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.

The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
Arts and Entertainment
La Roux
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Fellows as John Shuttleworth
comedySean O'Grady joins Graham Fellows down his local Spar
Ross Burden pictured in 2002
Elisabeth Murdoch: The 44-year-old said she felt a responsibility to 'stand up and be counted’'
media... says Rupert Murdoch
Arts and Entertainment
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior / Graduate Application Support Engineer

£26000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful international media organ...

QA Manager - North Manchester - Nuclear & MOD - £40k+

£35000 - £41000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: QA Manager -...

Property Finance Partner

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: LONDON - BANKING / PROPERTY FINANCE - ...

Agile Tester

£28000 - £30000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: An ambitious...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried