Football: World Cup / Time to master the basics

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The Independent Online
Whether he plays from the beginning, which must now be tempting, or comes on for a few minutes at the end, which would be a waste, Paul Gascoigne could conceivably run rings round Norway. Alan Shearer and Ian Wright are capable of completing an improbable rout and England's opening World Cup qualifying match at Wembley next Wednesday could have Graham Taylor portrayed as the manager we never really doubted. Win, lose or draw, he knows he will survive, but to win and have praise heaped upon a recent pile of insults would not cover a stack of misgivings, ours or his.

Having managed to free all but the Leeds players of commitments in the seven days before the match, one of the props of Taylor's defence against criticism is immediately knocked away. Yet the real crux of doubts about the present England (if such a collective term can be used about a 'team' comprising 54 players in 25 matches) is that the backbone will probably consist of players whose clubs are struggling and others who are out of form. In addition David Platt and Des Walker have yet to dominate Italian stages in the way they did the English ones. Mark Wright has rightly lost his place (dropped not, one suspects, because of an obvious loss of form but because of his curious withdrawal just before the European Championship), yet been replaced by a player from Oldham, whose defence is one of the poorest in the Premier League.

That Taylor has to rely on the out-of-form, the infirm and, in some cases, the inferior, could be construed as bad selection and failure to up-grade younger players, but it has more to do with a nationwide failure to treat speed and technique as equals rather than alternatives. In virtually every match England play these days they are second best in ball control.

Unlike 1981, when a Norwegian commentator celebrating a World Cup qualifying match victory told Mrs Thatcher, and every other English notable he could think of, that 'your boys have taken a hell of a beating', there will be no apoplectic reaction if Norway win on Wednesday. As one of their squad said: 'We used to come to Wembley and take photographs of the England players. Not now.' In the event of a Norwegian win, this time the hysteria will come not from the land of the midnight sun but the presses of the midnight Sun. That in itself propagates England's problems. They are turnips if they lose, and orchids if they win. Surely, most of the time they are more like potatoes - old or new, always staple but likely to get skinned.

Since that day in Oslo 11 years ago, Norway have on occasions been formidable (evidence: wins over Italy and the Netherlands). Yet in the same period England have come close to a World Cup final and lost only three times since September, 1990, a record that ought to make beating them still something to celebrate in falsetto. The reality is that there is no momentum, no continuity and a manager who knows that, in spite of all the difficulties he faces, this is the first of three home World Cup matches that, fairly or not, see him on probation for allegedly exacerbating difficulties.

Much of what Taylor says tends to be perplexing but he admits that after his first few matches he realised that continuity was impossible so he would simply look at the available players before each match and produce a team and tactics according to the limitations. So presumably there is only one situation in which we are ever likely to see the same team play in successive matches: they must have played well and all be available. You hardly need to be a born sceptic to doubt that even in those circumstances Taylor would resist the temptation to make changes. The feeling is that the amiable, friendly chatterer is also a compulsive meddler, but until England qualify or fail in the World Cup, there is no point in being dogmatic about the manager's suitability for a job that several successful Premier League managers are already saying they would not take on even if asked.

The friendly against Spain last month brought defeat at the more gifted feet of a young, inexperienced side. England were said to be equally inexperienced (though only in international terms) and certainly it was a makeshift side, but being a regular member of a Premier League team should be enough to stand any player in good stead internationally. Not so. Turks and young Spaniards can now show English players a thing or two about controlling a football. Norway confidently expect to do the same.

Is it reasonable for Taylor to keep saying that because he never knows who is going to be available, there has to be a lot of forgiveness when England get shown up in the basics? We are about to find out. He made tactical errors in the European Championship, and to say that everything went down to a poor second half against Sweden is patently wrong.

After the recent game in Santander he admitted that what was missing was a player who could slow the game and control the midfield. That remark should be framed and hung in every manager's office, not least Taylor's. It took a lot of misleading, unbeaten friendly games, a lost opportunity in the European Championship and a barrel of hyperbole to prise out that confession. In the last 18 months the only player capable of slowing a game has been Nigel Clough, and he never felt England really believed in him. With Gascoigne now returning, the question is whether even he is going to be made the king-pin or become yet another of England's succession of mistrusted talents.

Much depends on his reported new maturity, but one has to remember that when Gascoigne had established himself as the best contemporary English controller of midfield time and space, Taylor still dropped him from the match against the Irish in Dublin - a decision never really explained, though perhaps more to do with keeping Gascoigne from dominating the whole England set-up rather than anything tactical.

So when Gascoigne returns, will Taylor do what none of his predecessors has dared to do and stand by a player who can do anything that comes into his silly, innately brilliant head? If he does not, the potatoes in his squad are incapable of saving his skin.