Football / World Cup: Madness in his methods: World Cup woes: Taylor now needs an outrageous turn-up as Charlton's men seek to overcome a trauma of their own - Richard Williams exposes a lack of tactical awareness

Click to follow
ON THE morning after, someone asked Graham Taylor if he'd now fallen out of love with football. No, he said. Anything but. And for a minute or so he tried to illustrate his denial with an explanation of the fun he has at an England training session, of the thrill he gets from hitting a pass to one of his coaches, Phil Neal - 'a man with 50 England caps]' What it comes down to, he said, is the sheer good feeling of pinging the ball dead-centre. 'Do you know what that feels like? When you ping it - ping] - just right?'

As his exposition belly- flopped in a splatter of unfinished sentences and a flurry of compensating gestures, his audience squirmed. As usual, he didn't quite have the words to match the emotion, but the sincerity - like almost everything about Graham Taylor - was transparent. And it was a long way from that simple feeling, the pure thing any boy learns from kicking a tennis ball against a garage door, to the scene in which Taylor had found himself not 12 hours earlier, on the way home from the 2-0 defeat in Rotterdam.

At Luton Airport, the neon-washed terminal zone of a million disastrous package holidays, it is always two o'clock in the morning and there's no sign of the luggage. So it was after Wednesday night, as clumps of players, officials and journalists hung around in disconsolate little groups. Everybody wanted to be away, to be home. When the clanking conveyor had finally served up his cases, Taylor said goodbye to the remaining members of his squad and set off for the exit. What happened next was still churning around in his mind the next morning.

'You get to the door,' he said, 'and there are lights and cameras everywhere. The first thing is pointed at you, and they start asking about resignation. I say we can talk about that, but this isn't the time. So what do they do? They stick a camera up your nose instead. They're falling over each other, tripping each other up, sticking their cameras up your nose. And you think, what is going on? You want to say to them, so this is your job, to get a picture up someone's nose and then make people trip over? Come on.'

His struggle to push his luggage trolley across the road and into the car park while engulfed in a rolling maul of lights, cameras and microphones seemed a fittingly squalid end to a bad chapter in the story of English football. The epilogue will come some time after 17 November, when England travel to Bologna needing a seven-goal victory over San Marino and a Dutch defeat at the hands of the Poles. Anything can happen, of course, but the likelihood is that shortly after that date the FA's international committee will thank Taylor for his services and pay him off for the remaining seven or eight months of his contract, leaving his successor to contemplate a series of friendly matches leading up to the finals of the 1996 European Championship, for which England qualify automatically, as hosts.

Taylor's mood on Thursday morning was a combination of rueful irony and lurking paranoia when he talked about the possibility of the FA appointing a big name, a former international star in the mould of Franz Beckenbauer or Michel Platini - someone who would concentrate on coaching, to the exclusion of mundane administrative responsibilities. 'The next manager may come in,' he said, 'and not put in half the work, may be paid three times as much as me because of his playing background, might have some charisma, won't have to qualify for the European champs, and get some breaks with a few decisions . . .'

Decisions, decisions. It was utterly symptomatic of Taylor's failure as a figurehead that after Wednesday night he couldn't stop talking about decisions. And talking nonsense. 'Last night wasn't about team selection or tactics,' he said. 'It was about non-football matters, in a sense. Things that are beyond my control.'

It wasn't hard to agree with him about the failings of Karl Josef Assenmacher, the referee, and his linesmen, who failed to reward Frank Rijkaard for his beautiful and perfectly legitimate blind-side run and volley, failed to send off Ronald Koeman for his foul on David Platt, and failed to make an equitable application of the law of encroachment at free-kicks. But the result of the match, and the impact on England's chances of qualifying for the final stages of the tournament, were the consequence of failings far more profound than the immediate effects of a handful of aberrant refereeing decisions. Taylor's inability to perceive the reality of the problem represents a further confirmation of his unfitness for the role into which the blundering mediocrities of the international committee - the true culprits of this affair - ushered him three and a half years ago.

To watch those England training sessions that Taylor so enjoys is to have the problem shoved in your face. Last month at Bisham Abbey, on the weekend before the home win over Poland, the manager divided his squad into two groups, 40 or 50 yards apart. A player from squad A picked out a player in squad B and knocked it over to him, at which point the player who had passed the ball ran over to join squad B. The receiving player in turn picked out a player in squad A, hit the pass, and switched over. This went on until all the players had changed places. Then they had some shooting practice.

What, one thought, was he up to? Do international players really need further training in basic technique? Surely by this stage of their careers the likes of Paul Gascoigne, David Platt and Gary Pallister can pass the ball accurately over 40 or 50 yards while under no competitive pressure? Surely a 20-goal- a-season man like Ian Wright doesn't need target practice?

For an international manager, the task is to give his players a structure within which to operate, and a working knowledge of their team-mates. Fitness and technique are matters for their club coaches. At an England training camp, what the players should be doing, instead of these schoolboy exercises, is spending the days before a match getting used to playing together in full-scale matches against cannon-

fodder, not jolly seven-a-sides on a half-size pitch. Score a dozen goals against a local amateur side, and you may have begun to forge some sort of understanding and esprit de corps.

But at this level Taylor is a poor strategist, and a worse tactician. England's 4-4-2 on Wednesday night showed neither imagination nor, crucially, confidence in his players. Pick your best men, and stick with them: that is the whole of the law. For the umpteenth time since the days of Alf Ramsey, we saw that you cannot wilfully chop and change an England team and expect it to achieve coherence. The manager's mistake in tinkering with his line- up was compounded by his failure to provide the attackers with a sense of what they ought to be doing. Their commitment - like that of the rest of the side - was never in doubt, but whenever they got the ball, Alan Shearer and Paul Merson found themselves having to invent the game from scratch, an intellectual demand that would defeat all but a Pele, a Cruyff, or a Maradona. So compromised were the players by Taylor's deficiencies that discussion of their individual contributions would be pointless.

Dick Advocaat, by contrast, sent the Dutch on to the field with a 3-3-4 formation that was clear, bold and modern, in which each man knew his role. Because of that, it was possible to say afterwards that every single one of them had an outstanding game, from the voracious John de Wolf on the right side of defence to the elusive and economical Bryan Roy on the left wing. So fertile and composed was their play that Dennis Bergkamp, his confidence low after a poor start to his career in the Italian league, was able to play himself back into form, sheer persistence giving him the opportunity to recover his touch in time to score an artist's goal.

Afterwards, amid the Dutch celebrations, there were expressions of sympathy for the losers, but shrewd analysis too. 'I think it was a little bit unlucky for England,' said Leo Beenhakker, the former coach of Ajax and Real Madrid, who managed the Dutch in the 1990 World Cup. 'The situation with Koeman was a red card. But these things happen when you play a series of eight games in a group. And the Dutch played in the old Ajax style. It's logical. The players like it. You don't need four defenders. Holland only used two tonight - because Ronald Koeman isn't a defensive player, he's a libero, creating the play from behind. So eight or nine of the players are being creative. For us, it's the best way to play. For you, too, maybe.'

In which case, there must be no return to the dark ages, meaning no rubbish about 'playing to our traditional strengths'. Coaches like Gerry Francis, Kevin Keegan, Osvaldo Ardiles and Glenn Hoddle must be encouraged to pursue club strategies that are both challenging and comprehensible to the players. Any one of those four would contribute something as England manager. What a shame that Ron Atkinson, the only one of the older generation worth considering, has ruled himself out. He would have combined a relief from neurosis, a love of the game's finer qualities, an international perspective, and a disinclination to succumb to the pressure that has so damaged the equilibrium of the present incumbent that, on Thursday morning, he found himself half- agreeing with a suggestion that the referee's attitude to the England team might have been affected by the pre-match behaviour of their supporters. At which point, compassion overtook the urge to laugh.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments