Football: No English lions, only workhorses

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 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. To be fair, Keegan did not try to hide. By the end, he said, he was happy with a draw. The messenger might be refreshingly open, but the message remains depressingly familiar.

"I'd like to have a day off tomorrow," said Keegan. "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." Ah, the enduring qualities of English football, so well lauded when lifting Manchester United into the history books, so woefully inadequate when pitched against an international side as well organised as Sweden.

A strange emotional vacuum greeted the final whistle. Traditional avenues of displeasure were cut off. Unable to turn on King Kev just yet, the crowd vented their wrath on the Spanish referee, whose initial tolerance - notably in not penalising Paul Scholes for a dreadful foul in the opening minute - set the tone for an undistinguished, niggly match. "A mental struggle all the way through," as Tommy Soderberg, the Sweden coach, said. "We had to concentrate every single minute."

Despite the physical presence of David Batty and Tim Sherwood, the Swedes had the most accomplished bouncer in Stefan Schwarz, whose control of the midfield skirmishes befitted an ex-Arsenal midfielder and whose careful baiting of Scholes had the desired effect. Scholes' departure hardly registered on the Richter Scale. The only shock was that he survived into the second half. "Headless chickens," as Graham Taylor once said. Right phrase, wrong time.

Goodness knows what got into Scholes. All those celebrations must have left him with excess steam in the tank. He should have been booked in the first minute for a dreadful foul on Hakan Mild, who was stretchered off with a deep gouge out of his thigh, and he was duly booked midway through the first half. Red was not long 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 his last two journeys that way, 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. "No argument," said Keegan more appropriately.

The sour tone of the afternoon had begun before kick-off. The Wembley crowd 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 disappointment.

The first sign of honeymoon's end came after 25 minutes when a ripple of discontent rolled through Wembley, announcing to the new manager that cuddly press conferences and enthusiastic sound bytes were no substitute for a goal. The problems facing the England team were no different just because the face behind them seemed a little more touchy-feely. England needed very much more guile than they summoned in the first half to break down an astute side intent on protection. But for 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. Sweden will have to do a Devon Loch not to qualify straight through now and England have their work cut out to claim the soiled lottery ticket of second place.

On yesterday's intelligent performance, Sweden deserve to go through. Tactically, they were streets ahead of the home side. Only in the last 10 minutes did England's 10 men mount a period of sustained, if uncoordinated, pressure. Otherwise, the Swedes were content to let England have the ball in midfield while safely policing the runs of Alan Shearer and Andy Cole. The ease with which the Swedish strikers breached the England defence in the air was more eyebrow-raising. Henrik Larsson and Kennet Andersson both had fine chances to compound England's misery.

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 Pontus Kaamark before he came off with a pulled hamstring. Invincible for United maybe, but international football is a little more cerebral. We waited for Teddy Sheringham, yet United's super-sub was resolutely left to patrol the touchline. 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 limped gingerly off into the sunset and the pages of Hello!. "Heavy legs," said Shearer later. Some heavy hearts, too, in the realisation that behind the charming facade of Keegan's England lurk the same old structural defects.

England verdicts by Andrew Martin

David Seaman


Implacably efficient until ruffled by Arsenal team-mate Ljungberg's rasping drive towards the right apex of crossbar and goal post that forced save of the match. Mostly untroubled.


Phil Neville

(Manchester United)

Proved a capable deputy for brother Gary, connecting well with Beckham. Presented with England's first opening, he scuffed it miserably but was a dynamic presence on the right.


Graeme Le Saux


Exited at half-time complaining of a virus - Larsson-itus, perhaps, or an acute case of Alexandersson Syndrome. Produced one cross of note, but Gray did a better job.


Martin Keown


Hamstrung by Alexandersson, hounded by Kennet Andersson, Keown's creased features grew craggier by the second, relief only coming when he hobbled off after 35 minutes.


Sol Campbell


An ebony bulwark amid England's porous backline, Campbell shackled the blond totem Kennet Andersson, winning almost everything in the air. A radiant presence amid the gloom.


David Beckham

(Manchester United)

Kicked and clattered at every turn by the damnable Schwarz, Beckham's premature exit denied the attack its only regular - albeit off-target - supply. Palpitation time for Keegan.


David Batty


Winning his 39th cap, the tigerish 30-year-old was solid if sorely uninspired alongside his partner in the 1995 Premiership winning side. Booked for a vengeful lunge on Schwarz.


Tim Sherwood


Headed narrowly wide from Neville's cross on the hour and hustled determinedly throughout without enhancing his reputation or England's cause to any significant degree.


Paul Scholes

(Manchester United)

How quickly glory can turn to ignominy. The hat-trick hero of the Bulgaria match undermined collective effort after being sent off for two impetuous challenges. Oh dear.


Alan Shearer


Each head-on or knock-down led to only another blind alley. Shearer looked sorely matched with Cole. How he must have been silently pleading for Sheringham's introduction.


Andy Cole

(Manchester United)

The difference between the scarlet shirts of England and Man United? A red-faced Andy Cole. A booking for failing to retreat at a free-kick only piled on the frustration.


Rio Ferdinand

(West Ham United)

A sublime tackle on the advancing Ljungberg then crassly losing the ball while pressing forward: mixed day for the talented young Iion.


Michael Gray


Began second half in place of Le Saux with a pinpoint cross from the left flank and went on to outshine the poorly Chelsea wing-back.


Ray Parlour


Parlour's brisk cameo on the right for 10-man England was, through no fault of his own, the wrong man at the wrong time.


Substitutes not used: Redknapp, Sheringham, Fowler, Walker.