Football: The reign of Taylor the Irrelevant: As England stumble from one humiliation to another, they face the prospect of being left behind by the leading football nations. Norman Fox reports from Washington DC

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The Independent Online
FORTY-FIVE minutes in the RFK Stadium here on Thursday night told the whole story. With probably half a dozen of next summer's World Cup squad unavoidably detained elsewhere or not even chosen to come to the US Cup 93, Brazil took a three-goal lead over the world champions, Germany, and played football from the original land of dreams. England's public and Graham Taylor's personal nightmare suddenly seemed irrelevant. But what is worse, the football England now play is also seen as a comparative irrelevance, for which Taylor must take a measure of blame, and as a result of which if humiliation comes against Brazil today and Germany next Sunday he will be required to offer his resignation.

Such a gesture by Taylor would offer no guarantee of immediate improvement or long-term optimism because in spite of everything that has been said over the last few days, none of the accusations against Taylor is more serious than the indictment of those who have allowed the technique of players in Britain to fall ever-further behind the likes of Norway and the US who, in the last two matches, have deserved to capitalise on England's fallibility.

The fact is that because of England's lamentable performances against the United States and, more importantly, in Oslo, the world at large is now looking at them with sniggering derision. The Football Association and Taylor may not be able to turn carthorses into Derby winners but sooner or later someone at Lancaster Gate will have to countenance the transfer of power from Taylor and his forlorn, ever-increasing backroom staff, to people who have the experience and strength of character to draw out what few assets England still have internationally and stop thinking that good public relations can do anything more than sweeten the inevitable.

Taylor and his equally equable captain, David Platt, repeatedly say that a fresh beginning is just around the corner. More likely they will simply meet another group of more sophisticated and better organised players coming the other way: the exotic Brazilians, Germany, Poland and the Netherlands are all queuing up. Taylor insists he will see out the World Cup qualifying competition, and so he should, but not if English fans - never mind overpaid players - are humiliated again here by the pragmatic Germans and exciting Brazilians.

In that event it would be incumbent on Taylor to resign immediately and for the FA to invite a caretaker to come in to salvage some hope of qualification. The name of Ron Atkinson has been mooted and in the short term that could be a worthwhile part-time appointment, though the problems of his dividing duties between Aston Villa and England are formidable. In the longer term, a personal preference would be for Gerry Francis and Ray Wilkins to take responsibility as manager and coach, both having proven records as internationals and Francis having achieved remarkable things at QPR on a tight budget.

Not you that would wish English football's problems on anyone. Taylor insists that what we saw from the likes of Erik Mykland in Oslo and Thomas Dooley in Foxborough - let alone the wizardry of Careca for Brazil - was peripheral: 'All very pretty'. But what he says for public consumption and what he knows to be the situation are undoubtedly unrelated. There was an emblematic moment in Foxborough during England's failure to beat an unexceptional but in several cases individually more talented US team. Ian Wright was 'sledging' the American goalkeeper, Tony Meola, reminding him of an attempt to break into English football with Watford and Brighton. 'You'll never play in England again,' Wright was said to have told him. Meola slung back: 'And you'll not be here next year.' Quicker reactions indicate livelier minds, as Ron Greenwood might have said.

Such incidents coupled with massive bad publicity at home and the hooliganism in Oslo must have placed the FA under oppressive pressure from the England sponsors, especially American Airlines, who surely will have to withdraw if the team fail to qualify for next year's finals. Word has it that in spite of official statements of support for Taylor, there is a division of opinion within the FA's international committee, and certainly the chairman, Sir Bert Millichip, was looking as crestfallen as the players as the defeat by the US unfolded. He was also deeply resentful. Even Sepp Blatter, the European chief, joined a host of powerful and famous voices condemning England for sinking to their lowest depth since the last defeat by the United States 43 years before.

There is a temptation now to ask why it was everything went so horribly wrong after all the promise contained in that draw which should have been a win over the Dutch at Wembley in April. Of course, the fundamental lack of natural and properly educated skill was obvious long before that and England's inability to beat good-quality opponents when it matters has often been touched upon in these columns. However, the hope was that Taylor had made the best out of his meagre resources and genuinely believed he had created something he called 'Club England' - the Wimbledon spirit travelling Club Class. Although the players give public support to the notion that the spirit still exists, the evidence of their performances suggest otherwise. Taylor himself lost his way before the game in Norway and now admits that he disadvantaged the team by making changes too near the day of the match. Now that we have had the opportunity here to see the skills of the evolving Brazilians and been reminded of Germany's awesome ability from almost lost situations, the question of whether England might have eked out a fraction more organisation seems of little consequence internationally - closing a door long after the better footballing nations had left them in a darkened room.

Since Taylor remains the most media-minded England manager there has been, he bravely continues to allow the press the opportunity to quiz and judge him, and almost to a man they still defend his enormous co-operation and equanimity under stress. Most would be loath to see him go, which is a measure of the man's persuasiveness and likeability, not his footballing ability. That said, his statements get more and more convoluted and self-defeating. Of the Oslo debacle, he said: 'If we had won those two earlier home games we would have protected ourselves against the defeat by Norway. But we were surprised by the ferocity of the Polish game and the results since have come on the back of that. Against Poland we battled and got a good result. In the three days before the match in Norway we lost the routine. I decided to make some changes and there wasn't enough time to implant that and when the performance came I could see the players had not taken on board what we had been talking about. I would say that the performance against Poland was not as bad as I myself said. In Oslo we had very poor training facilities and we were left with not enough time. The players seemed happy but it was too late. I have to say there is no rift between me and the players. But if any player says there is, they're not saying it to me, and they're given every opportunity. No, if I had my choice again I would have come home from Poland - even though it would have meant travelling back to Oslo - and gone to Bisham Abbey to sort things out.' (Or perhaps pray).

Though no doubt Taylor's nearest thing to an apology for his own errors is plausible, it fails to alter the fact that apart from the need to replace the suspended Paul Ince, the changes he made were voluntary and psychologically came at exactly the wrong moment. (So why employ a psychologist anyway?) Having achieved some previous continuity in style, to make those last-minute alterations was an invitation to everything that happened in Oslo and here in the United States, where England have not only so far failed to make any improvement but where their lowly standing has been compounded by the vulgarity that now seems endemic in the professional game at home. Regrettably, although Ince has worked a small wonder on his own value to club and country, his aggressiveness makes him a controversial choice to lead England - poor judgement by Taylor, who seems to be becoming a victim of his own loyalty towards certain players. His persistence with John Barnes has gone beyond England's best interests, and his idea that Des Walker had to be brought on against the US because it was necessary for him to play his way back into form, defied tactical logic. Internationals who lose their form should find it again with their clubs.

All we hear now from Taylor, and all he can be expected to say, is that he and England have to get their heads up and battle on. He says the game against the States could have been a three- or four-goal win for England but Meola got in the way. That too easily lets England off the hook. One day Taylor will look back on the smooth diplomacy with which he diverts attention from the real problems and ask why he had to defend the material he was given, and why on the eve of facing Brazil and Germany (who could face each other in the World Cup final a year from now) he was being urged to make further changes, none of which can be seen as anything more than clutching at straws.

In the meantime all of us are trying to explain how England lost to the US. 'Are we that good?' asked Dan, the seen-it-all barman at the downtown Boston Hotel, as he flicked across the channels during a break in the basketball to catch the last item on the local news. 'No, we're that bad,' was the answer. 'Well OK,' said Dan, now happily fully informed. The basketball regained his interest and for the rest of the evening he cast just the occasional mystified glance at a dozen journalists from England all earnestly and loudly debating the downfall of the empire of Taylor.

Defeat by the Americans was no great shakes for Dan, the cocktail king of Boodles bar, or many other people here. It merited a few cynical lines in the national press, and even the soccer 'specialists' pointed out that the US team was managed by a Croatian whose fifth language is English and that the scorer of the first goal was as German as sauerkraut. Desmond Armstrong, the US sweeper, got it about right when he said that at the moment the outstanding teams in the world are Germany, Brazil, Argentina and perhaps Italy. 'After that there's a lot of parity and we've stepped into that area of parity.' And England? 'Oh sure, they're still in that area too.' Oh well, if you can't beat them be thankful for still being among the 'parity'.

(Photograph omitted)

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