Ferdinand to sweep England into new era

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The Independent Football

There are doubts. The team is inexperienced, key personnel are either injured or omitted, two players are out of position. But, having registered reservations, credit should be given to Peter Taylor. This evening, against Italy, the caretaker coach will send out a team designed to sweep away the prehistoric detritus of the Keegan era and reacquaint English football with the modern game.

There are doubts. The team is inexperienced, key personnel are either injured or omitted, two players are out of position. But, having registered reservations, credit should be given to Peter Taylor. This evening, against Italy, the caretaker coach will send out a team designed to sweep away the prehistoric detritus of the Keegan era and reacquaint English football with the modern game.

It features a genuine sweeper, wing-backs, a midfield trio composed of anchor, passer and runner, and, in attack, split strikers. It is the type of fluid skills-based team both Terry Venables and Glenn Hoddle were working towards, by differing routes, before their respective relationships with the national side were terminated.

For Peter Taylor to produce it in his first match, and with such young players, is as breathtaking as it is bold. Clearly he learned well during his tenure as Under-21 coach.

First, lest we get carried away, the caveats in detail. As well as the over-30s he himself culled, Taylor has been shorn of several players. The latest is the injury-prone Steven Gerrard who, as anticipated, reported stiffness after playing twice in four days. Like Paul Scholes and Wes Brown, Gerrard would have started. As a result of these withdrawals the final XI to play the European Championship finalists has an average of 24, features eight players with less than 10 international starts, and has a total of just six international goals. In addition, Ray Parlour and Gareth Barry, the wing-backs, are out of position and others short of practice in their chosen roles.

However, as Taylor pointed out, it is a friendly and experimentation is the whole purpose of the match. He added: "Of course we could have done with experienced players like Tony Adams and Teddy Sheringham helping the younger players, but I do not believed we would have learned any more. If Martin Keown had come here and won every tackle, headed every ball, it still would not have been new to Sven Goran Eriksson.

"Whenever I saw England friendlies I said to myself: 'We should give younger players a chance so we can have a look at them'. If I said that when I was not England manager, yet did not do it when I was, I would not be able to sleep at night. I have to do what I think is right."

Arguably, Taylor's most courageous decision is to put his trust in Rio Ferdinand. The 22-year-old has been groomed for the role of England sweeper ever since West Ham's youth coaches spotted his teenage potential on the playing fields of Chadwell Heath, but he has never been given the chance to prove it. On his rare England appearances he has played, as he does at West Ham, as one of three central defenders, not as a sweeper. Tonight, said Taylor, he will be encouraged to defend and to step out from the back like a proper libero.

"Everyone has spoken about Rio for a long time," said Taylor. "I'm sure he has been frustrated at not playing so many games. Now he has the opportunity, it is up to him."

Ahead of Ferdinand will be the most capped men in Taylor's team, Gary Neville and Gareth Southgate. Neville, overly negative as a full-back, but too short to be an effective stopper, is perfectly cast. Southgate is dependability personified and in a position to guide his club-mate, Barry, through the game.

In midfield wing-backs will ensure numerical parity. Between them Nicky Butt's tackling and Kieron Dyer's energy could provide the platform for David Beckham to dictate play. Against lesser opposition they probably would. Against Italy Beckham may have to settle for sporadic moments of influence.

Ahead of them, Nicky Barmby finally returns to the role he seemed destined to claim four years ago. Then he scored twice in China to edge into the Euro 96 squad ahead of Peter Beardsley and, though Teddy Sheringham's form kept him out of the tournament, his future looked bright. But then he fell out of the international reckoning, reappearing last spring as a winger. Now he has the chance to prove his inventiveness, and cool finishing, is best utilised playing behind a target man - in this case Emile Heskey.

Eriksson, the coach-in-waiting, will watch from the stands. Since the Italian squad includes three of his Lazio players he has not spoken to Taylor about the match but Tord Grip, his right-hand man, now employed by the Football Association, has been "very helpful". Taylor added: "There are no plans for Sven to come into the dressing-room but if he wants to introduce himself to the players I have no problem with that. He is the man who will be in charge."

With the FA increasingly optimistic that Eriksson will be in situ for England's next match, in February, this could be Taylor's only game as England coach. If so he will be in good company. The great Herbert Chapman also managed England for one game, in Rome in 1933. Presented with a team by the selection committee, he secured a 1-1 draw.

Taylor would be delighted with such a result though a respectable defeat seems more likely. He seemed to accept this when he said: "Every professional footballer wants to win but if the majority can walk off and say 'I've done well' I'll be delighted for them."

Chapman, according to his biographer, remembered his match chiefly for meeting Benito Mussolini and losing the dressing-room key at half-time.

Taylor hopes to recall this match as the launching pad for several international careers. Including, perhaps, his own.

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