Football: Taylor gives Barnes a cuddle and Smith a mission

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The Independent Online
SAN MARINO are a one-off - Lilliputians who lose every game they play - but Graham Taylor chooses not to differentiate between the little and large of World Cup football, and the England squad nominated yesterday would have been much the same if it was the Dutch who were coming in eight days' time.

'Back to the Future' is not the most stirring of battle cries, and the return of two 29-year-olds and a journeyman of 30 is unlikely to see too many trampled underfoot in a Wembley stampede. In fairness, though, the performance against Turkey last time out was a good one; the desire to restrict changes to a minimum entirely understandable.

After Paul Gascoigne's heroics against the Turks in November, the thought of Gazza and John Barnes in the same England team is enough to give the Sammarinesi small-fry palpitations. The part- timers from this tiniest of Adriatic principalities lost 10-0 to Norway in September, and an abacus should be issued with the programmes next week. If we can count the goals on one hand, the turnips will be out again.

The return of Barnes, in place of the convalescent John Salako, is one of three England changes which will become four if Stuart Pearce fails to shake off his groin trouble in time to play for Nottingham Forest on Saturday. In that event, the captain would automatically forfeit his place.

For the time being, Taylor is content to recall Trevor Steven in preference to the uncapped Richard Jobson, and replace Alan Shearer, who has yet to reappear after cartilage surgery, with the nudger they call 'Smudger', Alan Smith.

Lee Sharpe, who has played such a significant part in Manchester United's surge to the top of the Premier League, can count himself unlucky to have got no further than the standby replacements. Smith, on the other hand, knows he is fortunate to be back after scoring just five goals for Arsenal this season. At 30, he thought he had won his last cap at the European Championship, with that notorious substitution which brought such an inappropriate end to Gary Lineker's England career, and when he was asked about his international prospects on Sunday he said: 'I'm not holding my breath.'

Three goals in five days, against Leeds United and Crystal Palace, must have jogged the managerial memory. And clinched his place? Not a bit of it. Taylor had made up his mind to pick him the previous week, on grounds of experience and his effectiveness at club level in harness with Ian Wright.

He explained: 'I felt I would be taking too much of a risk if I picked Brian Deane as well as Les Ferdinand.' Risk? Against San Marino? 'Anyway,' he went on, 'I've always thought of Alan as a good player. In terms of holding the ball up and bringing other people into play, he is a good as there is.'

Wright's fears for his future after his latest suspension were groundless. Not only had Taylor always intended to persevere with him, he had selected his Arsenal partner to assist in the quest for that elusive first goal.

Continuity was the order of the day after the heartening 4-0 win against the Turks, so Wright would continue in attack, regardless of recent misdemeanours; and Gascoigne and David Platt would share his goal-scoring burden, despite their switchback progress in Italy.

Players who had lost their places through illness or injury would have to wait for another chance. Some would, anyway.

Sharpe, Rob Jones and Martin Keown were among those favoured with sympathy rather than selection. All were assured that they were still in Taylor's thoughts and sure to be back. Eventually.

Others were good enough to jump the queue. Young tyros like Sharpe and Jones might need more games to prove form and fitness, but Barnes is regarded as a special case, meriting preferential treatment. A cuddle, even.

'I don't need to wait to see how John in settling in at club level,' Taylor said. 'I don't need to wait six months before picking him. I don't mind admitting that I think Gascoigne and Barnes are the two greatest individual telents that we've produced in the last 15 years, and I've always wanted to play them together. What John is doing at club level doesn't concern me. What does interest me is that he is a gifted player.

'Whether you are an experienced international, with a lot of games behind you, or a young boy with none, you sometimes need a cuddle. People think experienced players don't need that. They think it's the young boys who should be loved a little bit. Well, I've known John over many years now, and I think its important to look after him.'

Taylor said England had not always 'looked after' gifted players - Gazza probably told him as much after being dropped against the Republic of Ireland - but that he was giving them 'a platform to play', and promising to cherish and safeguard their talents.

Gazza and Barnes can expect carte blanche, and the invitation to destroy a team who have scored just two goals while conceding 53 since their acceptance into the international fraternity.

'I will be most surprised,' Taylor said, 'if San Marino don't play with 11 men behind the ball. That means it will have to be moved quickly, and it will be important to have players in the team who can take opponents out of the game, by beating them.'

England would be approaching the tie in a positive, enterprising frame of mind. 'If we play the way we did against Norway and Turkey, we will give San Marino a difficult game. We certainly won't be playing for a draw.' Anything less than six, and Taylor will be the one in need of a cuddle.

ENGLAND SQUAD (v San Marino, World Cup Qualifying Group Two, Wembley Stadium, Wednesday 17 February): Woods (Sheffield Wednesday), Seaman (Arsenal); Dixon (Arsenal), Bardsley (Queen's Park Rangers), Pearce (Nottingham Forest), Dorigo (Leeds United), Walker (Sampdoria), Adams (Arsenal), Pallister (Manchester United), Steven (Rangers), Platt (Juventus), Batty (Leeds United), Palmer (Sheffield Wednesday), Ince (Manchester United), Gascoigne (Lazio), Merson (Arsenal), Sinton (Queen's Park Rangers), Barnes (Liverpool), Smith (Arsenal), Clough (Nottingham Forest), Wright (Arsenal), Ferdinand (Queen's Park Rangers). Standby players: Martyn (Crystal Palace); Parker (Manchester United), Jobson (Oldham Athletic), Sharpe (Manchester United), Deane (Sheffield United).