England's plan B is more 'Plan 9 from Outer Space'

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The Independent Football

If B internationals are the sporting equivalent of B movies, the meeting of England B and Belarus at Reading's Madejski Stadium tonight may have more than a whiff of I Was a Zombie for the FBI or Attack of the Killer Tomatoes about it.

None of the players who have featured in the 57-year, 53-match history of England B games has managed quite the leap made by Ronald Reagan, "the Errol Flynn of B movies", who acted his way into the White House. Paul Gascoigne and Glenn Hoddle tried their best, while Matthew le Tissier and Brian Clough bowed out with a fruitless attack of killer goals.

Clough, then a raw young striker at Middlesbrough, scored as Scotland B were beaten 4-1 at Birmingham in 1957, though it was not enough to win a place in England's 1958 World Cup squad. For Gazza, however, a virtuoso display against Italy B at Brighton in 1989 did much to book his passage to the finals that made him an icon a year later.

B internationals engage only the most anorakish of football historians; it is almost as if they have been airbrushed from the picture. What we do know is that England's first such match came in 1949. They won 4-0 in Finland, the first of 37 victories in a record completed by eight draws and eight defeats.

The spree Clough spearheaded against the Scots could not persuade the FA to keep B internationals going. After that they disappeared until 1978, when Ron Greenwood took over as manager and reinstated them with a vengeance. One-off matches in West Germany and Czechoslovakia were followed by a five-game tour to New Zealand and the Far East. A year later, the Kiwis played a return fixture at Leyton Orient, where Hoddle impressed sufficiently to be called up for his first full cap a month later.

The Graham Taylor era included eight B matches; Terry Venables' reign had two. Hoddle was in charge when England last played a B international. It came six weeks before the 1998 World Cup and was seen as the last chance for Le Tissier to convince the manager of his merits.

It proved an eventful audition. The Southampton enigma scored a hat-trick, made another goal and twice shook the post in a 4-1 defeat of Russia. He did not make the final squad.