Football: New age of England United

Ian Ridley believes the nation will benefit from vibrancy of the domestic game; Hoddle's men will face their moment of truth on Saturday, inspired by the deeds of a red October
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The Independent Online
First at the lectern was the England coach, who reaffirmed his belief that the nation underestimates its footballing achievements. Soon afterwards, the Manchester United manager was insisting that England at present has as good a harvest of young players as there is to be found in the world.

The venue was Birmingham's International Convention Centre just half a day after Alex Ferguson's United had beaten Juventus 3-2 and the appreciative audience comprised some 1,500 students and teachers of the game celebrating the launch of the Football Association's Coaches Association. Two days earlier Glenn Hoddle had been at the Labour Party Conference. He could hardly have expected so much organised triumphalism in one week. Now comes the real trick: sustaining it for seven more days.

Politics and football seem to have a lot in common these days; gloss and glamour, beacons of hope, big visions and an optimistic can-do atmosphere after dark days of disasters and recession. One set of Blues have been routed. It falls next Saturday to the country's young leader - Hoddle, that is - buoyed by a red by-election victory in Manchester West, to show us what lies beneath the style and see off the Azzurri.

At such times, the antennae of scepticism which are standard issue to paid observers in this country tend to prick up. The history of the England team, after all, counsels against premature elation. In fact, recent history warns. Take the last time England were in the position they find themselves in against Italy in Rome on Saturday night, when a draw will be enough to send them to the World Cup finals in France next summer. Four years ago a point would have done them in Rotterdam. Instead Holland did them 2-0.

There are, though, several important differences this time, not least the safety net of a play-off. Above all, England have a fresh coach with a sure vision who is carrying his players with him. Graham Taylor by thenseemed wearied, his tactical plans as confused as his players.

There is also a confidence within a vibrant domestic game as European renaissance follows self-doubt and dwindling standards. It begins to look as if the English player, heartened by recent results and less awe- struck by proximity in the Premiership, no longer believes his overseas counterpart to be superior. Last season, few yet trusted the encouraging evidence of Euro '96 and Terry Venables's tactical rehabilitation. United, though they limited the damage to 1-0, were overwhelmed by Juventus in Turin. Then, at Wembley in February, England looked outclassed by Italy and lost by the same scoreline.

At Old Trafford on Wednesday, by contrast, we saw confirmation that a new generation of domestic players have come of age, and are no longer fearful of the reputation of a club and players who are sometimes portrayed as inhabiting a different planet football. "They had the belief and proved to themselves they can do it," Alex Ferguson said. "That was the most important thing. England have to have that in Rome."

Teddy Sheringham, probably England's revelation in Euro '96, already possesses a swagger as a result of his association with Venables, and his performance in his first European club match promised that Eric Cantona should not be missed. Sheringham has also been fortunate that, unlike Cantona, he is around at a time when the young players are maturing in the ways of Europe.

Having given Juventus a goal start and gradually, rousingly, repaired their fractured spirits, United gave a display of hard work allied to high tempo that out-Juve'd Juve. Zinedine Zidane may have been the game's outstanding talent but cleverly United hunted in pairs to close him down, a lead England can follow in their handling of Gianfranco Zola next week. It enabled Ryan Giggs, all pace and panache, to become the game's outstanding influence, once he had moved to the left flank. As against Porto last season, he revealed himself ready for the grandest of stages and he is being joined by David Beckham and Paul Scholes.

Heresy or not to say it around Old Trafford, but United could even become a more effective unit in the absence of Roy Keane, whose unnecessary cruciate ligament injury appears to have ended his season. Beckham should now get the chance to move infield more often alongside the complementary Nicky Butt while Scholes, when tactical circumstances afford, will have more opportunities. In addition, United might become less preoccupied with the physical.

Hoddle acknowledges the psychological effect of such a victory over the Italian champions, coming on top of England's 2-0 win in the summer at Le Tournoi. "The way it was achieved and the fact that we have a lot of United players in the squad is a bonus for us and might just sow a bit of doubt in the Italians' minds," he says. "But," he adds wisely, "I have been in the game long enough to know that all those things, come kick- off time, really go out of the window. We might get off to a flying start and score early and not have needed any edge; they might score and give themselves the edge." In addition, Italy will probably play 3-5-2 compared with Juventus's 4-4-2, and only two Juve players, the goalkeeper Angelo Peruzzi and defender Ciro Ferrara, seem certain to start.

The real benefit - this new mood - should be that England are not intimidated. "There will be a respect for the Italians because they are a good side and they beat us at Wembley," says Hoddle. "We are also playing in front of 80,000-plus in Rome and we have not won over there since 1961. But you can end up frightening yourselves, and I am saying we are not.

"When you have got that vein of form away from home, and the squad knows it can win, it gives you that lift, that inner confidence and steel that is going to be needed. It's what's going through players' minds and stomachs that counts. The last thing going out of the dressing-room door is that every single one has to be 100 per cent focused on what we have worked at in the week and have that inner belief as well."

Experienced players who have shown they can cope with the occasion, notably during the emotional events of Euro '96, will be the requirement, adds Hoddle. He himself acknowledges it as the biggest match of his career. "I feel proud and I think the players do as well. It's like '96 when the nation was behind them. A nation hoping and it's in your hands ... I feel inspired rather than any burden."

The need for character and temperament is why Hoddle will ignore recent defensive aberrations by David Seaman and Tony Adams and why Beckham seems certain to play despite only arriving post-'96. "Age isn't what we are talking about," says Hoddle. "In many ways these Manchester United youngsters are four or five years ahead of their 22 and 23 years of age."

Thus we may see a team close to that which won so impressively in Georgia and Poland and it could read: Seaman; Gary Neville, Adams, Southgate; Beckham, Batty, Ince, Gascoigne, Le Saux; Wright and Sheringham. The options from the bench include Gary Pallister and Sol Campbell to shore up, Steve McManaman to unsettle and Scholes to finish should a goal be required.

Though the Italians will be stung by having ceded the leadership of the group, this England is clearly capable of securing the draw needed. Given, too, the efficiency of Hoddle's counter- attacking approach away from home against a team who must chase the win urged on by a demanding support, victory is also possible.

"The most important thing is there will have to be some really good defending in Rome," says Alex Ferguson. "Then they are in with a great chance. It is going to be a tough, tough night, whether it's physically, tactically or ability wise, but then that's what it's all about, isn't it?" Indeed, mouth-wateringly, it is.

Ferguson spoke movingly at the coaches' conference of his life's work in developing young players, revealing what his team showed us last week; that there is a depth beneath the club's gloss and glamour. This week the aim for an England beginning to prosper because of a new system geared towards the development of young players rather than despite an outdated one - which was Hoddle's point about the nation's relative success - must also be for substance beyond style.

Italy squad: Goalkeepers: Peruzzi (Juventus), Pagliuca (Inter). Defenders: Ferrara (Juventus), Costacurta (Milan), Nesta (Lazio), Cannavaro (Parma), Maldini (Milan), Benarrivo (Parma), Panucci (Real Madrid). Midfielders: Di Livio (Juventus), Lombardo (Crystal Palace), Albertini (Milan), Di Biagio (Roma), Di Francesco (Roma), D Baggio (Parma), Fuser (Lazio). Forwards: Casiraghi (Lazio), Vieri (Atletico Madrid), Inzaghi (Juventus), Zola (Chelsea), Chiesa (Parma), Del Piero (Juventus).