Taylor gives youngsters the chance to flourish

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The Independent Online

Fifty-two years ago England played like gods here in an old stadium nestling under the Alps, won 4-0 and some of the local cognoscenti speculated that Tom Finney might just have been the finest player they'd ever seen. Nor was Stanley Matthews too shabby.

Fifty-two years ago England played like gods here in an old stadium nestling under the Alps, won 4-0 and some of the local cognoscenti speculated that Tom Finney might just have been the finest player they'd ever seen. Nor was Stanley Matthews too shabby.

One of those awe-struck fans surfaced on a Roman bus in 1977 on the ride back to town after Don Revie's England had been been formally dispatched from the qualifying stages of the World Cup. Encountering an Englishman, he asked: "What happened to all those great English players? I saw them in Turin when I was young. They were great. They played like giants."

For reasons, both historical and current, quite beyond the control of the temporary England coach, Peter Taylor, there is a strong chance we may have to reach back again for some comfort in the soaring Stadio delle Alpe tonight. On this occasion, though, there could just be a more contemporary sweetener. The truth is that Taylor has not so much picked a team. He has made a gesture, and one that, who knows, may just constitute a first serious attempt to answer that question asked in a bus filled with cries of "Forza Italia!"

One the things that happened to some potentially great English players was that they really were not given a chance. They were not allowed to breathe.

The culture of the English game turned cautious, and bad. A lot of talent died on the vine. Talent like that of Rio Ferdinand, the accident-prone but naturally brilliant young West Ham defender. Ferdinand is regularly, and properly, chastised for careless defence. The harshest verdict is that quick-witted opponents have the chance to exploit at least one Ferdinand mistake per match. But there is another point and Taylor is making it here by installing the youngster as a full-blown sweeper. He is saying that sometimes a little faith, a little confidence, goes a long way and especially at the formative stage of an inordinately talented young player's career.

David Beckham is in, both as the central playmaker and captain. A year or two ago, when he was heaping pressure on himself with a series of adolescent misadventures on the field, either responsibility would have seemed bizarrely inappropriate. But again Taylor is seizing a moment that here tonight could perhaps turn embarrassing but, nevertheless, has the potential to provide something precious indeed. It could give a rite of passage to several young players whose potential might otherwise never have been properly investigated.

Taylor, freed of both competitive pressure and the harsh set of judgements which would have accompanied his permanent appointment, has been given the chance to put into practice some of the conclusions he drew from his work as a highly successful manager of England's Under-21 team. The result is a selection of players and tactics that may speak more of idealism, and optimism, than of some of the game's more insistent practicalities - especially with the heavyweight tactician Giovanni Trapattoni seeking to build an instant aura as Italy's national team coach - but it is also one that brings a warming sense of turning a new leaf. Heaven knows, it is not as though the old plot is not thoroughly worn out.

For the watching Sven Goran Eriksson it will all, at the very least, provide him with some early appreciation of the order of young of talent he has at his disposal as he seeks to re-make England's international football.

Better, certainly, that he should see a young team trying to play the kind of football which has long been second nature to the world's front-rank nations. He will see a team working from the back and attempting to build a performance on the basis of intelligent passing and running; he will not believe, as he might have done had he been in Helsinki last month and seen England firing a stream of long balls to Emile Heskey on the left wing, that he has been handed the stewardship of Jurassic Park.

The potential of Taylor's gesture is undermined by the absence through injury of Michael Owen and Paul Scholes, and it is also unfortunate that the peppery Alan Smith will not be able to show that he can be assertive on an international field, as he is in the Premiership and European club football. But Taylor has used imagination in eking out of the best of the nation's young contenders. He has announced his belief in their potential to play proper football in demanding circumstances. He has applied a little trust.

There are no prizes, of course, for saying that Taylor, unlike Howard Wilkinson, the Football Association's technical director who fired him as Under-21 coach and then found himself obliged to seek a result in Finland in the vacuum left by Kevin Keegan's defection, can play out the reel tonight without fear of personal repercussions. When the game is over, he goes back to his challenge at Leicester and leaves Eriksson to make of it what he may. But that is to overlook the matter of pride. When Taylor was fired from the Under-21 position, the pain he felt was not so much over the end of a job but a crusade. He has never stopped believing that England's international footballers did not have to settle for some functional hybrid of the domestic game and the sophisticated version practised in Europe and South America.

Tonight Taylor wraps up all his beliefs in one package and sends it out against the seasoned force of one of the world's most cultured football nations. It is fragile, indeed, but it has a whiff of courage - and no little adventure. Who, after all that has gone before, could sneer at that?

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