Le Saux sharpens his competitive edge

England's returning left-back can fill the void so severely exposed during Euro 2000
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He has not always been the most popular player, even with some of his own team-mates, but England have missed Graeme Le Saux like few players have ever been missed by the national team. His absence these past 11 months with an ankle injury left a huge hole in the side which England never successfully plugged and was, arguably, the reason why they flopped at Euro 2000. Even Tony Blair would have to agree: the nation was never in more need of a lefty.

He has not always been the most popular player, even with some of his own team-mates, but England have missed Graeme Le Saux like few players have ever been missed by the national team. His absence these past 11 months with an ankle injury left a huge hole in the side which England never successfully plugged and was, arguably, the reason why they flopped at Euro 2000. Even Tony Blair would have to agree: the nation was never in more need of a lefty.

It explains why he has walked straight back into the England squad after just four starts for Chelsea, his selection for the World Cup qualifier against Germany on Saturday automatic. And there are not many who can say that right now - even Michael Owen.

It must be nice to feel so wanted - or more like desperately needed - and to know that while you have been away no one has replaced you. Le Saux is not so sure. "Your whole career is based on competition and having to have the edge on your own team-mates in that position," he said. "Without that, there is something missing and there is definitely a fear of getting into a sort of false sense of security and, therefore, not playing as well."

Le Saux could be forgiven for thinking he had been away from international football for 16 years not 16 months, as two 20-year-olds, Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard, and one 18-year-old, Joe Cole, preceded him into the interview room at England's headquarters at Burnham Beeches this week. Either that or he had been recalled to the Under-21 squad by mistake.

The Peter Pan of English football looked decidedly less bright-eyed and brush-topped than usual surrounded by all these clean-cut youths. And having the captaincy of Chelsea bestowed upon him recently by the club's new Italian coach Claudio Ranieri can only have enhanced the feeling that now, at nearly 32, he is very much one of the senior players.

During England's plight last season, his own one tended to be forgotten. It was as well that he had the crook of experience to lean on. "I was expecting to be out for three months after I had the first operation, and it was only during a month of hard, hard rehab that I realised that there was still a problem there, so the frustration that comes with that is obviously pretty big," he said. "I'd had the experience of being out for 10 months before, so I was able to take a few sort of tips and things from the first time to hold me in good stead."

Le Saux believes the fact that he managed to take part in three games in a week when he did finally return was good for his confidence, since it proved his ankle could take the stress. "I think you suffer psychologically somewhat, because you are coming back into something that's already got some momentum, so you do feel a little bit of an outsider," he said.

On the subject of left-sided players, or rather the dearth of them in English football, he could offer no feasible explanation. "I don't know where you start with that really, because there has been a lot said about that ever since Stuart Pearce stopped playing [at international level]," he said. "You would think that people would actually go out and look for them, because it was an obvious sort of deficiency. It must be something in the air."

He was asked whether he had any particular sympathy for his deputy Phil Neville after his penalty blunder in the final minute against Romania at Euro 2000, given that he suffered a similar mishap himself in the closing minutes against the same opposition at the 1998 World Cup when he let Dan Petrescu get past him to score. But, not unreasonably, he avoided any comparison between the two incidents, only saying that "everybody occasionally makes the wrong decision".

One of the game's more articulate footballers, Le Saux skated over that one as he did the mischievous suggestion that perhaps it was the prospect of facing his old protagonist Lee Dixon that led to him making his first start of the season, against Arsenal. Fortunately or not for Le Saux, Dixon is not in this England squad. Nor is David Batty, another of his former sparring partners. But there are still one or two with whom he has had his brushes in the past, like Martin Keown and Robbie Fowler.

"Do you talk and have a laugh about things in the past?" he was asked.

"We obviously talk," Le Saux replied. "We are sort of living together for a week or 10 days. I don't think anybody really dwells on previous encounters. No player that I know of. You can't judge a person by your relationship with them on a football pitch."

All of which was fair enough, although his description of his flare-up with Keown in the Arsenal game - "Martin and I were just chatting probably, having a bit of a laugh" - has to be up there with Gérard Houllier's preposterous explanation for Fowler's "line-sniffing" antics last season, that he was just smelling the grass.

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