Football: The cavalier with a sound head

Keegan, short on time but high on ambition, ushers in an era of adventure allied to common sense
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LIKE THE BUDGET, not many surprises in Kevin Keegan's first squad, just the definite impression you are far better off under this chancellor of England's affairs, even if the nation's balance of players has barely changed since his predecessor departed.

As first nights go, it was a performance of supreme verbal dexterity by a consummate professional who contrived to explain the omission of certain media favourites (like Paul Gascoigne) and the inclusion of those (like Steve McManaman) over whom many observers have harboured doubts, without demur from his audience.

He can spin a line like Alastair Campbell, and ensures that the tabloid demands, in particular, are suitably sated with his promise to bring the warring factions Graeme Le Saux and Robbie Fowler together when his squad meets at Burnham tonight, with the addendum that "you'll be the first to know what happens". He added: "It's not supposed to sound like a threat."

What ensued did sound suspiciously like one, however. "They've got to realise that they've got to come out of that room to my satisfaction, and hopefully to theirs," Keegan stressed. "I want an England squad all rowing the boat the same way, all focused on one thing, getting the set- up right to beat Poland.

"There's always been players who like each other's company, prefer to room together, while others don't see eye to eye. That's not a problem. What would be a problem is if they don't want to talk to each other, don't want to see each other, sit at the same table, don't want to be in the same team in the five-a-side. You never win anything if you're spirit's not right."

Whatever doubts Keegan privately harbours about the job, there is a firmness of manner and a declaration of intent which would cast you as a traitor to query his judgement. He briefly alludes to those in the outer limits of his thinking. A group including Dion Dublin, Steve Guppy, Rob Lee, who failed to reach his final 24. "I'm not going to ring them all up and apologise," he maintained, while insisting that "the door is always open" to those players.

In contrast to the tendency of Glenn Hoddle, caution will not be part of the Keegan glossary as he prepares his men for the Euro 2000 qualifier against Poland on Saturday. "I don't want all the defenders thinking that this guy's going to play all the forwards in midfield and all the midfielders in defence. But I certainly do want to play attractive football, and I think the England fans want that because I've talked to them. If you want a 0-0 draw out in Ukraine, I'm maybe not your man."

He adds: "Ideally, with any team I've got, I want to go forward at any opportunity, but not naively. I will ask defenders really to defend and concentrate and then let the players who have got the ability to open teams up and cause problems. That's what happened at Newcastle, where I got an awful lot of satisfaction from the way we played. That's why other teams like Derby are trying to emulate it. I didn't set out like that, but every time I got a player I thought, `He's got to be in the team.' Management is finding a way to accommodate them."

Nor will he unduly concern himself with the opposition. "My style of management is `What are we going to do'. I'll look at a 20-minute video of everything that Poland are about. That's enough, because the fact is we're at home, it's a game that we must win. I don't watch Fulham's opponents at all; I get my reports in from people I trust. It's the same principle."

He added, intriguingly: "You'll probably get a little more worried when we start playing away to Italy in the future... if I'm back in charge."

Keegan has a starting 11 in his head. "You don't need a degree in journalism to know five or six who are going to play," he says. "It's the other four or five and the balance of the side you'll have to guess at." The one certainty, injury notwithstanding, is Alan Shearer, who has already been named as captain. Although Shearer's goalscoring record for Newcastle (15 goals in all competitions) has been modest of late - an adjective that also applies to his most recent England performances - Keegan has immense faith in the striker he signed from Blackburn.

"I know Alan Shearer, I know he's good enough and I know he's a great player. Despite the fact that some people say he's not had a great season, he's still scored a lot of goals and there's been many changes at Newcastle around him," Keegan said. "The great thing about some of these players is that they have the chance to prove people wrong on a football pitch. That's where they have the control. Sometimes we need criticism. That's what drives some people on. We don't like it, but we think: Hold on. What am I going to do about it?"

Doubts about Michael Owen's fitness would suggest that Andy Cole could start alongside Shearer, although Chris Sutton might prove a better foil. The defence virtually select themselves, with Tony Adams, Sol Campbell and Gary Neville likely to be joined by the in-form, but temperamentally questionable, Le Saux in a back four.

It is in the midfield, particularly with a dearth of naturally left-sided players, where Keegan faces real dilemmas as he attempts to blend ball- winning with creative thrust. Keegan is an admirer of Steve McManaman, who could well be deployed on the left, despite his lack of recent club performances and the concern that his move to Real Madrid is proving a distraction. "It doesn't concern me that he's not in the Liverpool side," Keegan said. "Sometimes he underperforms like we all do, but I know he's a great player. I know he can do things that excite you and win you games."

Otherwise Darren Anderton could provide the counter- balance to David Beckham on the right, although he was disappointing in that role against France. Jamie Redknapp has yet to exhibit his full potential consistently at international level, but his vision could prove vital against the Poles. Either Paul Scholes or Tim Sherwood, who has flourished since joining Tottenham, could be named in the remaining midfield role, although Keegan made much of Ray Parlour's absence from Hoddle's World Cup squad and the Arsenal man has hardly deteriorated since then.

The fascinating aspect to all the conjecture is that the new coach will happily spurn conventional wisdom. Few of his player's preferred positions are sacrosanct. "When you're playing for England you're never able to play exactly the way you'd like, or as you do for your club," he said. "No player in the world is unless you're Johan Cruyff or Diego Maradona. I was certainly never allowed to play exactly where I wanted. I had all sorts of jobs. I had to mark Beckenbauer once; it was a strange role for me and one that I didn't do very well. But even the best players have to compromise. The Andertons have done, and they will continue to do so until the England manager feels there is a real answer to that problem."

Keegan thinks on his feet, able to change direction as skilfully as he used to bemuse defenders. If he feels himself skating on to hazardously thin ice, such as the issue of a player's disciplinary record, his commonest form of escape is to cite himself as an example. There are few indiscretions he has not committed on the field and, as he said, it would ill-behove him to stand in judgement on men like Sutton, having once walked out on Don Revie. Such a background will probably stand him in greater stead with his new charges than a paragon.

Keegan starts with a reservoir of goodwill amongst players, public and media. He also possesses a charismatic presence and a sense of ambition that should inspire any player. Whether he can transform those natural advantages into results is another matter entirely.

He departed from his first squad press conference with the words, "God bless, boys." Strange that Hoddle never said that. But then again, possibly not. England can only hope that Keegan will be suitably buoyed to repeat the words on the next occasion we meet.