Rough justice adds to England's agony

Fortune frowns on Wilkinson's men as Finland goalkeeper escapes red card before Parlour's 'goal' is rejected
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If the Football Association intends to appoint its new manager on the same principle that Napoleon chose his generals Howard Wilkinson can be crossed off the list. Lucky he ain't.

If the Football Association intends to appoint its new manager on the same principle that Napoleon chose his generals Howard Wilkinson can be crossed off the list. Lucky he ain't.

Two critical errors from the French officials at either end of England's World Cup qualifier last night cost Wilkinson's team victory and left England's chances of reaching the 2002finals hanging by a thread.

With six matches remaining in Group Nine they are already five points behind Germany and adrift even of Albania, who last night beat Greece 2-0 in Tirana. Given the current chaos surrounding the national team, England are seeking a play-off place at best.

The first mistake was Alain Sars' craven refusal to dismiss Antti Niemi when the Hearts goalkeeper pulled down Teddy Sheringham with the goal wide open. The second came from his linesman who, in the penultimate minute, failed to signal a goal when Ray Parlour's shot crashed against the crossbar and bounced down behind the line. Perhaps, after all the talk about 1966, the footballing deities were redressing the balance.

They were also ensuring the correct result. Technically, England may have been "robbed", but morally a point was all they deserved. It is not just his lack of fortune which should rule Wilkinson out of the post of permanent coach, his half-bakedapproach to this match should.

His tactical master plan proved, in execution, even more bizarre than in anticipation. While Heskey, as expected, was on the left wing, though he pulled back into midfield to make a four when Finland had the ball, few were prepared for the sight of Sheringham on the right flank. However the Manchester United striker quickly drifted in to partner Andy Cole in a front two before dropping into his preferred position behind him. For such temerity he was hauled off and McManaman sent on to patrol his neglected beat on the wing.

England did create chances, as they should against a team which featured a Stockport County player in midfield, a Crystal Palace reserve in attack, and two part-timers in defence. But apart from Parlour's effort, a moment utterly out of keeping with his otherwise mundane display, they rarely looked like taking them. While Michael Owen festered on the bench, Andy Cole's 10th England appearance passed, like all the rest, without a goal.

England thus failed to score against Finland for the first time in 10 meetings.

Finland also created chances, though Martin Keown and Gareth Southgate generally did well against the difficult combination of Mikael Forssell and Jonatan Johansson's pace, a swirling wind, and Jari Litmanen's clever through balls.

When they faltered, or the flank players were outwitted, which was too often for comfort, David Seaman covered admirably. The only survivor from Wilkinson's last match 18 months ago, he rebutted recent criticism with an assured performance in which his speed off his line was a vital factor.

Apart from those three, no England player could be happy with his night's work. For an hour Heskey showed up well in his unfamiliar role, but the end product was mixed and he was a fish out of water when it came to his defensive work.

How different this might have been, had England been given the early lift they should have, no one will ever know. Confidence may have flooded into their game, or the prospect of failing against 10 men could have paralysed them with tension.

The incident came five minutes into a bitterly cold night in the Olympic Stadium. A defensive blunder allowed Sheringham to go round Niemi only for the keeper to reach out an arm to tug him down by the ankle. It was outside the box and slightly wide but, with no one guarding the goal, an obvious red card. Yet to English anger and annoyance the referee profferred only yellow.

The free-kick was wasted.

The mind quickly travelled back, to Rotterdam 1993 and Ronald Koeman pulling down David Platt on the edge of the box. Koeman also survived, and a few minutes later scored the free-kick which sent England out of the World Cup.

Luck continued to elude England as, on 23 minutes, a Dennis Wise free-kick was met with a glancing header byHeskey only for Sami Hyypia to clear off the line.

Heskey then created a chance for Sheringham, from which he should have done better, but, with a change of marker reducing his influence, England's attacking options began to narrow. The midfield trio, necessarily tight to win possession, were unable to offer width on either flank and, with Phil Neville preoccupied by Johansson, the right wing was an attacking blank. Not so for the Finns, who might have scored twice as the half ended with sumptuous crosses from both flanks going untouched.

The second period was less eventful, the football reminiscent of the lower divisions. Seaman saved well from Forssell and the impishly brilliant Litmanen; but England offered nothing. Then Parlour, for once picking a path through the defence instead of a blind alley, jinked by three players and drove the ball past Niemi. England looked to the linesman but, while this city may once have been an outpost of the Tsarist Empire, the Russians left long ago taking their linesmen with them.

FINLAND (4-3-1-2): Niemi (Hearts); Helin (Jokerit), Hyypia (Liverpool), Tihinen (Viking Stavanger), Saarinen (HJK Helsinki); Nurmela (Heerenveen), Valakari (Derby County), Wiss (Stockport); Litmanen (Barcelona); Forssell (Crystal Palace), Johansson (Charlton Athletic). Substitutes used: Reini (Genk) for Helin, 36; Kottila (Trelleborg) for Saarinen, 66; Kuqi (Jokerit) for Forssell, 76.

ENGLAND (4-3-3): Seaman (Arsenal); P Neville (Manchester United), Keown (Arsenal), Southgate (Aston Villa), Barry (Aston Villa); Parlour (Arsenal), Wise (Chelsea), Scholes (Manchester United); Sheringham (Manchester United), Cole (Manchester United), Heskey (Liverpool). Substitutes used: Brown (Manchester United) for Barry, 68; McManaman (Real Madrid) for Sheringham, 68.

Referee: A Sars (France).