Football: 'Unless we go to a system that suits us, four at the back and four in midfield, we might as well get the next plane home'

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The Independent Online
An enterprise which Terry Fenwick remembers with some satisfaction is the dressing-room mutiny he led during the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico when it looked as though England would be humiliated by elimination before the knock-out stages.

At the squad meeting called after a 0-0 draw against Morocco (England were defeated by Portugal in their opening game) that saw Ray Wilkins sent off and Bryan Robson disabled by the recurrence of an old shoulder injury, Fenwick argued boldly against the strategy drawn up by England's manager, Bobby Robson, and his chief assistant, Don Howe.

Pointing out that serious positional problems were being caused for him and his fellow centre-back, Terry Butcher, by the advanced deployment of England's full-backs, Fenwick said: "Unless we go to a system that suits us, four at the back and four in midfield, we might as well get the next plane home." Improving considerably as a result, England qualified by defeating Poland and went on to lose a quarter-final against Argentina.

Considering that football managers generally are averse to outbursts of independence my first thought at the time was that Fenwick had placed his international future in jeopardy. This was possibly the case because although he turned out twice more in the tournament it saw the last of his 19 international appearances.

Incidentally, after confronting Robson, and while still on his feet, Fenwick shot a backward glance to see if anyone was with him. The only voices raised in support were those of Peter Reid, now manager of Sunderland, and the former West Ham centre-half, Alvin Martin. "I'm sure others agreed with me," Fenwick said when we spoke last week, "but it was disappointing that only two had the guts to stand up and be counted."

As Fenwick is now making significant progress as manager of Portsmouth with a further opportunity for advancement on Sunday when Chelsea visit Fratton Park in the FA Cup quarter-finals, a good question is how much independence would he tolerate in the quest for collective understanding. "Well, there has to be room for input," he smiled.

The remark reminded me of a instructive tale told by an outstanding coach, Alan Brown, who managed Burnley, Sheffield Wednesday and Sunderland. "At Burnley one of our most successful free-kicks came from an idea put forward by the shyest apprentice," he said.

One advantage Fenwick holds over the seven other surviving managers in the FA Cup, all of whom have yet to collar a major trophy, is the assistance of a chairman who knows what he is talking about. In for a pound when he took control of Portsmouth recently, Terry Venables was at Derby last weekend running an astute eye over Portsmouth's Cup opponents.

Having grown up under Venables at Crystal Palace along with five other members of the club's youth team who went on to achieve full international status, Fenwick is understandably grateful for his chairman's occasional interventions. "In fact I'd be happy to see Terry on the practice ground more often," he said. "He's got such a terrific mind for the game that you can always learn something from him."

What Fenwick has already proved is that he can stand up for himself in adversity. Earlier in the season, when things were not going well, he came in for a great deal of adverse comment. In common with all managers he discovered that most newspaper critics are naturally perverse, and admiration is wrung from them only by a particularly impressive performance. Hearing the Pompey Chimes does not entirely blank out the fact that it isn't so long since he was under fire from disgruntled supporters.

One thing Fenwick can refute personally is that all those who make a name for themselves in sport today become so conceited as to become unconsciously ungrateful. The youngest, at 35, of the Cup's surviving managers, he said: "It isn't a case of feeling humble, but I appreciate the opportunity that came along here."

Some shrewd signings, including David Hillier, picked up cheaply from Arsenal, the former soldier, Lee Bradbury, and Mathias Svensson, who was a car salesman and part-time professional with Elsborg in the Swedish Second Division until recommended by Ted Buxton, have helped to establish Portsmouth as serious promotion contenders. "That's the most important thing," Fenwick said.

But, of course, it is difficult for Fenwick to keep his player's minds off the Cup. "The closer it gets the larger it becomes," he smiled. "It will be something for them to look back on... the final, I mean."

The next time you see a repeat of Diego Maradona's infamous fisted goal against England in 1986 look who mounts the most vigorous protest, following the referee back to the half-way line. "It still baffles me that the rest of the team doesn't join in," he said. He never was one to go quietly.