Football: Young lions show Keegan the way

England's future: The potential is there but national coach must be given time to identify and nurture fresh talent

IT WAS a night of unexpected and occasionally embarrassing results for the old masters of European football. France, the world champions, needed Franck Leboeuf's late penalty to beat Andorra's collection of postmen and taxi drivers.

Dino Zoff's Italy scraped a goalless draw in Switzerland, getting away with a point thanks to Stephane Chapuisat's dreadful misses. In Budapest, the once-invincible, now pitiful Hungary went down to Slovakia, the weaker half of the divided Czechoslovakia. So perhaps we should not be too disappointed that England were held to a 1-1 draw in Sofia on Wednesday, although Bulgaria are the sort of side you have to beat if you want to be thought of as serious contenders in major international tournaments.

For England, it was an unsatisfactory result and a worse performance, confounding expectations raised by the coach's pre-game statements for the second time in four days. As for the Bulgarians, their newspapers were full of praise for the home team's effort in holding on for the draw despite the loss of Martin Petrov after an hour, given a second yellow card for what the coach, Dimitar Dimitrov, described as "an imaginary foul". In Dimitrov's view, Hristo Yovov's failure to tap home Hristo Stoichkov's raking low cross 10 minutes before half-time cost them victory.

Amazingly, England still enjoy a special status among footballing nations, and the Bulgarians hailed their team as heroes for achieving a draw. Georgi Markov, the accomplished centre-half who beat Teddy Sheringham to Stoichkov's cross to head the equaliser, said that never in his dreams had he imagined that he would score against England.

Partly this is an anachronistic consequence of England's role in the game's origins, and partly it is the more recent by-product of the box- office appeal of the Premiership, with its unsophisticated thrills and spills and its guarantee of whole-hearted endeavour. Around the streets of Sofia, you could see more boys wearing Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool shirts than were displaying the colours of the local teams. Of other foreign clubs, only Juventus could be seen.

Liverpool seemed to exert a particularly strong appeal, and that was the team favoured by the group of youths who turned up at the Under-21 match in Vratza on Tuesday, keen to show off their knowledge and to display the tattoos proclaiming their allegiance to the Anfield club. Why were they so keen on English football? "In the days of communism," one of them explained, "we saw the English fans and to us they represented freedom." Not much to do with the quality of the football, then.

The voice of realism came from Johan Cruyff, attending the match to participate in the celebrations of Stoichkov's final international appearance. When Cruyff was asked if he thought the absence of Michael Owen was the key to England's failure, he replied that it would take more than one player to solve Kevin Keegan's problems.

What clearly won't solve Keegan's problems is a reliance on Howard Wilkinson's tactical schemes. At this level, tactics are not enough. England need talented young players who are capable of inventing the game for themselves. There are such creatures in England, and whatever criticisms may be levelled at Keegan after the last two matches, he deserves to be given time to identify and nurture them - a long-term task of greater importance than qualification for Euro 2000, given the debate over England's international performances that has raged since before most of the present squad were born.

The 19-year-old Jonathon Woodgate earned universal admiration on Wednesday night, when he tackled and intercepted with the calm authority of the young Bobby Moore. Before long Rio Ferdinand will be back to join him, and Michael Gray, for all the flaws of his display, has the look of a proper footballer. Gary and Philip Neville, too, are of the required calibre. Given the well-known problems on the left flank, it must be hoped that Lee Hendrie uses the summer to recharge his batteries and is restored to the squad in the mood and form that made him such an impressively dynamic debutant when he came on in the friendly against the Czech Republic late last year. The neat and composed Kieron Dyer may also turn out to have the necessary quality.

And Owen's return in the autumn will help, although the matter of his partnership with Alan Shearer remains unresolved. Shearer scored a very good goal but he was unable to co-ordinate England's attacking forces in the second half, when they needed to grasp the opportunity presented by their numerical advantage. It is always being said that sooner or later an England coach is going to have to grasp the nettle and drop him, but the better solution would be to make the partnership work. And anyone who wants to know the difference between Owen and Robbie Fowler need do no more than compare the confused imprecision of Fowler's performance on Wednesday against the cool alacrity with which Owen seized his chance last year.

But, as ever, the problem is at the heart of the formation, with the player who regulates the team's pulse and shapes its movements. The absence of such a figure is the reason behind Keegan's complaints about the quality of the team's passing. Paul Gascoigne, we know, has gone for good, and David Beckham's talent lies elsewhere. Jamie Redknapp started promisingly but showed no real ability to dismantle the opposition.

Will Joe Cole be the one? And if he is, how long must he be made to wait?

Freshness and imagination are the qualities most needed by Keegan's England, and there is a useful precedent to follow in Spain, where Europe's most progressive football is currently being played by talented teenagers such as Xavi and Guti. If the 17-year-old Cole is allowed to follow the path of Owen and Woodgate, maybe Keegan will have found the means to lift England out of the present impasse.

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