McManaman to be let loose

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THESE are more fickle times than usual for the ever- introverted English game. Crowds rise and the rudely healthy infant that is the Premiership bawls lustily. Meanwhile, the last of its represent- atives in Europe is shown up and shown the exit. As Ron Greenwood once observed, our football looks marvellous as long as we are playing each other.

Today Wembley will be full for the first of the season's domestic cup finals while Old Trafford houses 50,000 for the conflicting Manchester United v Tottenham Premiership match, insultingly scheduled at the same time. Next Sunday, Old Trafford and Villa Park will be heaving for the senior competition's semi-finals, which is quite appropriate given the passion of the occasions and the number of people world-wide who wish to view it.

The limp lettuce in the sandwich will involve England and an expected crowd of only 30,000 when the national team play Bulgaria on Wednesday in their first match of this European Championship finals year.

Interest will pick up, the England coach Terry Venables believes, when Hungary visit in May and domestic events are out of the way. It used to be that any Wembley night attracted a full house of up to 100,000. Sadly, we seem so sated by home produce that fits an ever-shortening attention span that we have neither time - nor money - left over for the more patient, cerebral international challenge that is needed now more than ever.

It is a shame, not only because the countdown to Euro 96 has commenced - England begin against Switzerland in less than three months - but also because of the quality of the opposition. Bulgaria, even if they are unlikely to be giving of their utmost, retain the nucleus of the pleasing team who were World Cup semi-finalists in the United States two years ago.

The match also represents the beginning of the end of Venables's tenure and campaign, with only Croatia and Hungary and a week in China - political situation permitting - and Hong Kong left as preparation. It is a chance to monitor progress, or otherwise, in the circumstances of adversity caused by several serious injuries - to the first choices Tony Adams, Gary Pallister, Graeme Le Saux and Darren Anderton - and, in some cases, dips in form.

"I am not going to hold off on these games now," Venables said. "I am going to do what I have to do. The tinkering is over but the finding out is not. We still have to make some bold plays to find out what we can do."

If that sounds like a debut for the 20-year-old Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler, it may well be, though perhaps not from the start. Venables talked about playing him "at some stage". It is hard to see the coach splitting Alan Shearer, still dominating the Premiership but needing the chance to end a 10-game international goal drought, and Teddy Sheringham, looking increasingly effective for his country.

Fowler's club colleague Steve McManaman, also in rich form, is likely to get a start again, on the left of midfield with Venables seeking to coax from him some of the Liverpool form that he has looked too inhibited to produce in the last two internationals. "We have got to try and get him loose but make sure nothing suffers because of it," Venables said.

Venables is likely to retain a back four to counter Bulgaria's potential offering of a front three comprising Emil Kostadinov, Luboslav Penev and Hristo Stoichkov though, with a concession to his fondness for Ajax, their defence will be based on a flexible threesome.

The absence of Adams and Pallister might just offer him the chance to see if Gareth Southgate, should he come through the Coca-Cola Cup final safely, can bridge the gap between defence and midfield. Such a potentially vulnerable formation would probably mean a recall for Paul Ince in the holding position. It is one he did not see himself fulfilling at Manchester United - where he told Alex Ferguson that he wanted to be an attacking player instead - but which he has told Venables he is now happy to occupy.

Whatever the formation and personnel, Venables says in what sounds like unpatriotic heresy but is in reality an honest truth, that he would not mind losing should knowledge of longer-term value be gleaned.

"I know winning is important but I don't think we should get carried away by that idea otherwise you end up not doing things, not risking things and going backwards," he said. "You have to be a bit brave on losing to find out what we can do."

"Don't lose," was the simple advice offered by Venables's predecessor, Graham Taylor. Before that, another England manager in Greenwood lamented that an obsession with results was the ruination of the English game. Damaging such obsession may be, but an international apathy would be worse.

England (possible): Seaman; G Neville, Southgate, Howey, Pearce; Stone, Gascoigne, Ince, McManaman; Shearer, Sheringham.