Football: The Anglo-Italian league falls short

YOU would never have put your shirt on England beating the Dutch at Wembley last Wednesday, but you might have bet against Des Walker needing to take handfuls of an opponent's jersey in a forlorn attempt to stop what could prove to be the equaliser that put them on the road to elimination from the World Cup. Walker and his fellow Italian-based players are England's link and touchstone with the real world. Their uncertainty is also England's.

Two of the Italian-based members of the squad (Walker and David Platt) are unsure of their futures and Paul Gascoigne is being savaged and blunted wherever he plays. That, combined with the dropping of home points against two of England's big rivals, Norway and now the Netherlands, indicated why Graham Taylor did not join us in our pleasure at seeing such a superb match.

The inquests were long and cheerless. At times it was tempting to stand up and ask why the professional game is played at all . . . surely for the entertainment of those who pay to watch. While most England fans would have joined Taylor and his team in their disappointment at seeing a 2-0 lead wiped away and would want to know why, they also went away talking about that rare commodity, value for money at an international game at Wembley.

If Taylor had noticed that the bulk of the crowd gave both teams a standing ovation he might not have appeared the next morning in such a deeply melancholy mood or treated the media to a few lines from 'Raining in my heart'. What he probably meant was that entertainment and success are not always buddies, except that he forgot to mention the entertainment. He might also have recalled that more than most, the Dutch themselves had suffered from the discovery that compliments and cups are not synonymous.

Over the last few months England had been hoping that a settled squad, the customary boast about being difficult to beat and the recently acquired experience of the three Italian-based players would all gel and bring about a team with traditional virtues plus the originality of Gascoigne, the dependability and athleticism of Walker and the inspiring drive of Platt. That would have offered a fair chance of success at a high level as well as entertainment, but optimism is beginning to wane.

There is nothing wrong with the spirit of the team, which is founded on the determination of the previously underestimated Carlton Palmer, Paul Ince and Tony Adams, who have excelled, though only within the context of early qualifying. Before the Dutch arrived, complaining about injuries but still capable of exposing England's careless midfield play and finding their men with passes up to 50 yards, it was beginning to look as if Taylor had built a side based on something more than Anglo-Italian dependency. Yet once Gascoigne had gone at half- time, the probability that the Dutch would stop worrying about England's potential and concentrate on their own was evident.

Within the tightness of the qualifying group, potential is everything and if Gascoigne continues to look two-thirds of the man he was, except in girth, Walker fails to establish himself in Italy and Platt is a striker one day and midfield player the next, England's possibilities are greatly reduced.

Two games in four days (29 May in Poland and 2 June in Norway) will probably provide a large part of the answer as to whether England qualify. Provided Gascoigne recovers from his cheek injury and there are no other withdrawals, the team will hardly be altered. Taylor says the experiments are over and, barring injuries, all future teams will come out of the present squad. A defensible, even laudable policy, but it offers little hope of seeing the group develop much beyond the stage already reached. Chris Waddle apart, that goes down to availability rather than selection.

The prospects of beating the Dutch and the confident Norwegians on their own grounds, let alone prospering in the United States in 1994, declined on Wednesday not only when Walker made his error but at that moment when Dennis Bergkamp so elegantly volleyed in Jan Wouters' perceptive long pass. John Barnes's free-kick had been a fine individual contribution but the Dutch spread their combined talents so that England were not masters of their own field.

In these days when international teams throughout the world are being weakened by increasing subservience to the demands of league football and club cup competitions, a national side containing Gascoigne, Platt and Walker ought at least to have the ability to make home ground almost impenetrable and be capable of extending a full-strength Netherlands, Germany, Italy or Brazil in the United States a year from now. Last Wednesday certainly saw some signs of improving technique and promise from Les Ferdinand and Paul Ince especially, but every member of the team seemed to be at the limits of his ability. Walker, Gascoigne and Platt were not exceptions.

When Marc Overmars wrong- footed Walker and then beat him for speed, the Dutch knew they had received a bonus, but was it unexpected? On the evidence of those appearances he has made in the Italian league this season, Walker, perhaps through no fault of his own, has been losing the sharpness and confidence he had as a distinguished member of the Nottingham Forest side. It would do him and England the world of good if the rumours that he is likely to leave Italy and rejoin a Premier League club this summer are proved reliable. As Taylor said: 'Going abroad does not necessarily mean you become a better player.' The same could be said of Gascoigne who, though he contributed enough to warrant his place against the Dutch, is still short of pace and is no better technically for his time in Italy. Unlike Platt, who has become a much improved player for his move, Walker and Gascoigne have not noticeably gained from the experience. And neither have England.

(Photograph omitted)

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