Football's becoming home

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The Independent Online
From Cathay to catharsis. In four weeks, English football seems to have been transformed from a laughing stock to serious players in the world game. It never was quite as bad as it appeared, nor may it be quite as good away from Wembley, but let us enjoy for a while at least the measure of redemption and rehabilitation.

It did not take just one month for England to return themselves to the top rank of European nations. In fact, it took 29 months, and the place in the last four was so nearly a perfect final curtain, testament to Terry Venables's best My Way theory and practice.

Players win and lose matches but coaches make a difference, as Graham Taylor and Venables have shown. Their records may not differ immensely but the mood that each has engendered does. Now, after the pride of the Three Lions has been restored, there is the bonus of respect that has been extended towards the game's mother country.

As Venables himself says: "Not long ago we were saying 'we don't want to play them, they'll kick us.' Now we are saying 'bring them on'." And bringing them on has been a crucial part of a measured business plan he could at times have done with applying to his commercial life.

On taking over, he worked with the attack, to make sure they absorbed the new lessons of deep- lying strikers, and he tried to achieve a few morale-boosting results. The more experienced players were given their chance. Then came the midfield as Venables emphasised the need to match up numbers with modern teams who moved men more smoothly around the field. Gradually the younger players were introduced.

Finally, the defence became accustomed to the idea of operating with just three men at opportune times, so that one player could be used more beneficially further forward. When there were doubts, Venables ate them up and spat them out.

It all came to fruition last Wednesday against Germany in a match that transcended nationalism. This was an event that confirmed why this game is worthy of so much attention, one that improved with each intensely absorbing minute as had the World Cup encounter between the two nations in Turin six years ago. It brimmed with quality and heroism and celebrated the human spirit in its shared experience and sportsmanship.

One moment typified it. Paul Gascoigne played a wall pass with Darren Anderton and seemed to be through on goal. Then, from nowhere, Thomas Helmer stretched every sinew of his right leg to flick the ball away for a corner. Gascoigne, frustrated, returned to the prostrate Helmer with a smile on his face and patted the colossus of a defender on the head.

More followed. David Seaman and Andreas Kopke came together to exchange best wishes before the penalty shoot-out; the injured Jurgen Klinsmann hobbled on to commiserate with the hapless Gareth Southgate at the deflating conclusion. Then Southgate, a tear never more than a word away, stood tall to face the press. His reward was an ovation.

Here was redemption all round for the English. The collective response of dignified sympathy for Southgate showed the nation at its best; the collective responsibility of the players was an example to the young of what a team sport can instil. Venables's team had a brave, true and honest soul. Their easy, efficient displays of flexibility were recognised as the very stuff we need and should nurture.

Heartening, too, was the reaction to the pre-game jingoism trained on the Germans. Those seeking cheap laughs or looking to score easy, distasteful points were quickly shown to have misjudged the mood and they quickly withdrew in shame.

So did the hooligans who finally crept out under cover of that night's darkness. The real fans had been inside Wembley turning it into a museum of the moving image. Football may not truly have come home but something more important has. The class has turned on the disruptive bullies spoiling it for everyone else. England has moved on - as Venables's team and the genuine supporter has shown.

The coach's aim was always to marry the fabled English heart to a new tactical thoughtfulness. If Germany confirmed the former, the breathtaking hour against Holland revealed the latter for the most satisfying moment of his tenure.

"We'll always have Paris," Bergman said to Bogart at the end of Casablanca. Venables will always have the Dutch. The day before the match he spent 90 minutes dissecting their game and suggesting an antidote. Impressed by the information, his players emerged from the meeting feeling like world-beaters.

Regrets? He's probably had a few, but too few for him to mention. Certainly England would have relished a final against the Czech Republic. Anderton's lack of match sharpness was probably one regret and the period of nervousness after Alan Shearer's early goal against the Germans another.

It did point out a shortcoming of Venables's England teams. Always hard to beat, they only looked like finishing off the opposition against Holland, and too often left themselves open to the draw that was to prove their undoing. As many matches were drawn - 11- as were won under him.

His legacy is evident beyond results. He was initially uncomfortable when asked about it, but did consider the improvements. "We have shown that if it's physical we can handle that and if it's a football match, we can deal with that too," he said. "We have men for all seasons. Intelligent players who can adapt a lot quicker than we thought they may have been able to."

Now young minds are open to the sophistication that international football demands and the Premiership often feels forced to abandon in the scramble for points. Now there is a base of belief after the abasement of club competition in Europe last season.

It is a hard act for Glenn Hoddle to follow, but an easier task than it would have been two years and five months ago. "I think Terry and myself are quite similar in our philosophies on football and as people as well," he said on Friday at Bisham Abbey's media centre some 19 hours after Venables's departure.

"You have to cocoon yourself. He has that gift and I can do that myself. I have never lost any sleep over a game of football [unlike Graham Taylor and his soaking pyjamas] and I won't do in the future. I have got other things in my life to fulfil it."

He hoped his experiences abroad, he added, would be used to as good effect as Venables's. "Perhaps if Graham, Bobby Robson and Ron Greenwood had been abroad they might have approached the job a little differently," he said in what may have been a minor barb aimed at the latter two, who were largely indifferent to his talents as a player.

The fallacy about Hoddle is that he will let loose an entertainers' XI. In fact he will be as pragmatic as Venables. "It would be lovely to put in eight offensive players but we have to learn from Brazil. The nation was clamouring for the most skilful players but the manager had a nice balance. In world football you have got to win the ball back. Players with immense talent can't do anything without the ball."

Naturally enough, Matthew Le Tissier's name cropped up. "I'm not thinking about one player," he said. "There are probably 20 players outside the squad I have thought about." He would, he added, be foolish to change the make-up drastically for the World Cup qualifying match in Moldova on 1 September. None was ruled in, none ruled out. It does seem certain, however, that he will play with wing-backs and a three-man central defence that might include a sweeper or libero.

It seemed somehow irreverent that Hoddle had his feet under the table so quickly - he wanted to put the reporters doorstepping him out of their misery - and that he should be talking of heroes no longer being guaranteed a place. There is, though, an opportunity to be seized, a wave to ride. Venables would want, and deserves, as much.