Football: Taylor uses bulldogs to leave doghouse

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The Independent Online
TEN short weeks after slamming the front door on a cruel world and seeking solace in man's best friend, Graham Taylor comes out of the doghouse on Monday to nominate the players he wants to fight for his future as England's manager.

A summer which began with ignominious defeats at the hands of Norway and the United States, and threatened to break his managership, ends with a call to arms for the World Cup ties which could be the making of it.

Three points from the next two games, against Poland and the Netherlands, and the villain will be a hero.

Having turned to the family pooch, Major, for comfort in his hour of need ('he always jumps up and gives me a friendly lick, regardless of what has happened'), Taylor is expected to put his faith in a bulldog of the two-legged variety for the first of the three remaining qualifiers, at home to the Poles on 8 September.

Stuart Pearce has been much missed these last eight games, for that clenched-fist leadership as much as his combative full-back play. With the Nottingham scowler cussing and cajoling them, England would never have run up the white flag in Oslo.

Defeat there, and by the United States and Germany in the US Cup, has left Taylor further than ever from the settled side he wants, but he is long on loyalty and continuity, and changes will, as usual, be kept to a minimum.

Pearce and Ian Wright will be back after injury, probably Rob Jones, too, but the well of talent is depressingly shallow, and selection is not so much take your pick as a round-up of the usual suspects.

The grapevine is alive with the alarming rumour that John Fashanu is back, presumably on the basis that there is no one better to give Poland the elbow, but it seems highly unlikely. Taylor has walked into worse traps than Custer, but even he could spot the charges of recidivism which would come with Wimbledon's thud- and-blunder centre-forward.

To begin at the beginning, the goalkeeping scenario epitomises the selectorial dilemma. Tim Flowers and Nigel Martyn, who both played in the US Cup, and David Seaman, who missed the trip, are at least as good as Chris Woods, who owes his status as No 1 to experience more than form. Four rivals, all much of a muchness, with no truly outstanding candidate. A microcosm of English football.

Right-back has long been considered the problem position (as if there was only one), but the solution would appear to be at hand. Just about everyone in the country has been chorusing 'If Lee Dixon plays for England, so can I'. Everyone, that is, bar Rob Jones, the young man who was hailed as a major arrival after a precocious debut against France, 18 months ago.

Shin splints then kept him out of the European Championship, and that second cap has been a long time coming, but his performance for Liverpool against Tottenham in midweek was a timely indication that he has recovered form, as well as fitness, and England will be the stronger for his return.

Earl Barrett, Paul Parker and the convalescent David Bardsley are also worthy of consideration. From famine to feast.

There is no shortage of decent alternatives right across the back-four, with Pearce and Tony Dorigo covered by Nigel Winterburn on the left and Gary Pallister - one of the few plusses to come out of the US Cup - and the combative Neil Ruddock challenging the Adams-Walker axis in central defence.

It is in midfield that the trouble starts, in the ample shape of You- know-who. Gazza will be there, Taylor has already assured the flawed genius of that, but in what condition, and in what capacity?

The manager, quite properly, has been prepared to formulate his strategy around the country's most gifted player, creating what he calls an umbrella to protect him, supply him and absolve him from the defensive responsibilities incumbent on lesser mortals.

This special treatment is fair enough, as long as Gascoigne does his stuff where it matters most - in and around the opposition's penalty area. The grand design falls down when his suspect fitness prevents him from shouldering even this reduced workload, rendering him an expensive passenger.

The poverty of his performances in Poland and Norway, when England needed him most, was such that a dressing-room row with Carlton Palmer left him in tears, and subsequent revelations about his drinking and the bingeing and purging regime which has his weight fluctuating wildly added disturbing credence to the fears Taylor has expressed about his future.

The temptation must be to leave him out, and plump for reliability and good old 4-4-2, but to omit a potential matchwinner and lose would stir up a storm of criticism next to which the old turnip top would look positively benign. No, Taylor will pick him - with yet another warning about the perils of the dietary disorder known as Gazza-entiritis.

The umbrella will have the usual spokes: Ince (the first name on the teamsheet these days), Palmer (a necessary evil), and the ubiquitous Platt. A seat on the bench would be a little hard on Andy Sinton, who was neat and effective against Brazil and Germany, but such will be his fate, with additional back-up furnished by David Batty and Trevor Steven.

Wright proved that he can score for England with that equaliser in Katowice, and the Arsenal spitfire is assured of a place in attack, where Les Ferdinand is his likeliest partner. Nigel Clough, in prolific form with Liverpool, would be a more attractive option had his lack of pace not let him down time and again at this level.

Teddy Sheringham, too, had a disappointing start to his international career in Poland and Norway and, as the only member of the US Cup squad not to get a game, he awaits Monday's announcement in hope rather than expectation. Alan Shearer will walk back into the team as soon as he can persuade Blackburn to include him from the start. In the meantime, Ferdinand and Brian Deane head the queue to play alongside Wright, with all-round cover supplied by Paul Merson and Lee Sharpe.

No Fash the Bash? Surely not. Taylor's presence at the Chelsea-Wimbledon match, which fuelled the rumour, probably had more to do with two of his Wimbledon team-mates, John Scales and Robbie Earle.

The squad will strongly resemble the one picked for the Netherlands' visit in April, when England were set fair until Jan Wouters elbowed Gascoigne out of the game. If they can rediscover the compelling form they showed in the first half that night, qualification is still on. If not, Major will have company in the doghouse again.

(Photograph omitted)