Football: Return of key men may not be enough

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EVEN BEFORE kick-off in Sofia on Wednesday night there were indications that it would not be all right on the night, notably the sight of Gareth Southgate, in full England kit, queuing for the public toilets, the dressing- room facilities being too grim for words.

The same may apply to England's fate come the autumn though, doubtless, the headline writers will find the words. The pall of despondency which fell over England at the final whistle will not have been improved upon being met on their return by headlines such as "Hopeless", "On their knees", "Second-raters" and "A load of Bul".

It was a harsh reaction to what, in ordinary circumstances, would be regarded as a decent result, but it matched the mood of the team and coaching staff. They also recognised that in the context of a qualifying campaign in which Sweden and Poland had won in Sofia, the draw felt like a defeat.

Kevin Keegan looked desperately in need of a break as he entered a plea for mitigation. "With respect to the players out there, that was not my ideal England team," said the England coach. "I would like to have a full squad of players to pick from - and then be judged, then tell you if they're good enough. It will be important to have our best players in Poland."

Keegan has a point. The team which could be constructed from those injured, suspended or unavailable (see below) would probably beat the one that played. If everyone is available only four of Wednesday night's XI - Alan Shearer, Sol Campbell, David Seaman and David Batty - are likely to start in Chorzow on 8 September. The team would thus resemble the one which won 2-0 in Poland on England's last visit there, the May 1997 World Cup qualifier.

However, quite apart from injuries which may still disrupt his plans even early in the season, there are two cautionary notes. England are traditionally poor travellers in September having only won once away from home - in Moldova in Glenn Hoddle's first game - in eight attempts over the past 20 years.

In addition there is no indication yet that, even if he had his best players available, Keegan would be able to organise them into a team of genuine substance.

Although the team was better balanced than against Sweden, they still looked uncomfortable. Playing three strikers did not work, Robbie Fowler was clearly unfit and the Keegan-influenced desire to charge forward left players short of options with England frequently having too many men ahead of the ball and not enough supporting it. Only Jonathon Woodgate and Shearer could be proud of their night's work.

Johan Cruyff, watching from the stands, was unimpressed. "England were very poor technically all round," he said. "England played the game too slowly, the crossing was bad and the passing was very bad. I know you had many players missing but a country like England should not have to rely only on David Beckham. England must have put in 25 crosses but there was only one good one. If you haven't got people who can cross the ball, you should coach them."

Keegan admitted: "I can see things we need to do a lot better. With the extra man, something should have happened for us, but nobody made it happen.

"There were times when we looked at each other on the bench and thought, `Simple pass and he couldn't make it', but you mustn't underestimate the tiredness factor. The players came over here knowing they will be training again in four weeks. All those factors make a difference.

"More than anything, I've got to find a team that is balanced," added the coach. So far he has used 26 players in four games, including eight debutants, and involved another dozen in his squads. Only Shearer has played all four games.

Keegan added: "Even against Poland [when England won 3-1], the balance wasn't right. We haven't had a lot of invention, we haven't passed it well.

"If the balance is better we just might be able to get at teams and be a bit more inventive. Those are the thoughts I'll leave you with as I go off on my holidays.

"I would have liked a little more in the last two games to give me a bit of comfort through the summer but, despite the performances, it is still in our own hands. I can understand the concern because the games have not been enjoyable for me to watch, so I'm sure they've not been enjoyable for fans."

Qualify and all this will be forgotten. To do so England need first to beat Luxembourg at Wembley on 4 September and Poland four days later. Should they draw with Poland they would have to rely on Sweden beating the Poles in Scandinavia in October. Lose and they are out.

Then there would be a two-leg play-off, probably without some of the 10 players on a yellow card, against another group runner-up. That might be France, Germany or Croatia, or it could be Slovenia, Turkey or Scotland.

Failure to qualify would be damaging to English football but not fatal to Keegan's reign: the initial damage was done under Glenn Hoddle. However, if the current struggle to qualify is not to be repeated with the 2002 World Cup, significant improvement, from coach and players, is required.

KEEGAN'S MISSING ENGLAND XI: Martyn; G Neville, Keown, Adams, Le Saux; Anderton, Beckham, Scholes, McManaman; Owen, Dublin.


England will travel to Poland having won only one of eight away matches played in September in the past 20 years and must beat the Poles on 8 September to ensure a place in the play-offs for the Euro 2000 finals

5 Sept 1998: Sweden Lost 1-2

1 Sept 1996: Moldova Won 3-0

9 Sept 1992: Spain Lost 0-1

6. Sept 1989: Sweden Drew 0-0

9 Sept 1987: West Germany Lost 1-3

10 Sept 1986: Sweden Lost 0-1

22 Sept 1982: Denmark Drew 2-2

9 Sept 1981: Norway Lost 1-2