MONDAY VIEWPOINT England in need of bright sparks

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The Independent Online
I thought the Uruguayan manager, Hector Nuez, had more cheek than an episode of Baywatch when he branded England unimaginative last week. I struggled to sit through the whole match and at the end I felt it was the visitors who were intent on killing the game.

At international level, any organised outfit with its heart set on a draw is hard to break down. Even the so-called minnows, with a goalkeeper and 10 well-drilled defenders, can usually provide a formidable barrier and a tedious spectacle. But the Uruguayans are a top international side whose trade mark has been ruthless defence.

It was undoubtedly a damp England performance, and Nuez was quick to complain about the home side's lack of creation. But creation needs spark, and spark is rare from tired bones. Most of these players have already been asked to peak twice a week for the past 32 in the most physically demanding league in the world.

Terry Venables is a football man and he knows the score. Yes it was an international, yes you are supposed to die for the jersey, but he will know the players' approach to a late-season friendly will be very different to their attitude for a vital European Championship match.

The England manager is testing systems and gauging who can adapt to the different questions raised by international football. In the meantime he has managed to maintain an acceptable record - just about enough to keep the popular press at bay.

Being England coach is the most over-scrutinised and harshly judged job in the country. The media's job is short-term - they make snap judgements about international credentials. The manager's brief is longer term and Venables knows these friendlies will be forgotten if his overall strategy succeeds and England win Euro '96.

It would appear that the overall plan will not include the talents of Matt Le Tissier. To the outsider his omission is astonishing, considering the incredible season he has had. If he was Scottish he would be a national hero.

His style is almost an identikit of the perfect Scottish player: outrageously skilful, almost nonchalant about it and when his career is over he will probably have failed to achieve half of what he should have.

He is just one of an embarrassment of riches England can afford to be blas about. At centre-forward alone there are seven or eight players who would be stars in almost any other international side.

I remember once sitting in the Everton dressing-room when Andy Roxburgh came in for a chat. He talked loudly about his envy of the quality and quantity of England's strikers. The embarrassment of it, the Scotland manager owning up to this, in front of my English team-mates, it was like being stabbed by my own skean-dhu.

Although my life was hell for the next six months I know Andy was and is right, and that when the brightest star, Paul Gascoigne, returns, England will be a force again.

He is the missing spark, providing pure skill, vision and perpetual motion as well as a personality that can lift and shape a whole team, if not a pair of false boobs. Venables will almost certainly build his team around Gazza.

More than anyone, the Geordie can release the huge talents that exist in the English squad. However, the dangers of building a team around any individual are obvious and especially around one with such an "interesting" temperament. Injury or some typical moment of madness can easily scupper a manager's best-laid plans.

The Scotland boss, Craig Brown, must feel the same way about Duncan Ferguson. Adored by team-mates and fans alike, the extreme personalities of such players are inextricably linked to their brilliance and almost always eventually contribute to their downfall.

In the long run it is important for British football that the home nations do well in Euro '96 - even better if the entertaining characters were to come to the fore. I hope the Irish qualify, and that England have a great tournament, before being knocked out by a Duncan Ferguson header, following an uncharacteristically slack pass by Gazza.

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