Method behind the numbers game

England under Venables: the men who have worn the three lions: Terry Venables has called up 54 players to his various squads, but he has always had a long-term strategy in mind, says Glenn Moore
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The Independent Online
When Terry Venables picked his first squad, in March 1994, he said he wished he could have called up 50 players, rather than the 18 he had chosen. It sounded like a typical Venables quip, but it was not. Tomorrow, two years, three months and 19 internationals later, he picks his first competitive XI having given auditions to 54.

Seven of those never got beyond Bisham Abbey's training pitches but 47 made it into the team, 27 of them capped for the first time. A few players may feel they did not get a fair crack - Matt Le Tissier among them - but no one can argue they were not given a chance.

Along the way there were a few surprises. Kevin Richardson was so astonished to be picked in Venables' second squad he sat reading his name on Teletext for two minutes in case it disappeared. Steve Bould, Barry Venison and the Neville brothers, Phil and Gary, were just as shocked when they got the call.

The Nevilles survived the regular culling prompted by loss of form, loss of fitness or, in some extreme cases, a potential loss of liberty. Many others fell by the wayside, often with dramatic speed. Ever since he got the job Venables has complained he did not have enough matches in which to develop his team, a situation not helped by the cancellation of the German fixture and the abandonment in Dublin.

In consequence he has had to move quicker than he wanted. He has never sent the same team out twice, he has only played four games without giving a debut, and eight players have been discarded after playing just one game. No wonder one critic accused him of throwing around caps like confetti.

Venables reacted angrily to that charge and, despite all the chopping and changing, he may have been justified in doing so. Whilst he has never stopped experimenting he has preserved several strands of continuity. It would be stretching a point to say he has always known what direction he was going in, but he has followed a consistent path.

From the first Venables sought to build a squad which is flexible and versatile. The emphasis has been on intelligent players with the wit and awareness to adapt to a variety of systems and formations. There has also been a growing trend towards youth. The first squads included Richardson, Steve Bould, Peter Beardsley, Barry Venison and John Barnes. Chris Waddle would also have been included if fit.

None of them survive. Instead four players, Nick Barmby, Sol Campbell, Robbie Fowler and Jamie Redknapp, who were brought into the squad for the United States game "for the experience" are now in the final 22 on merit.

There has also been continuity in the line-ups. Ten of his first squad have made it through to the final 22. Alan Shearer, Tony Adams and Darren Anderton have played in every game for which they have been fit, David Platt has only missed out once. At left-back either Graeme Le Saux, or his replacement Stuart Pearce, has played every game except the last - when Phil Neville was given a debut.

In goal David Seaman gradually saw off the challenge of Tim Flowers; Teddy Sheringham and Nick Barmby superceded Peter Beardsley; Gary Neville stepped ahead of Rob Jones. The latter, like Le Saux, Gary Pallister, Mark Wright and Stan Collymore, was finally ruled out of Euro 96 through injury.

Injury, the constant partner of the footballer, also appears to have brought a premature end to the claims of Bould, Paul Parker, Neil Ruddock and John Scales, none of whom regained a squad place lost through injury. Loss of club form was the other main cause of shattered dreams. It accounted for Richardson, despite a good debut, David Unsworth, Paul Merson, Andy Cole and all seven fringe players. Venison's promising start was not enough to save him after he moved to Turkey while Barnes dropped out after missing the Norway game on compassionate leave after his wife miscarried. Warren Barton, Colin Cooper and David Batty failed to take their chance, though each could earn another under Glenn Hoddle.

Which brings us to Le Tissier. He has barely rated a mention in recent weeks but, 15 months ago, the country was calling for him. Had that dipping volley gone in against Romania it could have been so different. As it was, he was dropped after the Dublin debacle, Venables having decided that, while Southampton had to indulge his capriciousness, England did not. His subsequent form has precluded any clamour for a recall.

Le Tissier was one of a clutch of new players brought in by Venables when he took over. Anderton and Le Saux were the notable successes, both taking naturally to international football as Venables began with his famous Christmas tree (4-3-2-1) formation.

That was modified after the World Cup when he noted that 17 of the 24 finalists operated with split strikers and most flooded the midfield. Teddy Sheringham came in to play off Shearer and they clicked from the start. It took another nine games, and his goal against Switzerland, before his contribution received wider recognition. Shearer has since struggled to score goals but, in general, chanes have been created elsewhere and Venables' policy of picking goalscoring midfielders suggests England will not suffer many blanks.

Venables tried other ideas, against Romania and Ireland he pushed the forwards wide, hoping to create space for players coming through. Against Ireland he also aimed to push the full-backs into midfield and pull Paul Ince back towards the central defence. It was too early, the team were a mess and Ince was not happy playing there.

Thirteen months and a spell of exile later Ince was more amenable and the team had a better understanding of Venables' aim. He was now seeking to follow Ajax's defensive system. The full-backs were pulled in rather than pushed up, a central defender was asked to be prepared to step into midfield - or a central midfielder be ready to step back. "You need the players," Don Howe said, and Southgate's emergence solved the former problem, Ince's development the latter. England are now capable of playing the numbers game in midfield.

Wright and Le Saux will be missed, but most teams have some injury problems. Venables has achieved the flexibility he aimed for though he would have liked to give Southgate, Steve Howey, Sol Campbell and others more experience.

Now it is down to his best XI. It is not in Venables' nature to pick a side and stick by it, he will adapt it to suit each game and use substitutes liberally. The plotting, planning and praying have not finished yet - they are only just beginning.