Parlour's strike cannot disguise the failings

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The Independent Online

Rarely before has the old truth that in football, as in life, you tend to make your own luck hammered quite so hard on the psyche of a fragile team.

Rarely before has the old truth that in football, as in life, you tend to make your own luck hammered quite so hard on the psyche of a fragile team.

An England of bizarre formation and shrinking horizons, abandoned by their coach and pieced together with no discernable logic by his temporary successor, by all but the roughest justice of the game should have won here last night.

Ray Parlour, the Arsenal journeyman who was one of half a dozen square pegs in a structure which always seemed just one jolt away from collapse, broke free and sent a rising shot against the underside of Antti Niemi's crossbar.

Both the naked and the television eye said it was a goal, but the French referee, Alain Sars, waved played on. It was his second oversight of the night, and both of them were devastating to the English cause.

Early in the game Teddy Sheringham was brought down by Niemi while facing an open goal, but the Finn received only a booking. England's stand-in coach, Howard Wilkinson, could claim two shafts of injustice, but he is surely enough of a pro to grasp that in football terms a point to move England's catastrophic start to their World Cup qualifying campaign from point zero was something to celebrate, if only privately.

The truth is that an England team, playing a second-class football nation, can rarely have looked so divorced from the mainstream of the world game.

Beyond the result was a reality which could not be dislodged by the heroic defence of Martin Keown, the stand-in captain who had been asked not so much to win a match as check an avalanche of broken morale. It was that the Finns, a nation who much prefer ice hockey and javelin throwing and Formula One, had played all of the coherent footballbefore Parlour's late, aborted thrust for glory.

This was almost entirely due to Jari Litmanen. Thoughbecalmed outside of the Barcelona first team, Litmanen managed to eclipse utterly all English attempts to add a touch of creativity to their desperate efforts to stop the slidetowards the dead zone of theinternational game.

Litmanen had something which at times cruelly made even the best of England's work looked laboured. He had imagination which worked at pace.

Early in the second half, he produced a moment of such easy control and aggressive instinct it was as though he had invented a new game. It was one which traded on surprise and individuality and, psychologically, it had the effect of a Molotov cocktail. But as Litmanen's cross, which came after he had juggled the ball brilliantly in the swirling wind, flew across the face of England's goal without causing permanent damage, it was left to England to fight for the one thing they could rescue in the depth of their crisis.

It was the honour of outgunned pros who fought honesty - and until the end.

Where England go now is a matter for urgent deliberation at the Football Association's new offices in Soho. For the moment there can only be the comfort that what happened here last night could have been much worse: indeed it might have touched the grotesque if Mikael Forssell, who occasionally gets a game for Crystal Palace, had been able to make more of Litmanen's relentless capacity to put England on the rack. Of course, Wilkinson had huge problems with the absence of his captain, Tony Adams, and David Beckham - England's set-pieces were futile to the point of toothlessness - but then he did little to ease his plight.

Having dropped Michael Owen, the fallen Kevin Keegan's saviour in the recent draw with the world and European champions, France, he compounded the folly by leaving him on the bench despite the growing wretchedness of Andy Cole's performance. Why Owen's speed and scoring instinct were not injected into the last phase of last night's game is, though, just one of many mysteries.

Emile Heskey, preferred along with Sheringham to Owen, was presumably included to provide strength and pace along the left. Early in the game he did make a couple of impressive runs, but they came to nothing and he too had become an irrelevant factor long before England's last hope rested on Parlour's unrewarded strike.

What we were left with in the cold night air was a jumble of confused patterns - and no sense of a team capable of achieving anything more than some random success against the odds.

Had that come there would have been another confusion, another smokesceen around the unavoidable truth that whoever takes over from the ultimately bewildered Keegan faces a massive job of reconstruction. Everything has to be remade. Morale. A coherent pattern of tactics. A sense of an emerging team. A hard-headed appreciation of who can play at the top level - and who, demonstrably, can't.

Last night the basic quality of English football was cheerfully examined by the Finns. They lacked the cold steel to make anything more than the lion's share of progressive football, but long before the end they had established an edge in ideas and purpose which was just another statement on the degree of the English malaise.

The fact that David Seaman, so embarrassed by Germany's winning goal at Wembley last Saturday, was required to produce one of his best performances of recent years, was still another. In the second half Seaman, who has looked so vulnerable, became, alongside Keown, a pillar.

What is beyond debate is quite how imperative is the appointment of a coaching figure of unimpeachable authority. This was, as it was always going to be, a scrabble for some kind of survival. It told us nothing apart from the extent of the need for new coherence, a fresh pattern of thought and conviction.

The players of England made the best of extraordinarily difficult circumstances. They did not let down the nation. Indeed, it was possible to see them as victims fighting hard to achieve something beyond their reach.

The cry, as never before, is for something like real leadership.

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