Football: `We let down ourselves and the whole country'

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THE COUNTENANCES of the England players were as grim as the performance. They shuffled up Wembley's tunnel heads down, anxiously searching for ways to avoid eye contact. "Any chance of a word?" You did not need to hear the reply, the body language had already repulsed any approach.

If they had not had the mother of all rollickings by Glenn Hoddle and his coaching staff then they looked like schoolboys making for the the headmaster's study to receive one. Everyone wants to talk after a victory but few like to dwell on disappointments. It had been a 0-0 draw against Bulgaria but the demeanour spoke of defeat.

Perhaps the players were as baffled as the crowd about the dismaying descent from the vibrancy of England at France 98. Or the tactics, the biggest innovation of which was to move a tiring 32-year-old Robert Lee to right wing-back when the need for width and surges down the flank had gone from the crying to the screaming stage. If they were, none was saying and those who did speak repeated the word "disappointed" as if it was a magic charm that could erase an unpleasant echo that was the England fans chanting "What a load of rubbish" as they had left the pitch and made their opposite way up the tunnel at the end.

Even John Gorman, the assistant whom Hoddle has acknowledged as a constant source of brio, was deflated. "I'm always bubbly," he said, "but it's hard when we don't win. Bulgaria frustrated us, they got everybody behind the ball and made things very difficult.

"We started off great but didn't score. It's always difficult at Wembley if you don't get an early goal and the longer the game goes on the more difficult it becomes. We didn't test their goalkeeper enough or create enough chances."

Would Hoddle need lifting after such a limp performance? "Everyone's human," he replied. "Glenn wanted to win badly and, of course, he's disappointed. He knows it wasn't a good performance and we have to get stronger but there's still many games left."

Lee, whose performance as the tidier-up in front of the back three should escape criticism, believed the players rather than the manager should face the flak and it was a theme taken up by Gary Neville, another rare success on the day. "We didn't just let Glenn Hoddle down," he said. "You don't go out just to play for one person but yourselves and the whole country. We let everyone down."

The chief cause of the bewilderment was a failure to create opportunities. England boast strikers who, allegedly, are the envy of the world yet after Michael Owen had missed three half-chances at the start he and Alan Shearer were cloaked in anonymity by a Bulgarian side who had lost 3-0 to Poland.

"Apart from the the first five minutes we didn't threaten their goalkeeper," Gareth Southgate said, "we didn't build on our beginning. I can't say why, I'd prefer to have a look at a video and analyse it then but I don't think the Bulgarians were as poor as was suggested in the build-up.

"It's not very nice being booed off the pitch but you expect it if you don't get the right result. The supporters showed their displeasure at the end but no one is more disappointed than the players."

Southgate and Neville were both relieved the next England game is imminent - against Luxembourg on Wednesday - and they will not have to brood over Saturday. The latter could see a cure to the lack of chances in the return from suspension of David Beckham. "It's up to the manager who he picks," he said, "but a quality of David's game is creating chances and taking them himself. It'll be a stronger pool of players for the manager to select from."

Gorman was also anxious to leave Saturday behind, saying: "We start straight away, you have to be positive. We know we can improve on that performance and we'll be sitting down with them to discuss what went wrong.

"The players are down now but it won't be hard to get the banter going. Normally it's easy and I don't see why it should be different now. We have strong characters in the squad and you have to remember we didn't lose."

It just felt like England had and the supporters who remained at Wembley to jeer Hoddle as he left appeared to have problems recognising the difference too. Their faces, as they urged the national coach to resign, were grim too.