Ferdinand fluency fits Taylor template

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The Independent Online

Something utterly remarkable happened here in the Stadio delle Alpi in the emotional heartland of Italian football. Of course it was not that an England team lost, we are conditioned to that. What was so arresting was that an England team played football that had a soul and, perhaps, a future.

Something utterly remarkable happened here in the Stadio delle Alpi in the emotional heartland of Italian football. Of course it was not that an England team lost, we are conditioned to that. What was so arresting was that an England team played football that had a soul and, perhaps, a future.

How sturdy is that soul we will find out soon enough when the watching coach-elect Sven Goran Eriksson picks up the small but hopeful legacy left to him by England's leader for a night, Peter Taylor.

But, if it is a fragile inheritance filled by much still unformed talent, it offered something undreamed of just a month or so ago in Helsinki, when England played football against Finland so gnarled it might have come from the stone age.

It showed a degree of wit and imagination. It had players whose instincts went beyond the merely functional. There was a touch of vision, a belief in skill.

Of course Eriksson cannot be so fanciful as Taylor. He cannot go with youth as a reflex action to all the waste and the frustration that currently leaves England floundering in their World Cup qualifying group.

He has to fashion results, he has to weigh the nous of veterans such as Tony Adams, Martin Keown and Teddy Sheringham in that fine balance that sometimes produces a winning effort in unpromising circumstances.

But Eriksson could return to his duties with Lazio warmed by the knowledge that there is indeed something waiting in the wings of English football -- something which indeed might just bring vital life to a cause that seemed beyond hope of rescue during Euro 2000 and the dismal return to competitive action with Germany at Wembley.

Eriksson is canny enough to know that what happened here was not much more than a fleeting guide to future prospects. The Italians, who have been responding impressively to the promptings of their new coach, the deeply experienced Giovanni Trapattoni, were no doubt less than fully extended. But that is not to dismiss the value of the meaning of young England here. There were some performances of both accomplishment and character. Most striking of all was the assurance of Rio Ferdinand, a 22-year-old whose international career appeared to have died on the vine in the brief, calamitous reign of Kevin Keegan.

Ferdinand, playing in the novelty English position of sweeper, could scarcely have started less promisingly when he hoofed the ball into touch under minimum pressure. But from that false note his performance grew in a series of beguiling crescendos. At one point he sent the experienced Filippo Inzaghi the wrong way so deftly that he brought to mind the composure of Lennox Lewis in his weekend defence of the world heavyweight title. Inzaghi flew in one direction, Ferdinand in another, with Ferdinand accompanying the ball.

For a young player labelled with the charge that he is arguably the most accident-prone of front-line Premiership defenders, Ferdinand was a revelation. His touch was often superb. Once he split the entire Italian defence -- which is a phrase that does not trip easily onto the lips -- with a beautifully flighted through ball. On another occasion, he brought a ripple of applause with a delightful feint, and smooth forward progress.

Ferdinand looked like a player with a future, which was something to say indeed, given what had seemed like a relentless decline of his international prospects. No less engaging was the confidence of Emile Heskey. He ran a gauntlet of abuse from the more rancid sections of the Italian crowd, the Fascist element that is apparently growing disturbingly voluble in northern Italy.

Not so long ago a desperately insecure Heskey might have buckled under such appalling discouragement, but here he ran through the baiting with splendid poise. He was another young player in whom Taylor, as a passionate coach of the England Under-21 team, had placed great trust.

Certainly Taylor can go back to his duties at Leicester City with some considerable satisfaction. If he had dreamed privately of a stunning victory, he kept it to himself and can now say legitimately that his bold selection might just have earned an extremely honourable draw. That would have happened had the vigorous Italian Gennaro Gattuso not emerged from a brief disagreement with England captain David Beckham with a resultant 30-yard shot that flew beyond the startled David James.

Beckham had perhaps made the mistake of enervating Italians with what they clearly considered baseless appeals for a penalty, but, interestingly, when the European Championship runners-up noticeably lifted their tempo in the second half, Taylor's tiros were far from overawed. Indeed, some of their best chances -- and most creative football -- came in the wake of Gattuso's onslaught.

Eriksson will no doubt keep his deepest conclusions to himself for some time. He will say the right things while making some preliminary assessments. What he will not do on the basis of this performance, it seems reasonable to speculate, is believe that he has made a catastrophic error in judgement in forsaking one of the moneybags of Serie A for the uncharted ground of England's effort to live again as a respectable force in international football.

What Eriksson saw here last night would have perhaps left him undazzled, but perhaps not unhinged. He saw a collection of young players eager to show that they had abilities thus far unexploited in the cause of their nation's football. He also saw fresh evidence of one of the oldest truths of the game. It is that the greatest gift any manager can give his players is not an elaborate set of tactics but a touch of self-belief.

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