan, for his second match as England coach, has chosen a team which could make the Nep Stadium the launchpad for several international careers. Two players, Wes Brown of Manchester United and Kevin Phillips of Sunderland, will win their first caps while a clutch of others have opportunities to grasp.

Prime among these is Steve McManaman, who has been given "a free role" by Keegan. After 23 largely disappointing England appearances, especially in the last match against Poland, McManaman is running out of chances to prove he can impose himself at this level. Others looking to seize the moment will be international novices Rio Ferdinand, Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and Tim Sherwood.

Behind them David Seaman, winning his 50th international cap, will form the base of a spine which runs through Martin Keown and David Batty to Alan Shearer. The mix of youth and experience ought to be enough for England to avoid losing to a Hungarian side struggling to live up to a glorious past.

However, while keen to win, Keegan is more interested in seeing individuals produce performances that would ensure them a place in the team for the brace of Euro 2000 qualifiers to be played in June. "Opportunity" has been the coach's theme this week and the approach fits in perfectly with the local mood. The prime minister is 35 years old and his government is prepared to rebuild Hungarian football by underwriting a joint bid with Austria to stage the 2004 European Championship.

After a decade of failure there is also progress on the pitch. While it is impossible to enter the great bowl of the Nep Stadium without thinking of the great Hungarian team of Ferenc Puskas and Nandor Hidegkuti who beat England 7-1 here 45 years ago, the current squad has only one player over 30 and is mainly composed of 25- year-olds.

Although under Bertalan Bicskei, the 10th coach this decade, they have lost once in 12 matches, Hungary trail Portugal and Romania in their Euro 2000 qualifying group. Their most prominent players are Gabor Kiraly, the goalkeeper, who is said to be interesting Arsenal, and the playmaker Bela Illes.

Keegan's team should have enough tacklers in midfield to swamp Illes but there could be problems on the flanks, where he expects Hungary to play with two wide men. This could put considerable pressure on Brown and Neville, who will also be expected to provide width for the England attack. Given that neither players are regulars at club level their brief is a tough one, particularly for Brown whose recent return to the first team has been in central defence.

"He is good enough to play in a variety of positions," said Keegan of the 20-year-old who breaks Gary Neville's record as England's least-experienced cap. Brown has only played 16 first-team matches for United, four of them as substitute, one fewer than Neville when he made his debut in 1995. Michael Owen, incidentally, had played 26 times for Liverpool when he first played for England.

In midfield, Butt will hope to maintain his fine club form to show he is the natural successor to Paul Ince while Tim Sherwood will seek to build on a promising debut against Poland last month. Keegan hopes they will be supplemented by Rio Ferdinand stepping out from a defence which has three players aged under 23.

The bulk of the creative responsibility will fall on McManaman. Keegan said he has "great faith" in the Liverpool player and that he hopes he has now come to terms with the turmoil surrounding his summer move to Real Madrid. He will certainly never have a better opportunity. A poor crosser, it has always seemed a waste to have his dribbling and shooting ability stuck on the wing and, with Butt, Sherwood and Batty behind him, he should receive plenty of possession.

"Macca has got to be a free spirit," said Keegan. "Ask him to do a specific job and he'll try but it takes so much away from him. The way we are going to play will allow him the freedom to express himself. Any player who can go past people and create things you have to look at, because they are special. I'm also sure he feels he has something to prove at this level."

Despite the friendly status of this international, Keegan expects the opposition to be enthusiastic and will demand the same of his own side. "Every game matters," he said. "Even when we went to a place like Hong Kong at the end of the season and some players could not be bothered I always thought `there are people here who have paid money to watch me'. It is important to perform."

ENGLAND (4-3-1-2): Seaman (Arsenal); Brown (Man Utd), Keown (Arsenal), Ferdinand (West Ham), P Neville (Man Utd); Sherwood (Tottenham), Batty (Leeds), Butt (Man Utd); McManaman (Liverpool); Phillips (Sunderland), Shearer (Newcastle).

HUNGARY (4-3-1-2): Kiraly (Hertha Berlin); Korsos (Gyor ETO), Sebok (Bristol City), Hrutka (Kaiserslautern), Matyus (Ferencvaros); Pisont (Eintracht Frankfurt), Halmai (MTK Budapest), Dardai (Hertha Berlin); Illes (MTK Budapest); Dombi (Debrecen), Korsos (Ujpest).

n England have agreed to donate pounds 50,000 to a Kosovo-related charity, split between the players' pool and the FA.

Phillips pursues dream ending, page 24

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