Football: Redknapp may have major role

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the benefits of being a talented but inconsistent English international is that however often the selectors' axe falls the chance will come round again.

Just as England's cricket team kept going back to Phillip DeFreitas and Graeme Hick, so the football one is forever recalling players of potential, like Paul Merson and Steve McManaman, in the hope they will eventually realise it.

This week it could be the turn of Jamie Redknapp to benefit from the paucity of alternatives as Kevin Keegan searches for a midfield combination that will revive England's European Championship hopes against Bulgaria tomorrow.

The Liverpool midfielder was dropped after a brace of disappointing performances against Sweden and Bulgaria in the autumn, gave another poor display against France in February, but, said Keegan yesterday, "certainly comes into the equation" again. The coach added that David Beckham's absence made Redknapp even more of a contender because of "his delivery at set-pieces".

Redknapp, on form, is capable of producing the accurate short and long passing that eluded England during their goalless draw with Sweden on Saturday, preventing them from establishing any fluency of play. However, he would need to be on his game and have better movement around him than England managed at Wembley.

Keegan spent the team's flight here from Luton yesterday pondering how that might be achieved. Wing-backs are an option, especially as Graeme Le Saux has not recovered from his viral infection and did not travel. Unless Phil Neville is moved to the left flank, which is unlikely, this means Michael Gray is sure to make his first start. It could be as a wing- back, but that would mean - with David Batty and Rio Ferdinand set to play - Redknapp's space would be cramped.

A flat four at the back, with Redknapp and Batty in central midfield, would make the inclusion of a linking striker, like Teddy Sheringham, rather than a conventional forward like Robbie Fowler an imperative if England were not to be stretched. It would also leave the left flank problem unsolved. Meanwhile, Steve Guppy, the best English left-winger in the Premiership, is by a riverbank in Hampshire. As the Leicester Mercury said yesterday, he's probably contemplating throwing himself in.

Keegan said Alan Shearer, who was reported to have a calf injury, was fit. "He trained Sunday and today," Keegan said. "I don't know where the idea is coming from that he won't play."

Keegan intimated that one of the players he has called up - Kieron Dyer, of Ipswich, and Charlton's Danny Mills - would be on the bench. "Kieron Dyer covers a lot of positions and was very close to joining the full squad anyway," Keegan said. "Only his age kept him out because I thought he could get a bit more playing experience for the Under-21s. Danny Mills has done a terrific job for Charlton."

Keegan added: "Our first task is to put the Sweden game behind us. We didn't pass it well, we weren't inventive and, although we had bad luck, I am not going to use that as an excuse. It was a bad day in the office. I didn't think we gave the ball away as much as chose the wrong options when we had it. We ended up trying to pick people out with long balls. Now the long ball is something English players can play, Bulgaria pass short and never pass long, but it has to be the right time to hit a long ball. We have to mix it up.

"I felt sorry for our strikers because our service was poor. They were being asked to make something out of nothing because nobody was making anything for them. We need to provide Alan Shearer with the platform for scoring goals and I have to pick a side that's well-balanced to do that. People can talk about experimenting but I am never going to throw in a load of kids without the experience. This'll be a tough game."

England, who have never lost to Bulgaria and won on both previous visits here, need only a draw to keep their Euro 96 progress in their own hands, although they would have to win in Poland in September.

Keegan, who scored here in 1979, added in a comment typical of his sometimes emotional attitude to management: "I don't do TV any more so I either get to Euro 2000 as coach of England or I don't go."

Should England not get to the finals, it would surely be foolhardy for Keegan to miss them. There would be much to learn, not least about 2002 World Cup qualifying opponents. He concluded, with a typical positive flourish: "I came into this job with my eyes wide open. I knew what the problems were and there will be a lot of time to talk about them if we don't get there. But that's a way off and I'm not even thinking in those terms."

Six injuries and one suspension present a problem for Bulgaria's coach, Dimitar Dimitrov. The midfielders Ivailo Yordanov, Zlatko Yankov, Marian Hristov, Daniel Borimirov, the striker Georgi Ivanov and the goalkeeper Zdravko Zdravkov are all injury doubts, while the forward Hristo Yovov is suspended.

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