Football: Where are the sons of invention?

As they labour in search of inspiration, England turn to an old remedy - Play It Again, Gazza

ONE OF Kevin Keegan's gravest disappointments was England's dearth of notable success during his international playing career. "It was a barren era," he once reflected. You pondered on that evaluation as he stood alone, in front of his coterie of coaches, on a balmy, sometimes barmy night in the Bulgarska Armia Stadium in Sofia, hand clasping, alternately, chin or forehead, surveying the desert of uncertainty before him like a would-be T E Lawrence.

Odd that Keegan, as England coach, should oversee such sterility as he himself experienced a particular Eastern European tour under Joe Mercer a quarter of a century ago, an adventure he compared with the Cliff Richard film, Summer Holiday. That contained a 1-0 defeat of Bulgaria in the same city, rocker-cum-striker Frank Worthington claiming the winner. In comparison to the demob-unhappy contribution of his improvised team here it was utter bliss.

As an England player Keegan could frequently drink at such welcoming oases. Now, any performance that hints at panache and authority, like the 3-1 defeat of Poland - his sole victory to date - appears to be little more than a mirage to delude us that all is propitious within the national game, similar to those against Argentina under Glenn Hoddle and Holland under Terry Venables.

In his heart, Keegan probably expected nothing else from his foray into national coaching. "Uniformity of standard has dogged England for years," were his words only a couple of years ago, unaware that he would soon be beseeched by the FA to provide a stand-in for a fatally-wounded Glenn Hoddle. "The trouble with English football is that it breeds numbers, a deluge of footballers, but at the level the League demands. And that is not good enough for us to take to the next stage internationally."

You suspect that, privately, Keegan has not veered radically from that view as he leads his team into the sandstorm of Euro 2000 qualification with his players departing not with optimism, but like a dromedary, carrying a spectacularly large hump because their technique has been questioned. The problem is that these players have become familiar with having their performances lauded in the Premiership while the more comprehensive examination of an international suggests their self-esteem is, in some cases, mightily misplaced. As Johan Cruyff, attending Wednesday's game to honour Hristo Stoichkov's valedictory performance for his country, contended afterwards when it was put to him that Keegan may have erred tactically: "Tactics come at the end; first you need the quality."

That is why any sensible evaluation of England's failings must concentrate on the fact that this football-crazed nation can consistently produce ball winners yet can develop precious few adept and visionary distributors and keepers of the ball at international level. It is an indictment of our youth coaching system which prepares players for the sheer pace and fury of the Premiership that makes it so watchable, but not for the more sophisticated demands of world football. (The fact that Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United flourished in Europe does not necessarily detract from the argument. He managed, with the quality players at his disposal, to synthesise Premiership power play with a more sophisticated European approach). That uncomfortable truth must be contemplated rather than berating Keegan who, predictably, has, in the matter of a few days, gone from being lionised to chastised, lightly for now, but presumably with rising intensity should England prove to be the pits again in the coalfields of Katowice three months hence. On Wed-nesday, there was only so much he could accomplish with the scarce resources available.

All is not totally bleak. While results over the last year must by now have convinced even a card-carrying nationalist that England's claim to first world status has been overstated - partly because of United's exploits - at least in the forward line England boast prowess to hold their own in most company, though nothing to compare with the strutting, crowd-manipulating excesses of a Stoichkov.

Yes, the Bulgarian captain could be a show pony, but when you've got his number of rosettes and can still raise a gallop to compete with the world's best, you're permitted certain indulgences. Better that, it might be said, than too many England performers who have resembled shire ponies.

Fortunately, captain Alan Shearer's indefatigable style - notwithstanding an inclination to deploy an elbow-first approach against a particularly attentive opponent, like Bulgaria's Rossen Kirilov - continues to make his presence of crucial value to England, together with Michael Owen, with Chris Sutton or Dion Dublin in the wings. In defence, too, you might pluck any four from Sol Campbell, Gareth Southgate, Martin Keown, Tony Adams, Graeme Le Saux and Rio Ferdinand, the brothers Neville, Gary and Phil, and now Jonathon Woodgate to deny all but the best.

But it is in midfield that the conundrum is seemingly insolvable. One of the irritations of Keegan's role is that "you cannot just scour the world for an inventive midfielder". That, above all, has proved an omission impossible for the current coach and his predecessor. Several times in the past week, Keegan has alluded to the missing ingredient of invention. It is not so much the mother of invention, but a godfather of footballing gifts that is a necessity.

While many teams have prospered without one, the absence of a midfielder blessed with virtuosity, maybe a Paul Gascoigne in his pomp, a Glenn Hoddle at his most creative, or a John Barnes at his most purposeful, will continue to find England wanting. In fact, frankly, even a Gascoigne whose powers are on the wane would suffice at present. Lest we forget, the enigmatic Geordie prankster has only just turned 32 and although there has been a manifest decline in his acceleration, there was encouragement from Keegan that Gascoigne might not have pulled on his last England shirt a year ago against Belgium in Casablanca. There are those of us who have since harboured doubts whether "Play It Again, Gazza" will ever be his theme. But then perhaps we hadn't predicted the desperate straits to which England have descended.

On Wednesday, Jamie Redknapp failed yet again to find accurately his team-mates or provide inspiration as England suffered. As Cruyff observed wryly: "He is failing with so many passes it is absurd." West Ham's Joe Cole may be England's salvation, eventually, but he is only 17 and has barely won his irons for West Ham. Alternatively, the time may not be too far removed before both Sir Alex and King Kev will consistently bring David Beckham into the central midfield, though the United man, crosser supreme that he is, has yet to demonstrate that he is consistently capable of releasing the penetrating ball of a Gascoigne at the highest level.

In the likely event of Gascoigne remaining a treasured, but flawed, England memory, Keegan and his supporting team face a rigorous test of their tactical acumen to circumvent the absence of a true playmaker. In Sofia, there was not so much a failure of tactics, despite deploying the full gamut of three centre-backs, a flat back four and, ultimately, a return to that subtle old English gambit "knock it long", as a misfunction in too many individual performances. However, you might well question the removal of the Leeds prodigy, Woodgate rather than Michael Gray, who began competently in his wing-back position, but by the end was consistently outwitted by Radostin Kishishev.

Keegan's mentor Bill Shankly was fond of proclaiming that, "football is a simple game complicated by coaches", and England's current head honcho has always been perceived as an advocate of laissez faire rather than a strict strategist. We all knew what we were getting when Mohamed Al Fayed bequeathed him to a grateful nation. He was the man for a particular moment, who established the right tone, an articulate, charismatic character who could maintain harmony within his camp, but not one to plot the finer detail of a campaign. Venables would have been the man for that, but he was discounted.

Instead, it is the FA's technical director, Howard Wilkinson, who dominates training sessions with hand gestures, stopwatch and clipboard in place of a baton and clearly has a substantial role in orchestrating matters, on-field as well as off, although it concerns many that neither the former Leeds manager nor Keegan's assistants Derek Fazackerley and Arthur Cox are exactly steeped in the international game.

Although he clearly leans heavily on Wilkinson, Keegan refutes inferences that the latter's influence is too pronounced. "If I found the situation stifling I would have changed it before now," he said. "Howard is a tremendous help and has never done anything I have not asked him to. He does a lot of preparation because that is his domain. I pick the team and nobody interferes. Blame me because the buck stops here."

No doubt they will if it all disintegrates on 8 September and England find themselves Poles apart from qualification. It will be Keegan, not Wilkinson, who could turn from Mr Motivator into the Fall Guy. But casting him aside would not alter the inescapable truth that our League has spawned quantity at a certain level, not quality. Until we address that fact, Keegan and those who follow him will continue to survey the vista with frustration.

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