Football: Time is on England's side: Romania match highlights extent of the task facing Venables

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The Independent Online
GIVEN that it will be a major surprise if Romania are not back as one of the favourites for the 1996 European Championship, what are the chances of England beating them then? Greater, perhaps, than would appear from Wednesday's 1-1 draw at Wembley.

Romania, though they could have been beaten after they eased up in the later stages, were clearly superior in terms of technique, movement and understanding. However, the comparison is unfair. Many European sides have always had better technique due to the less frenetic nature of most continental football.

Of the Romanian side who were beaten on penalties by Sweden in this year's World Cup quarter-finals, nine started on Wednesday and the other two came on as substitutes. The benefits of nearly two months together preparing for their American campaign - and a 10-day refresher before Wembley - were evident.

After the match Venables pleaded for time. He has 19 months left before Euro '96. Long enough? A look back to the last time England could build a team without the distractions of a qualifying competition suggests it is.

At the equivalent period before the 1966 World Cup, autumn 1964, Alf Ramsey had already been manager for 18 months. During that time he had failed in the 1964 European Nations Cup and was building a second side.

That autumn England played four matches, defeating Wales and Northern Ireland and gaining fortunate draws with Belgium and the Netherlands. The feeling at the time was that England had been disappointing, but were hard to beat.

Of the World Cup-winning side, only George Cohen played in all four games. Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton played in two, Roger Hunt and Gordon Banks one.

It was a time of experimentation, which Venables will remember well: he was given his debut against Belgium. Like others he fell by the wayside. The following spring, Nobby Stiles, Jack Charlton and Alan Ball were given debuts and Ray Wilson recalled.

Even then, with only a year to go, the eventual winning side were only half formed. The defence was in place, but the likes of Derek Temple, Mick Jones and Barry Bridges were all tried and discarded in attack. Only in December did Ramsey introduce the 'wingless wonders' formation. Spain were dumbfounded and beaten 2-0 in Madrid.

By now nine of the Wembley side were on board and Ramsey was down to the tinkering that would see Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters make up the team. It was only in the World Cup quarter-final against Argentina that the team first played together.

Similarly, Bobby Robson's best sides in the 1986 and 1990 World Cup emerged late in the day. In Mexico the Everton axis of Gary Stevens, Trevor Steven, Peter Reid and Gary Lineker was the key factor in reaching the last eight. Yet they combined for the first time in the final group game. In 1990 the sweeper system was adopted only after the tournament had begun.

It is premature to judge Venables now. Wednesday introduced a welcome note of reality. Having failed less than a year ago to qualify for the last World Cup, England can hardly be expected to beat one of the quarter-finalists.

There is already evidence, from his mood rather than his actions, that Venables is feeling the pressure of having several million putative selectors trying to pick his team for him. So far he has avoided pandering to them. He must continue to do so.

Journey to the Cosmos, page 38