Time for an FA rethink on the Leeds two

'Double standards' charge as Woodgate and Bowyer are denied their international chance
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The Independent Football

Peter Taylor's declaration that youth will raise its callow head and gangling limbs in his England team to meet Italy will be applauded in most quarters. The fact that two Leeds players who would be automatic nominations, at the very least, in the squad now being formulated by the new caretaker coach and Steve McClaren, are barred from selection by the Football Association should be questioned.

Peter Taylor's declaration that youth will raise its callow head and gangling limbs in his England team to meet Italy will be applauded in most quarters. The fact that two Leeds players who would be automatic nominations, at the very least, in the squad now being formulated by the new caretaker coach and Steve McClaren, are barred from selection by the Football Association should be questioned.

In that nerve-jangling piece of Champions' League melodrama at Elland Road on Tuesday night, Jonathan Woodgate and Lee Bowyer were pre-eminent among the Leeds outfield contingent, almost as if to remind the England hierarchy of their omission from international consideration. Only another young player, the goalkeeper Paul Robinson, who seemed destined to emerge as the perpetual rebuttal to a second-half Spanish inquisition (but for Rivaldo's injury-time equaliser) could compare.

Many players burn bright against lesser or similar opposition; their true merit can be judged only when they are confronted with a team like Barcelona who, despite their Champions' League frailties this season, remain positively swollen with talent.

In midfield, Bowyer, still only 23, was the epitome of a driving, hustling, visionary, aided, of course, by that striker's finishing prowess and his ability to launch lethal dead balls. Woodgate, so poised and aware in the face of the quality of Rivaldo and Alfonso, was, when necessary, a devilish tackler. A shrug, and a muttered "I thought I did OK", were about as close as you were going to get to an admission of guilty as charged of an exemplary performance.

It was significant that Sir Alex Ferguson, rarely one to comment on opposition players, compared the 20-year-old Woodgate with his own Wes Brown last week, suggesting that they were "the two best young centre-backs in the country". As England look to a future beyond Tony Adams and Martin Keown, the presence of that duo must be a gratifying prospect.

Yet, as far as England officialdom are concerned, both Woodgate and Bowyer remain persona non grata following their arrest in January, accused of grievous bodily harm following an attack on a student in the Leeds city centre. "Until proven innocent" is apparently the dictum here. It is true that they have been charged with such a serious offence that should they and another Leeds player be found guilty at their trial in Hull in January, the chairman, Peter Ridsdale, has stressed that they will never play for the club again. Nevertheless, Bowyer and Woodgate have continued to represent Leeds, and with a distinction that belies the distraction the case must cause.

The FA will be condemned if the players are ultimately cleared and, frankly, have issued no real reason why they remain barred. Though initially supporting the FA's stance, by declaring: "All they [the FA] have done is to try and take the heat out of it all by saying that, in the short term, we will choose not to positively select," Ridsdale has recently accused the authority of "double standards".

He has pointed out that the captain of the national team, Tony Adams, had a custodial sentence, while "we have two players here who have never been found guilty of anything". He added: "I think the FA are wrong. They are quality footballers who ought to be considered for England selection."

Even those of us who accept that the New FA should seek the highest standards of conduct will find it difficult not to concur.

When the FA first made their decision, neither player would have been likely to be selected for Kevin Keegan's Euro 2000 squad (Woodgate was injured anyway), so it was purely a question of intellectual debate. That has now changed. Both are fit and performing with rare zeal and panache and England, by their own perverse reasoning, are denying them their oppportunity to test those qualities against exalted opposition in Turin.

The pair will be able to enhance their burgeoning reputations in Italy a week earlier when Leeds must prise a point from their final first group stage game in Milan in order to qualify for the second phase. There will be few who begrudge David O'Leary's side the honour of progressing, even those of us who forecast beforehand that Tuesday evening would represent a perilous journey.

Ridsdale's pre-match assertion that it would be "a night to remember" was a trifle unfortunate, bringing to mind the 1958 film of that name. The one about the sinking of the Titanic. Those of us who believed it would be lifeboat stations by half-time were not to be disabused.

Barcelona's coach, Lorenzo Serra Ferrer, had initially deployed the loping, seemingly elasticated Rivaldo as a main striker, with support from Alfonso and Luis Enrique, but the Brazilian World Player of the Year does not relish that role, and Leeds initially negated his menace as well as any team can against such a superlative player. By the second half, with Phillip Cocu orchestrating dynamic Barça rhythms from midfield and Rivaldo playing slightly deeper in a three-man assault force, it was hard to imagine Leeds surviving, let alone maintaining their advantage. That they did claim a point was testimony to their profound resolve.

The atmosphere was somehow reminiscent of Carrow Road in 1993 when another English team, Norwich, survived to record an unlikely Uefa Cup victory over Bayern Munich. Now, as then, a doughty struggle against superior opposition produced the rare spectacle of a cynical, normally impassive, media congregation willing Leeds to prevail. The same will undoubtedly hold true in Milan in 10 days' time. "Milan are aware that we're not an easy team to beat," reflected striker Mark Viduka. "I hope we can go there on fire and that they have a bad game. With all our players back, people like Eirik Bakke and Olivier Dacourt, we're a decent side."

One certainty is that the bustling yet deft-footed Australian will have to repeat Tuesday's exhibition, when, quite apart from threatening the Barcelona goal directly, he was crucial in taking pressure off his midfield and rearguard by maintaining possession.

He is now approaching his best Celtic form. "It's been difficult to settle in, because of all the injuries to our players," he said. "It disturbs the rhythm, and that's unsettling. But my fitness is getting better and I feel stronger with every game."

From cautious beginnings, you feel that in the Champions' League, Leeds do too.

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