Football: Platt well suited for fast track: Norman Fox assesses the growing stature of the new leading man in England's midfield

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The Independent Online
WHATEVER happens to England in Rotterdam on Wednesday night, you can be sure that at least one player in an England shirt - unless he drives a 30-yard shot into his own net - will come out of it smelling of the red rose. Even if they go down by six, David Platt, self-made man, rejected by Ron Atkinson at Manchester United, apprenticed on the wrong side of the tracks at Crewe, rescued by Graham Taylor, will still be favourite for future captaincy and, later, for the manager's job itself. No parliamentary candidate could have made a better job of finding a safe seat.

On Wednesday he will have the comfort of knowing that, however modest his contribution, no one is going to slam him. He is the one who never has a disastrously bad game, never lets anyone down, never gets a bad press - and yet becomes, if he scores the winning goal, a tabloid hero.

If England fail to qualify, the blame will be spread wide. Platt will volunteer to take his share, but everyone knows that he is the 'ordinary' player who also happens to be the world's most expensive (Bari, Juventus and Sampdoria having spent a total of pounds 17.4 million to obtain him) and who has papered over cracks in inferior squads by scoring more reliably than anyone else. He was the guy who should have been captain all along, yet said the right things, when Stuart Pearce came back from injury, about going back to the ranks. He is the bloke who throughout his international career has hardly put a foot wrong or said a word out of place. That head boy image sometimes irks him, so much so that he has even been known to hint at some skeleton in his cupboard. The only things the tabloid sniffer dogs have found are his Armani suits.

Though he has scored some spectacular goals, not least in the 1990 World Cup, the chances of his doing something spectacularly different in the general run of a game are not much higher than the chances of his falling out of a night-club on the morning of a match. As Graham Taylor says: 'I have never had sleepless nights worrying about David Platt.'

Apart from those crucial goals, and his ability to run for 90 minutes, what else makes him Taylor's first choice on the team sheet for England, as he was when they were both at Aston Villa? 'He brings us what I would call football intelligence,' says Taylor. 'His influence spreads across the whole team.'

That intelligence, Taylor adds, allows Platt to 'exceed his natural ability'. Dario Gradi recalls that at Crewe he 'wasn't exceptional but he was good at everything, especially timing his runs into the penalty area.' Those cunning, unexpected dashes are still the high points of his game, although Juventus never really accepted them. The rest is all reliability.

Taylor is not keen on having too many stars (chance would be a fine thing), but so far he has not curtailed Platt's willingness to cultivate a flowering profile and act as an unofficial spokesman (whose every word seems measured against the possibility of it being turned against him or England).

There have always been questions about his playing ability. His tackling is an incomplete aspect of his game, and when he beats a player it hardly takes your breath away. But his positional sense is spot on, his stamina unquestioned and his dedication a manager's dream. He is also immensely proud of having been England captain in Pearce's absence; it compensated for disappointments in Italy and helped maintain his value.

Above all, at every stage of his career he has stored his experience, so that when he eventually returns from Italy he will stroll into a top manager's job or, regrettably, go straight into television.

These days he often gives the impression of enjoying the playground larks and banter of the practice pitch only up to a point. Though they seem to get on famously, Gazza and Platt are chalk and mozzarella. Neither's time in Italy has been wholly successful, but Platt's mind, tastes and interests have broadened, while Gazza has simply broadened.

'However long it took, I knew that when I went back to England I wanted to say that I'd done more than just play in Italian football,' says Platt.

While other internationals are cautious about talking to the Press, Platt enjoys taking us on. Perhaps it gets him away from the same old schoolboy humour of the squad. Watch him on an England trip and sooner or later he drifts away from the players to chat with anyone who wants to talk sensibly about the game, or anything else. On a flight you may well find him sitting alone, reading, but he is not self-effacing. He promotes himself professionally and naturally, and it all points in the direction of the long term. He is fond of saying 'I know where I'm going.'

Possibly on Wednesday night England will discover where they are not going. But should the worst happen, David Platt is not likely to let one night in the Netherlands clog up his future.