Football: Wilko and the power debate
Keegan picked up cones, patted a few backs. Wilkinson did the coaching. So who is in charge?
Sunday 13 June 1999
Hristo, our interpreter, whose father is a bigwig in the Bulgarian Football Union, was equally scathing. "I don't want to upset you," he said in menacing dark Balkan tones, his head tilted at a defensive angle. "But it was typical English game." And he made that up-and-over gesture with his right hand which has become the overriding symbol of route one football.
Bulgarians have a particular attachment to "the English game" in general and, in no special order, to David Beckham, Tottenham and Liverpool. Outside the Hristo Botev stadium in Vratza, a town about 60 miles north of Sofia, where Peter Taylor took his undefeated Under-21 side for the final time, a supporter proudly showed off the tattoos on his impressive biceps; Liverpool on the right, CSKA Sofia on the left. Outside the stadium where England trained the crowds carried old scraps of English football magazines - one, rather bizarrely, a series of aerial shots of English football grounds: Anfield, Hillsborough and White Hart Lane. But the heightened sense of anticipation which England bring to town was sadly diminished by the time a mediocre 10-man Bulgaria had comfortably held the seniors for a draw.
Those in the Football Association who are left after the carnage of the season have some thinking to do, not least Kevin Keegan himself. By the end of his second full game in charge Keegan looked as if he had wandered on to the wrong film set. He had spoken his lines and now he wanted to go home. The vestiges of the feelgood factor prompted by his arrival lay on the decaying running track at the CSKA stadium along with the discarded water bottles and a fading red rose. Keegan's well-thumbed library of texts on man- management techniques might prove ideal holiday reading this summer. Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R Covey, an American management guru, is one of his favourites and a flick through the index should lead to the relevant sections on delegation and chain of command. The current England structure is riddled with confusion.
At training, Keegan picked up the cones and patted a few backs. Howard Wilkinson, the technical director of the Football Association, did what little coaching there was. So who is in charge? On the sidelines, the England players would have seen Arthur Cox, Derek Fazackerley, Keegan and Wilkinson and enough clipboard-wielding extras to staff a Cecil B De Mille movie. And when Wilkinson takes over the Under-21 side, which is the effect of Peter Reid's absurd appointment as a part-time manager, can he possibly give his full attention to both teams? Wilkinson is an astute politician and his empire is growing by the minute, but his one attempt at senior management ended in embarrassingly comfortable defeat by France. He cannot, as one FA insider put it, be everywhere at once.
Those FA officials who ventured the scenic route over the mountains to Vratza for Peter Taylor's final game in charge of the Under-21s found the one England side displaying some elementary understanding of the tempo and mentality of international football. Perhaps they will ponder the reasons for that. Taylor's makeshift side had a decent shape, a strong - if largely negative - sense of purpose, played at recognisable continental pace and showed clear signs in little choreographed patterns of play of a skilled coach's hand, qualities which hardly shone from the seniors 24 hours later. Richard Cresswell, for example, the young centre-forward recently transferred from York City to Sheffield Wednesday, returned from Vratza with bumps and bruises all over his body and a priceless education in the art and craft of man-marking.
Taylor had anticipated the difficulties. "I told Richard before the game that he was going to have some horrible little Bulgarian treading on his toes for 90 minutes," he said. "I told him he's not got to run straight for the ball all the time because the guy's going to be right behind him, so he has to get him to take his eyes off the ball for a moment, to think of different ways of losing his marker and he did well.
"In Hungary, we played up country in nightmare conditions and I said to the team that in five years time they could be back here playing in a World Cup qualifying match. That's the way I wanted them to look at it. And I've learnt about it over the last three years. I know how to coach people to get rid of their markers, not just on the training ground but from watching games, and I'm not going to pass that on now, am I? The next bloke in is going to have to learn it all from scratch."
France's recent success has been based on continuity of technical instruction and personnel, through Aime Jacquet, Gerard Houllier and now Roger Lemerre. In any other country in the world, Taylor would have been groomed to take over the full international manager's job in five years. The English way is to knock down the sand castle and start all over again, wasting a ludicrous amount of hard-earned international experience.
Whether members of the Under-21 team graduate to the full England side or not - and the connections were closer under Glenn Hoddle and Taylor than they had ever been - the results of the side in qualifying for the Under-21 European Championship - played six, won six, with a goal difference of 17-0 - more than justified Taylor's appointment as the first full-time manager of the Under-21s. More touching even than the round of applause he was given in the bare little dressing room in Vratza or the individually signed team photo which will doubtless take pride of place in his home back in Thorpe Bay was the question asked privately by several of his young players. "Can I still phone you sometime?"
"I think the job is full-time," says Taylor. "Sometimes I looked at a player four games on the trot just to see how he handles himself when he's playing badly. I don't blame Peter Reid for wanting to get involved because he'll be working for his country, but it will be Howard's business to look at players and he's got a lot of other things on his mind."
Talent identification, international education and, yes, a little bit of personal attention for young men often cast adrift in big clubs, a sympathetic voice on the other end of a phone. Taylor provided all those services and is now waiting anxiously for his own phone to ring. It would serve the FA right if their most successful international coach took his talent abroad where his more subtle approach might be better appreciated. "I'm not the crash, bang, wallop sort of manager," added Taylor. "I'm not going to be throwing tea-cups. I want to win matches, but it's not all about that. It's all about development and performance." Either way, Taylor's removal smacks of political expediency. Young England players will now be exposed to the expletive-ridden exhortations of Peter Reid, which is not exactly a ringing endorsement of Howard's way forward.
Experience shows that international sides thrive on conformity of method. Whatever his other faults, Hoddle had a clear vision of how he wanted his sides to play. In the space of four days, Keegan has switched from 4-4-2 to 3-5-2. He chose the more adventurous side to play away from home, which might have worked in gung-ho days at Newcastle but hardly inspired great confidence in his clarity of thought at international level where tactical sophistication is not simply a matter of putting out the 11 best players and telling them to go and enjoy themselves. Not unless you happen to be Cruyff's Holland or Beckenbauer's Germany anyway.
Simplicity has been Keegan's hallmark, one of his ineffable strengths. He is an enthusiast not a mechanic. For a moment under Terry Venables and Hoddle, England adopted a superior technical and tactical approach. England's football against Sweden and Bulgaria was not just thoughtless and predictable, it was ugly. That will offend Keegan more than anything.
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