Football: Resourceful England master 10-second rule

Poland 0 England 2; HT: 0-1 Shearer 6 Attendance: 32,000 Sheringham 90
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The Independent Online
It may have had little to do with a dark, dank night amid the Silesian coalfields, but germinal to England's latest efficient and energetic away win was a sunny spring day of a few weeks ago in a corner of rural east Essex.

There, the England coach Glenn Hoddle was attending a coaching conference organised by the Football Association for Premiership and Football League managers. Gerard Houllier, the technical director of French football, was using him as one of a group of players in a training drill on counter- attacking. Having broken down an opponents' foray, the group then had 10 seconds to score at the other end by swift, direct forward dribbling and passing.

"Tactically, the players did exactly what we said," Hoddle said yesterday of the 2-0 win in Poland. "We worked in training on certain functions, one where you have to get the ball in the back of the net within 10 seconds."

Voila, as M Houllier might have said. So too Hoddle, clearly unafraid, like any good leader, of adapting smart ideas, after Alan Shearer's early goal created by a strong run and wonderfully incisive pass from Paul Ince. Before that coaching demonstration, Houllier had shown a video of outstanding international goals scored on the break. This one might now be added.

Pre-match, it was an enticing scenario for a coach such as Hoddle - opponents with their own penchant for a counter-attacking game forced by a need for three points to go forward from the outset. Five minutes in, it was the perfect scenario.

Thereafter, England endured the odd alarm, notably towards half-time and in the last few minutes as the Poles anticipated stinging words from their coach Antoni Piecniczek. Each time, though, Hoddle's team rode the storm to find safe havens. Shearer's missed penalty, the only blemish on a towering display, followed pressure at the other end, as did Teddy Sheringham's late coup de grace after more good work by Robert Lee, whose value is more regularly being appreciated.

Such is modern international football. Tight-knit organisation. Adhere to a game plan and strike swiftly with a cutting-edge player. Like the Brazilians of '94, Hoddle has recognised the realities. It is why England look more impressive away from home than at Wembley, where the expectation of expansiveness is a burden rather than boon.

"Playing 3-5-2 at Aston Villa I have found that, yes, it does work better away from home," said Gareth Southgate, a trojan replacement for Tony Adams at the centre of England's defence. "Perhaps it is easier because you don't get that pressure to go forward all the time. It's good practice for us if we get into the World Cup finals."

There, at the very highest level, all teams, save for France of course, will similarly be playing away from home and more will be needed. If the strategy sounds dull, it needn't be. It will be fascinating to see who emerges as a potential match-winner from the unfortunate Paul Gascoigne - though luck on the field often stems from attitude off it - Steve McManaman, Darren Anderton, perhaps Paul Merson and, dare one say, Matthew Le Tissier.

That can be added on. England's strength currently, above all, is a strong spine from David Seaman, Adams (when fit), through Ince to Shearer. Around it, Sheringham offers craft and others, like Sol Campbell, David Beckham and Graeme Le Saux, look secure in their positions.

Ince has revealed himself as central to England's strength. Playing in Italy has improved his range of passing and, most important, his temperament, which he held in check admirably on Saturday night in what the Poles turned into a roughhouse, with Gascoigne suffering a gashed thigh, Le Saux being punched off the ball, Lee receiving an elbow and Shearer constantly fouled.

Four years ago in Katowice Ince was labelled a "headless chicken" by Graham Taylor. As the team flew back in the early hours yesterday, he was as proud as a peacock. A booking will mean he misses Moldova in September but is available for Italy in Rome in October.

"At the time some people might have thought Graham Taylor was right," said Ince. "I didn't. It was a strong statement to come out with. But we have come a long way since then. The Poles were putting it about in the second half and I was dying to put it about myself but I knew I couldn't. It calmed me down."

Most impressive was Ince's handling of the Poles' playmaker Piotr Nowak. "The boss told me he was dangerous going forward but wouldn't go with me if I broke," said Ince.

Then there is Shearer and where there is Shearer there should always be optimism; 10 goals now in his last 10 games, five in this World Cup campaign. "You know if you are in trouble, he will hold the ball up, battle his way through and take the chance," said Southgate. Loved by his own defenders, feared by the opposition's.

"I was kicked a lot but I had the last laugh," said Shearer. "I thoroughly enjoy that kind of thing. I take it as a challenge and a sign of respect. Sometimes you're tempted to snipe back but you would be sent off and let your country down. There is a big responsibility on me as captain." Is there no beginning to this man's defects of character?

Suddenly the English garden looks rosy. At the least, England will be in a play-off to reach France '98. They are well-placed to qualify automatically, such is their record already, as the best of the nine runners-up in the European groups.

Should England dispose of Moldova and Italy fail to win in Georgia the same night, a point in Rome, where even victory does not look beyond them would be enough for them to top Group Two.

It assumes lessons have been learnt, shortcomings rectified, after Wembley, when a stretched England were vulnerable to more intelligent minds and sharper bodies. "It looks like it will be a titanic battle in Rome," says Hoddle. "But we won't fear going across there. We have players they will fear."

Before then, on Wednesday, England play Italy in Nantes in the four-team Tournoi that also features France and Brazil. Hoddle is likely to field almost a reserve team, though possibly with David Beckham in central midfield. After Chorzow, it should all matter little except for experimental purposes.

After their decisive breaks in the chill of Poland, England deserve a less pressured 10-day break in the sun.

Scotland struggle to beat Malta, page 13

ENGLAND (3-5-2): Seaman (Arsenal); G Neville (Manchester United), Southgate (Aston Villa), Campbell (Tottenham Hotspur); Beckham (Manchester United), Lee (Newcastle United), Ince (Internazionale), Gascoigne (Rangers), Le Saux (Blackburn Rovers); Shearer (Newcastle United), Sheringham (Tottenham Hotspur). Substitutes: Batty (Newcastle Utd) for Gascoigne, 17; P Neville (Manchester Utd) for Beckham, 89.

POLAND (3-5-2): Wozniak (Porto); Jozwiak (Guingamp), Zielinski (Legia Warsaw), Kaluzny (Zaglebie Lubin); Ledwon (GKS Katowice), Bukalski (Genk), Waldoch (Bochum, Ger), Nowak (1860 Munich), Majak (Widzew Lodz); Dembinski (Widzew Lodz), Juskowiak (Borussia Monchengladbach). Substitutes: Swierczewski (Bastia) for Bukalsi, h-t; Adamczyk (Hutnik Krakow) for Juskwiak, 51; Kucharski (Legia Warsaw) for Nowak, 57.

Referee: U Meier (Switz).

Bookings: Poland: Jozwiak, Majak, Kaluzny. England: Ince, Batty. Man of the match: Alan Shearer.

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