Football: Scholes an echo of a past era
Monday 29 March 1999
The younger generation of football supporters may not be familiar with a role performed notably for past England teams by Raich Carter, Wilf Mannion, Johnny Haynes and Bobby Charlton, but if Scholes cannot be compared with those illustrious figures his performance on Saturday had the merit of comprehensive involvement.
To fulfil the responsibilities placed on him so vividly that he scored all three England goals reminds some of us that his qualities of alertness, industry, imagination and eagerness to seek goal-scoring opportunities were once commonplace in English football.
That Scholes can never be sure of selection by Manchester United testifies to the depth of talent at Old Trafford and tactical refinements employed by Alex Ferguson, but it also points to changes in the game that have served to suppress, even in Brazil, the advancement of specific midfield influences.
Verve and an eye for goal should serve to bring Scholes into permanent consideration for the England team but even more might be obtained from him if the modern system of development did not discourage the advancement of genuine playmakers. So much damage was done in Britain by crass support for the long ball that the species was in danger of extinction. The result is that, despite severely reduced mobility, Paul Gascoigne is still considered as an England midfielder.
In Scholes' keenness to get about the field, his competitiveness and supporting surges, there is an echo of the past but it falls short of completeness - the range of his passing is limited - and does not compensate for the absence of intelligent construction and variations in tempo. Tim Sherwood brought more to England's midfield that can now be expected from David Batty and Paul Ince but he is no Gascoigne.
The notion that David Beckham could be the fulcrum of play is undermined by his lack of pace, a reliable trick with which to make space, wayward perception and the importance of his quite re- markable crossing.
It was ironic that Scholes should be one of the two culprits when slack defending enabled Poland to get back into the game. This was apparently of little concern to Keegan, who smilingly conceded that it would be thought typical of his teams.
The urgency of Keegan's task as temporary manager puts a terrible strain on the language of urgency. Are they "big" games, or just "important" games or, heaven help us, "must games"? Now, where even the popular prints and television may fear to tread comes a lion-hearted connoisseur of football drama to explore the unknown. "All I wanted was a win," Keegan said after the game.
Obviously the situation was crucial because even a draw would have considerably lengthened the odds against England qualifying for next year's European Championship finals, but any problems in selection were removed by the injury list.
It was indeed a "must" game and Keegan approached it with a policy based on the traditional virtues of English football. When, after only a few minutes, David Seaman took the ball into space emptied of opponents and launched a long kick at Poland's penalty area you had a pretty good idea of what England had in mind.
Keegan's predecessors, Glenn Hoddle and Terry Venables, may have winced at the rejection of subtlety this implied but there are plenty of people in English football who stand firm in their belief that the national team would benefit from more directness. The anxiety caused in the Poland defence by early long passes and centres will have pleased them.
There remains unquestionably a conflict in attitude that survives the wholesale introduction ofFINAL players, which Saturday's match did nothing to resolve.
Supposing that Keegan's intention is to strike a sensible balance, his first game left questions to be answered although, of course, his enthusiasm was infectious, affecting the audience as much as the players.
However, caution is advisable. The high-flying start Keegan has made must be set against the impression that the Poles had forgotten the lessons of solidarity. When Keegan asserted that England had overcome top-class opposition, he was in danger of being carried away by his own publicity.
The difficulties that Sweden were seen to come up against when defeating Luxembourg 2-0 in Gothenburg were a reminder that there are no longer many easy international fixtures, but it would be foolish to suppose that Poland were formidable opponents.
So far so good for Keegan. But here is a thought about England's victory to be going on with. "Our match against Sweden next week is the most important," one of their players said on arrival in London. One of those "must" matches. Credit where it is due - but from the look of the Poles they didn't expect to win anyway.
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