Luton Airport was cloaked in fog when England's footballers arrived back from Norway in the early hours of yesterday morning. It was a depressingly appropriate sight, a few hours earlier the direction of the England team had seemed equally indistinct.
While a goalless draw away to Norway is not a bad result, it was achieved through an ordinary performance. In its aftermath Terry Venables, normally so keen to emphasise performance before result, was singing a different tune. "If that was a qualifying match we would have done the job. It is a good result," Venables said. "I was happy with everyone."
It was a bizarre assessment. While David Seaman enhanced his reputation, and Steve Stone's brief appearance showed promise, Tony Adams and Gary Pallister were the only other players to emerge with credit. Having gained a clean sheet, away from home, against difficult opposition, they and Seaman had every right to feel pleased.
However, Adams and Pallister had only proved what everybody knows, against opponents whose attacking ideas are built on set-pieces and brute force they are as good as anyone in the game. Adams must have felt he was in the middle of an Arsenal training session under George Graham, almost every Norway attack was precipitated by a throw-in or corner.
Stopping Norway, never the most creative of teams, is one thing, but breaking them down is another kettle of herring entirely. Where the central defenders, and the rest of the team, was found wanting was in using the ball. With Norway defending deep and in numbers the situation cried out for a defender capable and willing to carry the ball towards them, attacking the space and committing their opponents.
One can understand why Venables is reluctant to criticise his players. Graham Taylor did so and eventually lost them. Club managers are often scathing in their criticism - Frank Clark has inspired several improved performances by such means. But, while a chastened club player will be back in action within a week, an international may be left to fester for a month or more.
One player who has received Venables' fullest backing is Alan Shearer. He has been included in all but one of Venables' 13 selections - he was injured for the goalless draw with Uruguay - but has scored only against Greece and the United States. His last goal was 13 months and more than 12 hours of football ago.
Although Barmby played further forward on Wednesday, the suspicion remains that Shearer is better suited to playing in a partnership, as he does at Blackburn. His pace and close control, the chief requirements for a lone role are not, by international standards, exceptional. It is his reactions, shooting and strength that impress and those qualities feed on flick-ons and crosses rather than balls in to feet.
However, he may have Darren Anderton and Paul Gascoigne back to supply him for England's next match, against Switzerland at Wembley next month. David Platt, if fit, can also expect a recall, if only for the goals he provides. With John Barnes also back in contention England may have a completely reshaped midfield. But do not expect Matt Le Tissier to be recalled, even though his passing might have opened up Norway's stifling defence.
Norway's lack of ambition was partly dictated by their next match, away to the Netherlands on 15 November. Assuming the Czech Republic beat Luxembourg at home the same night, Norway must gain a draw to qualify for the European Championship - and put the Netherlands out.
Only two teams are certain of being here next summer, Spain and Russia, the winners of Groups Two and Eight. Most of the following will also be here: Romania, France, Denmark, Switzerland, Turkey, Croatia, Portugal, Bulgaria, Germany, Scotland, Italy, the Republic of Ireland or Austria and two from Norway, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. Two of the above will have to play off at Liverpool on 13 December. The draw is made four days later in Birmingham.
Who England are drawn with will decide their spring opponents. After Switzerland they host Portugal on 12 December. The FA hopes to arrange four matches in the new year with Croatia and France likely opponents - as long as neither is drawn in England's group.
The success of the security operation in Norway has also raised the prospect of another game overseas. Sweden, who have failed to qualify for Euro '96, are possibilities with February a likely date. Since that is just four months from the start of the championships, they will need to return in better shape than from this week's Scandinavian journey.Reuse content