Peter Corrigan: New Wembley and a Catch 21 situation

Click to follow

Apart from Joe Cole's spectacular goal and the odd threatening shot, and even more threatening glares, from Wayne Rooney, the most notable occurrence in the second half of England's friendly international against Serbia and Montenegro on Tuesday was a loudspeaker announcement asking the crowd to refrain from sending squadrons of paper aeroplanes gliding through the air at Leicester's Walkers Stadium.

It was an appropriate appeal, because the number that stuck in the turf proved their capacity to damage an eye, but from a footballing point of view their presence carried a more significant message than danger - that of sheer boredom. When spectators are reduced to practising their aeronautical skills by fashioning paper planes from leaflets requesting good behaviour in the middle of an inter-national, we may have wandered away from the purpose of such gatherings.

The very irritating Mexican wave - there was a bout of that, too - is an expressive enough indication of a crowd whose interest is at a loose end, but to force supporters into a mass origami session is some achievement. You can hardly blame them for being distracted by other pleasures while a staggering 21 substitutions are being made. The plot of an England performance is often more difficult to follow than a Beckett play, but when they keep changing the roles and the actors as well, the point of it becomes totally obscure.

Why the Serbian coach, Dejan Savicevic, saw fit to join in the Eriksson shuffle is not known. Perhaps it is becoming a fashion among European coaches, or maybe he and Sven decided to have a substitution contest, in which case Savicevic won 11-10.

In previous manifestations of his rapid replacements policy in friendlies I tended to sympathise with Eriksson. I felt that his anxiety to get unco-operative club managers on his side was the main reason why he exposed players to the minimum of injury risk while they were in his charge. It wasn't a good reason, but at least it was understandable.

No such reason was present on Tuesday, because the club season is over and the players are with him until after Wednesday's Euro 2004 qualifier against Slovakia in Middlesbrough. The theory is that he was saving his better players for that task, but surely you can take player protection too far. What they needed was a good workout and a build-up of confidence in their new formation.

It may be a little premature to herald England's recently mined diamond formation as a success, but it certainly offered Steven Gerrard an apt vehicle for his special talents. Having established that fact, it was important to give it more rein. What was the point of tearing it all up at half-time and starting again? One or two second-half subs, such as Joe Cole and Rooney, could have explored a few extra possibilities, but sharing scraps of the action between 21 players was a nonsense that didn't seem to advance the cause.

It was fortunate that Cole's goal was good enough to dilute the complaints. If the crowd had any doubts that the second half was not to be taken seriously, we then had a game of pass-the-captaincy which involved four players and led to even more confusion. It would assist the smoothness of future transferences if each shirt contained a captain's-armband compartment; the equivalent of a field-marshal's baton in very soldier's knapsack.

As ever, the vindication of Eriksson's idiosyncrasies lies only in the result his team can achieve on Wednesday, but if we concentrate on the broader picture, it is easy to conclude that the Football Association have lost the plot when it comes to public relations. Regrettable as it might be in many respects, the closure of Wembley has temporarily robbed England of a permanent home, but it has provided the opportunity to take the show on the road, and those who've seen the team in competitive action in their locality have been delighted.

Those who have been blessed with friendlies like Leicester saw on Tuesday might not be so pleased. The experience of having England play, and win, in their fine new stadium probably compensated for the lack of consistent quality in the game, but how often would they come back for more of the same? England play a friendly against Croatia at Ipswich's Portman Road in August. I'm sure the locals will flock to buy tickets, but they might need reassurance that they will see a proper game, not a series of individual auditions. The FA's powers of self-delusion may have reached an awesome level, but surely even they can see that Eriksson's version of Opportunity Knocks has limited appeal. Furthermore, what he can get away with in the provinces he certainly won't get away with at the new Wembley.

Once the novelty value of the new stadium wears off, the new seats would take some filling for fare like we saw on Tuesday. Unless, of course, they can think of some bright new games the fans can play in the second half.

Open and shutter case

Amazing how many sportspeople don't want their picture taken by press photographers these days. Colin Montgomerie became angry when a posse of them were taking shots of him attempting to get out of a ditch in the British Masters on Thursday. He waved his club at them after his first attempt flew back over his head, and raged: "I thought I told you, no pictures". Unfortunately, not even Colin can pick and choose when they snap him on a golf course. Sports coverage is all about drama, and there are few better dramas than Monty in trouble.

It's a great shame after his terrific PR performance at the Wales Open, where he presented himself as a smiling new-leaf-turner-over. Never mind, he'll soon get over it and learn to take the rough with the fairways. No doubt he'll be happy to pose all day with the old claret jug if and when he wins The Open.

Others who would curb the shutter actions of Fleet Street's finest have a slightly different agenda. At Leicester last Tuesday, the FA barred two Daily Mail photographers from attending the England match because their paper refused to sign entry contracts produced not long before the kick-off. I won't bore you with the details of these contracts, but they are another step towards curtailing the right of the press to cover sporting events.

Similar murmurings are coming from the Rugby World Cup to be held in Australia in the autumn, and the Royal & Ancient over coverage of The Open. Earlier this year, the British Horseracing Board put forward the idea of the press paying for the right to print racecards. When papers stopped printing them or took the sponsors' names off the top of each race, the demand was quickly dropped.

I wish my brethren had the courage to drop football coverage for a while. Would television and radio find their own stories to comment upon? Would interest in the game stay at its present high rate? Would season tickets be sold as quickly? Would David Beckham join six different clubs every week? There are many who feel that a period of silence from the game would be welcome. We may lose sales, but I'm sure I know who would cave in first.