Ince indicative of English progress

INTERNATIONAL FOOTBALL: Venables and Brown see encouraging signs for Euro 96 but McCarthy suffers losing start
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The Independent Online

It is often hard to read friendlies and Wednesday's international between England and Bulgaria was no exception. There are some who believe that foreign teams only try in competitive matches and view every English performance accordingly. If England win easily, the opposition were not interested; if they do not, England were rubbish.

Such a simplistic view ignores the fact that even a settled side like Bulgaria has people playing for their places, and every country has its pride. With slight reservations England's 1-0 win over Bulgaria, one of the dark horses for Euro 96, was impressive.

The reservations concern England's inability to kill off their opponents in a first half when the visitors may have been less than fully committed; and their loss of dominance in the second period.

Having only assembled on Tuesday, and then lost both Hristo Stoichkov and an early goal, Bulgaria could be forgiven for starting slowly. The second half, when more motivated fringe players were introduced, and senior players reacted to a half-time tongue-lashing, may be a truer indication of their mettle - and England's ability.

Yet England were still the better side. By the time David Seaman was exercised in the closing stages Teddy Sheringham, Les Ferdinand and Steve McManaman had each had chances to secure victory. It was a night when no England player could be said to have played badly. Steve Stone, though more subdued, was typically solid and was a frequent visitor to the box - only this time the knock-downs did not fall his way. On the other flank McManaman illustrated his growing confidence at this level with a couple of thrilling runs. Both players came inside while maintaining England's shape. With Paul Ince and Paul Gascoigne holding the centre, England had an encouraging balance.

Ince made a fine return. "Just like the old Paul Ince of Manchester United," it was suggested to the England coach. "Err, similar," said a wary Venables. "Playing in Italy has opened his mind tactically." Indeed, this was a more restrained Ince, no longer chasing all over the park, diving in with tackles, and being caught out of position and in the referee's notebook.

Though Ince says he is the same player, he is not. He appears to have accepted that his best role is as a defensive midfielder, protecting the back four and only advancing when appropriate. At one stage on Wednesday he stepped into central defence when Gareth Southgate moved forward; at another he filled the right-back spot as Gary Neville pushed up.

It brought to mind Ruud Gullit's assertion, before the Newcastle United- Manchester United game a few weeks ago, that it was Manchester, not Newcastle, whose game more closely matched Dutch total football. Gullit pointed out that Manchester's players were better at filling each other's positions. Later that night there was a classic example when Gary Neville went forward. As the attack broke down one looked to the right-back spot, and there was Eric Cantona, filling the hole.

Venables is aiming for similar versatility with his players. This needs ability as well as discipline. It is all very well a left-back being on the wing, or vice-versa, but he needs to know what he is doing when he gets there. Thus Venables' preference for young, flexible defenders, like the Nevilles, Southgate and Steve Howey.

Some positions remain the home of specialists. The way Les Ferdinand took his goal will have given Venables - and Alan Shearer - much to think about. So, too, Fowler's appearance. While he had no chance to score, a sweet cross-field ball to McManaman illustrated both the growing range of his game, and his composure.

Venables' evening was capped by news of Darren Anderton, who had 45 minutes for Spurs reserves. He could yet be an influence in the summer.

A footnote on a busy international night: of 11 matches only the attendance in Dublin exceeded that at Wembley. Germany could only attract 25,000 to play Denmark, Belgium and France drew just 16,000, while Portugal had a derisory 3,000 for the visit of Greece.