England lose Butt but Scholes provides hope

The worst season of Nicky Butt's career came to a sad end yesterday as he was ruled out of the European Championship by injury. Butt, whose performance as the midfield anchor in both qualifying ties against Turkey did much to ensure England's presence here, damaged medial ligaments in his right knee in training on Monday. It happened during shooting practice - something of a cruel irony given the rarity of his shots. He did not kick a ball in the tournament.

The worst season of Nicky Butt's career came to a sad end yesterday as he was ruled out of the European Championship by injury. Butt, whose performance as the midfield anchor in both qualifying ties against Turkey did much to ensure England's presence here, damaged medial ligaments in his right knee in training on Monday. It happened during shooting practice - something of a cruel irony given the rarity of his shots. He did not kick a ball in the tournament.

There was better news for two Manchester United team-mates, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville, who could both be fit for England's tie with Switzerland in Coimbra tomorrow. Neville, who has a calf injury, was always expected to make it but at lunchtime yesterday David Beckham was still describing Scholes, who has a twisted ankle, as "touch and go". However, Sven Goran Eriksson later said: "I think he will play but I'm not sure. The decision will be taken after the practice tomorrow."

Beckham, Sol Campbell and Steven Gerrard also missed training yesterday and were restricted to gym work after suffering from blistered feet. All are expected to train at the Cidade de Coimbra today as England get a feel of the venue for tomorrow's match.

Butt's injury is one for footballing students of Chaos Theory to study. His season peaked with the Istanbul qualifier in October. Though already struggling to hold down a place at club level he remained an intrinsic part of the England team. But he could not remain so while playing reserve team football indefinitely and considered moving in the January transfer window to secure first team football. Birmingham City, Everton, Middlesbrough and Newcastle United were all interested but United's initial price, an inflated £5m, scared off all but Birmingham. For various reasons - the fee, Butt's personal terms, the lack of time afforded by the window, and Butt's hope he could regain his United place - the deal was not done.

Had it happened Butt would have played out the season with Birmingham, retained his match fitness and, in all probability, his place in the England team. He would have played against France on Sunday. He would not have trained on Monday, only completed a warm-down. He would still be fit.

Of course, Butt could also have broken his leg on debut for Birmingham and not even come to Portugal. Such are the vagaries of an athlete's life. It was, after all, only Gerrard's absence through injury that enabled Butt to claim a place in England's World Cup XI. He was then nominated by Pele as one of the players of the tournament. But when he looks back on the wreckage of this season he will always wonder if, had he really pushed the issue, he could have made that move in January.

England would have liked to replace Butt - Chelsea's Scott Parker, who has been on stand-by, would have been called up - and asked Uefa to clarify the regulations regarding injured players. They were told that as England have started their campaign they must make do with the players they have. Exceptions are only made in the case of goalkeepers - and Switzerland yesterday took advantage bringing in Sebastien Roth for the injured Fabrice Borer.

"It's very upsetting for Nicky," said Beckham, a former club team-mate, yesterday. "Having a player like that in the squad is always very important."

Butt will stay with the squad until after tomorrow's match at least. United have a representative with the squad in the masseur Rod Thornley and are content for Butt to begin his rehabilitation in Portugal. He may then stay on with the squad. Many managers dislike having injured players around but Eriksson, always keen to foster a club atmosphere, is happy for Butt to remain.

Butt's role as the midfield anchor will go to Phil Neville or Owen Hargreaves should Eriksson return to the diamond midfield. For the moment he is expected to stay with the flat four with Hargreaves standing by to replace Scholes on the left.

"We have the strength to cope with these injuries," added Beckham. "We have a lot of depth in midfield. Owen Hargreaves, for example, has played in one of the best European teams around in Bayern Munich. He has that experience and can bring it to the team."

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