Football: Time to sacrifice the sacred cows

As the gateway to Europe turns into a back-door, Keegan faces dilemma of alternative choices

HOW QUICKLY an England footballer metamorphoses from strutting peacock, preening his feathers outside Wembley's home changing-room, to a turkey bound for plucking. Kevin Keegan's players managed it in four days, as all but the more deluded among us had suspected they would.

After Luxembourg, much had been depicted as fragrant in the garden of English football; now, from the travelling supporters - and these, remember, are the hardcore jingoists - awaiting their release from captivity behind goal at Legia Stadium, Warsaw, long after the goalless draw, there was nothing but the stench of bitterness, every bit as acrid as that of the spent flare cartridges littering the ground. Alan Shearer, both as captain and as a striker who could not muster a single opportunity, was inevitably the recipient of most of the hostility, but there were a few others whose treatment suggested they should avoid open oven doors in the run-up to Christmas.

The aftermath was not an aesthetic spectacle, any more than David Batty's crude folly, or the participation of a number of followers in retaliatory acts against Polish provocateurs, which further stigmatised England.

But such an evening should not be regarded in isolation. It was all very consistent with an England team who have proved themselves ill-disciplined - three dismissals and numerable yellow cards in eight Euro 2000 qualifiers is indefensible - and whose qualities are largely illusory. Just as they have been down the years since a World Cup triumph which spawned a belief that most opponents were somehow unworthy. It was a sentiment encapsulated by Shearer, who had predicted: "We'll win in Warsaw, because we're England."

If the captain's bravado was unfounded, the outcome could have been worse. England could have capitulated, and we could have witnessed a manager under siege. Though not a professor of tactical acumen, Keegan has maintained equilibrium with astute politics, a touch of the Blair philosophy of being many things to all men. Long afterwards, the supporters' chants - "Only one Kevin Keegan" - still assailed the ears of the pugnacious little general, even though the coach himself was probably chanting a mantra akin to: "Just one Paul Gascoigne in his pomp, only one natural left-sided midfielder..."

Despite everything, few question his apotheosis and that remains one of England's strengths. Certainly, he has learnt from those before him that you criticise your players publicly at your peril, particularly if you are first and last a motivator. Though it was clear to all concerned that Steve McManaman had not enjoyed the most scintillating of nights, Keegan refused steadfastly to endorse the clamour. "I'm sorry, but I don't slag players off even if they deserve it. I'm certainly not going to slag them off when they don't," he retorted. "My greatest asset is to build teams up, find the key to players."

Yet for all such protestations, we began to witness in Keegan's subdued tone the full realisation of his task, which will become ever more daunting as the European club league, which starts this week in everything but name, increasingly begins to reduce internationals to sideshows.

Keegan faces the same absurd over-expectation that has challenged every England manager since Alf Ramsey's men claimed 1966 as their own. "I look at the Premiership every Saturday, and apart from teams like Aston Villa with seven or eight English players, you find that out of 22 players at most on average seven are English. Take out those not of England quality and you will come to same conclusion as me. Yes, there's enough talent there to qualify for Euro 2000 and go and win it - there is, honestly - but there isn't that massive abundance coming through that we thought we had 10 years ago."

Keegan tends to contradict himself, but the point emerges through his natural optimism, that the dearth of quality which restricted England when he was a player remains. In that context, Euro 2000 has hardly been atypical of the last 33 years.

While it might have be going too far to suggest that it needed the Poles really to rub our aloof up-tilted noses in it, England must disabuse itself of the notion that it is a world colossus undone by under-achievement.

Of course, it is conceivable that the nation will enter Euro 2000 by default. Sweden will not want to see their unbeaten record in Group Five dented, although you cannot imagine that the coach Tommy Soderberg will entreat his men to indulge in career-threatening tackles against such formidable opponents.

By 10 October, when England face Belgium at the Stadium of Light, the day after Sweden and Poland have decided their destiny, the England coach will either be planning for the start of a 2002 World Cup campaign or preparing for the low countries next summer via a knock-out tie in November. Either way, he has to expedite the passage of youngsters with potential, although they must be introduced alongside established players. There must be a fast-track to the future, not to oblivion. But it will require him to contemplate the hitherto unthinkable and slaying one or two sacred cows. Both Shearer and McManaman could be destined for abattoir holding pens. Michael Owen, you feel, will not truly flourish while riding shotgun to the England captain while McManaman, who is more dragonfly than dragon, continues to disappoint.

It has been an educational few months for the man from Mohamed who it was assumed could move mountains. How we chortled along with him when that spirited adventurer, the man who had thrown together David Ginola, Les Ferdinand and Tino Asprilla, remarked: "If you want a 0-0 draw in Ukraine, I'm not your man." No, but if you didn't want one in Poland, he was your man.

His teams have conceded two goals in five games, but rather more pertinent is the lack of goals other than those deposited in the Luxembourg net. Ah, yes. Let us be thankful for the Grand Duchy, who can always be guaranteed to enhance England strikers' statistical analyses.

While there is hardly a plethora of high-class England forwards, the time has surely come to investigate alternative combinations not involving Shearer. Chris Sutton, Dion Dublin, Emile Heskey, and even the teenagers Francis Jeffers and Alan Smith merit close inspection, along with John Gregory's prodigy Darius Vassell. Yet, even with their keenest edge, all would be hard-pressed to produce a satisfactory harvest from a midfield which ploughs and scatters so little.

The absence of a central control-freak on Wednesday, a player with the wit and prowess to probe and torment a defence (in short a Gascoigne, six years younger, fit, and devoid of alcohol problems) was all too manifest. A feeling prevails that England will not prosper until he materialises.

The problem is that the missing link is not even under production, or not in Keegan's mind, beyond the possibility that David Beckham may eventually immerse himself in the role or that Joe Cole - still only 17 - could grow into it. Jamie Redknapp has yet to persuade us of such capability, but Keegan could do worse than place Frank Lampard, a mainstay of the Under-21s, under his microscope. The coach does not appear convinced.

"Apart from Joe Cole, who is there?" he asked. "There's Kieron Dyer, who's very exciting and can play in a number of positions but I'm not sure this is one of them. Young Lampard as well, who can open the game up. But there's nobody strong enough to me, yet. There aren't many Gazza- types around, in any country. They're a rare breed. Until we rediscover someone who we can say about, `Hey, let him run it' and work off him, you've got to do the things I'm doing now, which is try sometimes a square peg in a round hole."

He refers specifically to McManaman being deployed on the flank alien to his natural inclination. "We do struggle for a left-sided player and Steve McManaman gives it his real best shot," said Keegan. "I look at others and I haven't got an abundance to choose from. I asked him to do a job for me for England, and I'm taking something away from him by asking him to do that."

Fortunately, there are no such dilemmas regarding his rearguard, not with Tony Adams, and - God bless him - even Stuart Pearce, emerging from Wednesday night as crucial performers. The injured Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell and the teenager Jonathon Woodgate will also have a say in future squads, which Keegan is anxious will include Adams.

"I've always said we've discarded players too early," he reflected. "Players who might not make next World Cup, but could help someone along the way, like Bobby Moore did. Tony Adams was outstanding and it's my job and Arsene Wenger's to convince this guy that he's got an awful lot left in him. Looking at Tony now, he could play another five years at this level because he is so clever."

That's a quality that Keegan will himself require if fortune somehow provides him with the platform to pursue an interest in Euro 2000 and demonstrate that England's finest are not really turkeys, but game birds.

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