Football: Robson tackles the England conundrum: His national service may be over but the desire to lead his country remains. Joe Lovejoy meets Captain Marvel

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The Independent Online
LIKE most of us, Bryan Robson sat and squirmed through England's World Cup ruin in Rotterdam. Unlike the rest of us, he may just get the chance to do something about it.

The man the managerial namesake used to call Captain Marvel is in the winter of his playing days, with a 37th birthday looming, and is looking to a future in coaching and management. After 90 caps and a glittering career with Manchester United, the traditional L-plate route via Crewe or Chester holds little appeal and he would prefer to start where he means to go on. At the top.

There is, of course, an obvious vacancy in the offing, and while Robson stopped short of formally declaring his candidacy for the England job this week, he was clearly excited by the concept the Football Association are ready to take on board - of an experienced manager in partnership with a young assistant, to be groomed for succession. He of the bow legs and all-consuming tackle knows he has no chance of the main role, but would love to serve his country again as the apprentice, and went so far as to suggest a master. Terry Venables.

We met at United's training ground, the day after a match which pointed up Robson's criticisms of the domestic game. England's finest had led Galatasaray 2-0 at home, only to have their place at the Champions League stage of the European Cup thrown into extreme jeopardy by a Turkish comeback which had Old Trafford mightily relieved by Eric Cantona's late equaliser for 3-3.

The Turks' passing, control and movement had been superior, and Robson's respect bordered on admiration. 'The countries we still tend to regard as third-world in football terms have improved a hell of a lot in recent years,' he said. 'If we don't work hard at closing them down to stop them playing their little one-twos all over the place they'll give us trouble, like Galatasaray did, because they've got the technique.'

They have, English players haven't. Why? 'I think we've stood still for too long while others have been improving. These emerging countries have hired coaches from all over the world - Brazilians, Germans and some of our own. They've tried to learn from everybody, and they've succeeded. Over the years, we've talked a lot about improving our game and done nothing. Now, after the Holland match, we're at it again. This time let's hope we can change our outlook.

'In our case, I don't think it's necessary to bring in help from other countries. I think the best coaches we have here are good enough. What we've got to let them do is look at the most successful national teams, and how they play. Then we've got to keep our own good points and adopt, or adapt, the strengths of the Italians and Germans.

'It's a question of changing our playing style, rather than our mental approach. There's never been anything wrong with our players' attitude to the game. It's more in the positional sense that we fall down. For example, when the best foreign teams go in front they are very disciplined when it comes to keeping their shape to defend a lead. I think we need more of that discipline.'

More of their skill, tactical and individual, would not go amiss, and Robson has no doubt where the blame lies for our lack of progress.

Charles Hughes, the FA's head of coaching, is the high priest of the POMO (Position of Maximum Opportunity) game, which dismisses intricate passing as counter-productive, and his willing disciples at club level propagated long-ball football to the stage where it became the norm. Gradually, through the success of passing teams like United, Aston Villa and Norwich City, the trend is being reversed, but the damage is done.

Robson says: 'For the last 10 or 15 years we've had this POMO stuff, and the players coming through all seem to have been coached that way. When you have the ball bouncing around and you just hoof it forward, how is that going to improve your technique? We only have so many top players who are natural footballers, the rest of them have to be taught. How are we teaching them? Mostly the wrong way.

'From top to bottom our system has to be improved, so that the average players know that they've got to take time to control the ball, move it around properly and change their position intelligently. They've got to know when to step up the tempo or sit back and slow it down. Most of all, they've got to understand why they are doing these things.

'It's essential that young kids learn the game properly. In the 15 to 18 age-group they should know how to play the sweeper system, for instance - whether their clubs believe in it or not. They should be coached in a way that gives them experience in all ways of playing, so that they can adapt when required, and know what it's all about. It's not just knowing how to do it, it's knowing why they are doing it. Talk to foreign players and they'll tell you that's how it is done abroad. Not here, though.

'We've got to teach kids from an early age to play the game - not just to kick an early ball down a channel. There has been an improvement over the last two or three years because people like Alex Ferguson, Terry Venables and Ron Atkinson have all preached the right type of football, but I still feel there is much to be done, teaching players to understand the game.

'If we play against an average German or Italian team, whose players aren't all internationals, like ours, they will still have discipline within a system they all understand. They all know what their job is, and how it fits into the overall scheme. We don't have that appreciation. We still rely on guts and determination, and blind faith in 4-4-2.'

Bryan helped Bobby Robson see the light and convert to a sweeper-orientated defence on the road to the World Cup semi-finals. He is adamant that England should have persisted with it.

'People say we can't change our tactics, and that when we do it always goes wrong, but the biggest success England have had in my 20 years in the game was in the 1990 World Cup, when we played with a sweeper. Everyone now says that it was because the system suited the players we had at that time, but if you look around now there are players about who could play that way.

'I've always considered it the way forward. When we were in Italy, the senior players were of that opinion, and Don Howe, the coach, agreed with us. We spoke to Bobby Robson about it, and in the end he thought it was best for the team, as well. All the top teams in the world play that way, so it's about time we gave it a go. We've only flirted with it in the past - never given it a real chance.'

The exposition was beginning to sound like a manifesto, suggesting the question: who should be England's new manager?

'It's important that the man they pick has experience of international football as a player. Otherwise, it can take a couple of years just to learn about it, because it's totally different to the British game. I think it has got to be someone like Terry Venables. You listen to him and he wants to try different things, different formations. He wants us to catch up with the techniques of foreign players.'

In a tacit dig at Graham Taylor and his ruinous vacillation, Robson added that it was vital that the new man should know his own mind, and be decisive at all times. 'He must be sure about what he wants, and the way he wants the game played. That's another reason why we should go for Terry Venables, or someone strong-willed like him.

'If he wants a young man to work alongside him, and eventually take over, why not Venables and Glenn Hoddle, or Ray Wilkins?' Or Bryan Robson? 'Whoever - why not?

'The two could work together, calling the Ron Atkinsons, Alex Fergusons and Howard Wilkinsons for help, and saying, 'Come on - it's up to us. Everyone is looking to us for guidance. Let's get about and influence people to improve the technique of players in this country'. If we can do that, then our natural strength of character will make us the best again.

'That should be our gospel. The man at the top has got to preach it, and he's got to have someone running his coaching who is going to foster the style the manager wants - from the Under-21s and youth team, right down through the local schools of excellence.

'It's not going to be easy. Far from it. We are talking about changing the whole format of the English game, and the clubs are sure to resist it. With them it's all short-term planning. Managers and coaches need results now, not in two years' time, to stay in a job. I can understand that, and sympathise with their position. But if people are really serious about making meaningful changes because the thing is not right, then there's only one way to do it. Choose better principles and stick by them.'

Amen to that. Venables and Robson, eh? The FA could do - indeed have done - a lot worse.

(Photograph omitted)