Football / World Cup: The lost art of escaping a media inquisition

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The Independent Online
DOUBTLESS relishing the astonishment it would cause, Alf Ramsey paused before naming Martin Peters as the 11th member of the team that would represent England against Poland in the final match of their preparation for the 1966 World Cup finals.

As the distribution of shirt numbers suggested to some that Peters, a midfield player, would be on the left wing when making his international debut, a question was immediately put to Ramsey. 'Can you explain the role Peters will be expected to perform,' the England manager was asked? His reply was typically taciturn. 'No,' he said, before rising to leave the room.

Admittedly the concentration of interest is greater now, but it cannot be imagined that Ramsey, or for that matter the Republic of Ireland manager, Jack Charlton, would for a moment have entertained the embarrassing debate Graham Taylor engaged in after announcing his team to play the Netherlands.

Considering that Taylor will be held entirely responsible if England fail to reach the World Cup finals next summer, and is under no obligation to elaborate on selection, his willingness to fence with inquisitors was absurd.

Typical of a management style that unwisely embraces the notion that all sport is a form of public relations, it made you think of how some notably successful figures might have reacted in similar circumstances.

Franz Beckenbauer, when manager of West Germany, imperiously ignored questions he felt to be provocative or beneath his contempt. The great Celtic and Scotland manager, Jock Stein, seldom permitted intrusions upon his thoughts. He simply read out the team, employing the curt preface, 'We are . . . '

Certainly Taylor's performance will ease the anxiety that is reported to exist in the Netherlands' coastal camp some 50 kilometres from Rotterdam.

It must depress many a Dutch supporter to read of dissent, but according to Barry Hughes, disharmony has resulted in some of the best Dutch performances. A Welshman who was transferred from West Bromwich Albion to Blauw Wit, of Amsterdam, more than 25 years ago, and stayed on as a coach before becoming a lecturer on motivation, he said: 'If things are going along sweetly, Dutch teams are always likely to make a mess of things. But when the players are at odds, especially with the coach, then look out]'

In Hughes's mind the biggest mistake England can make is to take the Netherlands on at open football. 'Surprisingly, because some of them are not inclined to take prisoners, the Dutch players are nervous about the physical side of England's game. They expect it to be a hard game and that's exactly what England should attempt to give them.'

From what Hughes learned about Dick Advocaat when they were team- mates with Sparta Rotterdam, he believes that the Netherlands coach will begin cautiously. 'I can't imagine that Dick will want them to go flat out from the start. He is bound to be encouraged by the fact that England have chosen a team without a creative influence in midfield. It surprises a lot of people here that Taylor didn't include one of the older midfield players in the Premier League, somebody like Glenn Hoddle, when Paul Gascoigne was ruled out.'