Football: Taylor targets fitness not finesse: The England manager has identified lack of stamina as a cause of international failures. Joe Lovejoy reports

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ENGLAND'S road to the 1994 World Cup starts not at Wembley but at a sports centre in rustic Shropshire, Graham Taylor having come to the conclusion, two years into his managership, that the country's best players are just not fit enough.

The squad he has announced to launch the qualifying series at home to Norway in 11 days' time will begin their preparations at Lilleshall, knee-deep in boffins at the Football Association's 'human performance centre'. Friday's visit will be the first of many - the start of a two-year programme of 'fitness monitoring'.

Such is Taylor's concern that England are falling behind other countries when it comes to basic stamina that he is contemplating giving up two dates available for international friendlies at the end of the season, preferring to take the players back to Lilleshall for a week or so to concentrate on improving their fitness levels.

While the nation cringed at the poverty of England's technique and tactics at the European Championship, the manager was shocked by their lack of staying power.

'We've got to get our players fitter,' he said. 'I should have done something about it the day I got the job, because the system we are operating is running down the batteries of the players.

'My first experience of a major tournament (the European Championship in June) confirmed some of the things I had always suspected - particularly that when we play international tournaments, in the summer, our players' fitness levels are at their lowest.

'Unfortunately, it has been difficult to do anything about that, because we have had no form of measurement. What we do know, though, is that when our season nears its end, clubs ease right back on training, and do next to none from the beginning of April. Actual fitness levels drop dramatically at a time when we are about to go into a European Championship or World Cup.

'I have always suspected that England were losing out in terms of general fitness and match fitness, and it is my intention to introduce a programme of fitness monitoring. By the time the World Cup finals come around, we will have had something like 10 intensive fitness tests, as well as the close season tour (to Canada and the United States) in 1993.'

Neil Webb's flabby contribution at the European Championship was cited as an example of the sort of nasty surprise Taylor was anxious to avoid. He explained: 'When we lost to Sweden, in our last game out there, I selected a side which included Webb, who had hardly played a match for Manchester United from March onwards. In the second half the team as a whole lost touch with the pace of the game, and Neil's performance, in particular, was not what was needed, through no fault of his own.

'We had no way of knowing what would happen beforehand. The fitness programme should change that.'

Hmmm. United had left Webb out of the title run-in because of his lack of mobility, and even the most casual observer in Sweden could see that he was carrying some extra baggage around the middle. In short, no one should have needed 'fitness monitoring' to know that he would not be tearing around after the Swedes like a latter-day Alan Ball.

In any case, are we sure that we are sending out the right signals here? Improving fitness is all very laudable, but is stamina really England's most pressing problem? There was not too much wrong with Leeds United's leg or lung power in midweek, when they steam-rollered Stuttgart into panic. Have we run up the white flag on technique?

The defeatist argument is that it is much too late, at international level, to improve players' skills. By the time they play for their country they are the finished article. Take it or leave it.

It is not a theory to which the Continentals subscribe, as visitors to Spain's training sessions before their victory over England in September will testify.

Javier Clemente, the Spain manager, sets great store by individual coaching clinics, but perhaps the greatest difference between Spanish practice and ours is their emphasis on explosive speed off the mark rather than perpetual motion.

Clemente insists on everything, all passing and movement, being done with one-touch zip. Spanish fly, so to speak. Not for him the pause on the ball followed by the telegraphed punt up the middle.

A great admirer of some aspects of British football (he studied coaching under Bobby Robson at Ipswich), the Spaniard believes England should be concentrating on modernising their ideas and changing their pattern of play. There are enough physical jerks already.

He said: 'The long ball should be just one option, but against us England used it as the basis of their game. If you have defenders who are good in the air, you should not lose to them.

'I love the aggression and the fighting spirit of English football. My heart wants them to do well, but my head tells me they must not play so much long ball. They must change their style to get better. They are not as good now as they were at the last World Cup.'

Clemente offers Paul Gascoigne as England's salvation. 'One man can never make a team, but he would help because he would demand that the ball be played through him, not over his head.'

Unfortunately, Gazza is less likely to last the 90 minutes now than Webb was in Sweden, and the fitness fad will probably deny him an emotional return to Wembley, where he wrecked his knee, and so nearly his career, 17 months ago.

For the moment, Taylor seems more inclined to give him 'no minutes', as he put it, than the 45 in which he might win the match.

Get fit quick, Gazza. The last thing we need in these despondent times is another 'Lord Nelson, Winston Churchill, Maggie Thatcher, your boys took a hell of a beating' from the Ben Elton of Norwegian commentators.

(Photograph omitted)