Caretaker's new school of thought

Italy v England: Caution still the watchword as Taylor urges young Cole to heed lesson of the Owen experience
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From Kevin Keegan's Saga tour to Peter Taylor's Club England. A squad where a shaven head rather than one tending to baldness is increasingly de rigueur, and the bass riffs of garage music on their personal stereos have replaced good old rock 'n' roll. For as much as Taylor attempted to rationalise it, it was interpreted as a fatwa on the heads of England's ageing; a purge of the ancien regime, pure and simple, by many who, on Thursday, attended the caretaker coach's first, and perhaps only, squad announcement. The revolution had begun.

From Kevin Keegan's Saga tour to Peter Taylor's Club England. A squad where a shaven head rather than one tending to baldness is increasingly de rigueur, and the bass riffs of garage music on their personal stereos have replaced good old rock 'n' roll. For as much as Taylor attempted to rationalise it, it was interpreted as a fatwa on the heads of England's ageing; a purge of the ancien regime, pure and simple, by many who, on Thursday, attended the caretaker coach's first, and perhaps only, squad announcement. The revolution had begun.

That was the superficial perception of Taylor's tinkering with the national team as he prepares to face Italy in Turin on Wednesday. Yet two aspects stand out from the 26 names that he hopes will assemble tonight at the England camp, but almost certainly won't because of injury. One is that the vast majority have already been entrenched in, or have been around the fringes of, past England squads. The second is that Taylor, far from being the radical he is portrayed, actually shows much method and reason in his choices. In the presence of his players, he will insist this week: "I don't want heavy gambling." In the selection of his squad, Taylor's philosophy has been much the same.

The Leicester manager, as a former England Under-21 coach, is a great advocate of continuity; of players as well as coaches working their way through from the ranks - something that the FA, under Adam Crozier and technical director Howard Wilkinson, have been attempting to encourage.

That is not always a simple matter in international management. There is inevitably the great temptation to unearth the human equivalent of the Millennium Star - a Michael Owen, for example - and make the false assumption that such a precious gem will continue to dazzle.

Taylor is convinced that the Liverpool striker would have benefited from a more gradual introduction to international football. "Michael played one Under-21 game against Greece, then automatically progressed through to the senior team and the World Cup finals," he said. "When you're flying and playing superbly, you can just get on with it. Glenn [Hoddle] was absolutely right to take Michael to France '98 because he was so different, so quick.

"But at times, as a striker, you face new problems against international defenders, and I just felt that if he'd had 10 games at Under-21 level it might have helped him in the long term. The football is so different. That's similar to the way I feel about Joe Cole now."

While many may criticise Taylor's decision not to embrace the still-emerging talents of the Upton Park urchin in the senior squad, again it is part of the masterplan of steady development, not a rocket-like burst towards the heavens followed by the inevitable fall. Taylor believes that West Ham's Cole, still raw, even at Premiership level, should do his time first in the Under-21s. Encouragement is one thing. Premature expectation can ruin, or at least impair, a player's progress.

As for Owen, after a somewhat tortuous existence under Kevin Keegan, when his deficiencies rather than his attributes (he is, after all, England's most prolific striker at the moment) were constantly to the fore, he will be gratified by Taylor's appointment for the friendly. After Owen's slow recovery from that nasty head injury against Derby, it would have been easy for Taylor to overlook him on this occasion. But the coach maintained: "I really wanted him in the squad and Michael says he's fit and well. He probably needs a run of games, but if Michael starts playing how he did before and during the '98 World Cup we'll all be delighted with that."

Taylor's theories extend to the lesser-known characters among his contingent. There were so many raised eyebrows at the inclusion of Michael Ball and Seth Johnson that it looked like a Groucho Marx convention. On the face of it, neither player had been exhibiting his virtues in teams who have been performing poorly (in Derby's case) or without consistency (in Everton's). Yet Taylor had watched them closely at Under-21 level and they had evidently shown him sufficient poise and quality to encourage him to call them up, rather than select purely those performers from in-form teams.

Taylor confessed that when he was with the England team at France '98, his one vice was Scrabble; his regular partner, Teddy Sheringham. And if there was one player he possibly regretted omitting because of his strict adherence to an ageist policy, it was the Manchester United striker. However, Taylor described Sheringham as "good as gold" about the decision. "He knows how much I rate him," said Taylor. "He also knows that it can't be because of lack of form. There were lots of reasons, like with Teddy's situation, to have not gone the way I've gone. He's such a clever player we could do with him in Italy. But I want to be fair to everybody, and I can't then say, 'Well, I'm going to have everybody 30 and younger, apart from one or two'. Otherwise I'm leaving myself open to criticism."

Taylor, who will speak to the man who will succeed him, Sven Goran Eriksson, both before and after the game, added: "It was quite hard making those phone calls because of my respect for the players. But I'm not finishing their international careers. I'm here for one game. All I'm doing is experimenting with some other players who haven't played. I can't say that they all agreed, and said, 'That's lovely'."

There will, of course, be some condemnation if the Italians take advantage of Taylor's policy, should he start with a number of newcomers. That is unlikely. He confessed that "one or two" could have a chance of making the starting line-up. But it is probable that the basis of the team will be battle-hardened infantrymen, not callow young privates. Although Taylor insists that "defensively, I like a back four", he added that "it all depends who comes through the door on Sunday night. Then, we'll sit down and sort the system out".

There is a school of thought that he may adopt a 3-5-2 formation, with David Beckham, his captain, in central midfield and Kieron Dyer, one of the players Taylor most admires, replacing him on the right. In defence, Wes Brown, so authoritative last week against Dynamo Kiev, is an almost certain starter, alongside two of Rio Ferdinand, Gareth Southgate, Gary Neville or Gareth Barry. Both Brown and Ferdinand are excellent ball-players, and as Taylor explained: "It would be very handy to have a fellow at the back who could pass the ball out." Someone has at last seen the light.

But then, Taylor is in a most enviable position, so much so that one phrase he uttered was utterly untypical of a man in the England coaching chair. "To me," Taylor said, "there's nothing to lose." When did we last hear that from an England coach? Because, like it or not, there is always something for him to lose. If he's lucky, just respect. Sometimes his job.

The temporary man, however, was quick to acknowledge that caution did not have to be his watchword. "Glenn and Kevin, nine times out of 10, were playing qualifying matches. They had to put out their most experienced team to get a result. This is different. This is a friendly, and I'm a caretaker manager. This is the perfect time to stick some of these players in. Even if it was to go wrong, at least we're finding out about a few players. Hopefully, it will go very well."

The more cynical might contend that Taylor, whose services were controversially dispensed with by Wilkinson last year, would relish making a point to the FA by being the architect of a victory from a group of players many of whose international careers he has nurtured. But Taylor declared: "That's not the reason I've picked the squad. I've honestly looked at it, when they said I'd be doing the job for the one game, that I was doing the new man [Eriksson] a favour. I would love one or two of these players he may not have known so much about to do well. I'm sure the new manager would know all about the experienced ones, anyway."

Nevertheless, Taylor is assured that one way or another, the family name will go down once again in the annals of England football history. He can only hope that, unlike his namesake, he won't be regarded as another turnip before his country turns to a Swede for its salvation.

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