Passion play that needs poise

Ian Ridley studies the agenda as English football prepares for summit
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The Independent Online
THE match between Tottenham and Newcastle last Sunday was mostly acclaimed as a marvellous match, a great advertisement for English football. It was nothing of the sort, though it was an accurate advertisement of the game in England.

For those inside White Hart Lane it must have seemed thrilling: vibrant atmosphere, end-to-end play. For some of us watching on television, it was an example of why the English game flounders in Europe, part '95 of which was played out last week as four clubs put into practice the Eurosceptics' plea for an opt-out clause. Money, money everywhere and not a goal to show.

The problem of Spurs v Newcastle was the unrelenting pace, the very thing that so endears it to the television audiences of the world. When players of control and vision such as Teddy Sheringham and Peter Beardsley are surrendering possession cheaply, when finishers of the stature of Les Ferdinand are exhaustedly stretching for and missing late chances, something is clearly amiss.

It is a subject that should crop up when the England coach Terry Venables hosts the FA's proposed summit with the managers of England's European representatives this season, plus two from last year in Kevin Keegan of Newcastle and Glenn Hoddle of Chelsea. Readers of these columns will be aware of the annual attempt to analyse deficiencies but when ITV start bemoaning the failures, angry that their millions are continually going down the tube, you know that summit must be done.

Gradually the long-term failings are being addressed, notably the need for better coaching of young players, as detailed here a fortnight ago. But in the more immediate concern of the short term, too, there can be remedies, such as the uncluttering of the three-games-in-eight-days autumn. That, though, would need self-interest to be postponed and, for example, the Coca-Cola Cup programme to be reappraised.

There is also the need for more enlightened thinking. The question of pace was mentioned recently by Venables himself. No country plays a more consistently high-tempo game than England; but a team, as the better Europeans demonstrate, need a change of pace in their make-up. Energy has to be conserved so that tackles are not missed, the ball given up and goal opportunities spurned. Variation is the spice, pace the final frontier.

Leeds might have expected PSV Eindhoven to buckle at Elland Road under an onslaught in their first leg; instead, the visitors' swiftness to break offered surprise where Leeds had been predictable. The Dutch were also fresh enough to score two late goals. Last week saw Alan Shearer afflicted with the Ferdinand syndrome as he and Blackburn were thwarted against Legia Warsaw at the finish.

Liverpool bent in the opposite direction as they became trapped in their own patience against Brondby; England's most technically accomplished also unable to vary the game. As for Everton's defeat by Feyenoord, the Dutch were the better of two poor teams in transition. Nottingham Forest? The lesson is that 0-0 should no longer be seen as a good result away from home, that the away goal is crucial.

"The amount of pace every player has, with the ball or without it, that's the big thing I have noticed. The pace at which they counter-attack," the Blackburn manager, Ray Harford, said after his side's goalless draw. "You feel as if you are being swarmed." An alarmed Rovers defender also described Legia's attacks as like the Red Arrows fanning out and coming at you. And the Poles are no more than a second- division Spartak Moscow.

"It is a controlled pace," Harford added. Were they then better athletes, he was asked. "There's athletes and there's football athletes," came the reply. And in there was the nub of the issue: during its exclusion from Europe, England produced too many athletes to the point where the skills of the fitful, fragile Paul Gascoigne put him a league apart and he is still seen as a messiah amid the mess.

It was an interesting theme, but instead of being allowed to develop it the beleaguered Harford, a more thoughtful man than TV interviews show and an ill-conceived Champions' League campaign suggests, was then subjected to questions about his future, the season being over for his team and how much money was available for new players. In that was another problem; a press more concerned with sensation than with solutions.

In between, Harford also pointed out that in the last 10 days his team had played Watford, Chelsea and Legia "and in defence they all played with two markers and one dropping off, so it's not just about systems and tactics. It's more about ability and quality of players".

Talking to one top-class player last week, I ventured that he was playing in both the best and worst of times, fortunate in these days of plenty that one good contract would set him up for life but unlucky that he had spent his formative years in an unimaginative system. He agreed, and added that sometimes he was embarrassed by the way English teams played, by players who did not want to learn and get better in return for all the money, who did not live well and take enough care of themselves. Injuries, he concurred, were sometimes as much to do with that as the intensity of the Premiership.

As that pop standard played over the Tannoys of struggling clubs urges, things can only get better. Surely it is more than a D:Ream. Though their seniors' European results have not yet shown it since winning the Cup- winners' Cup four years ago, Manchester United's youth team have offered an antidote to the functionalism of the late Eighties with more rounded players now emerging. Old Trafford has turned Ryan Giggs from flyer into footballer and Andy Cole's development should follow.

In a perverse way, the last week will have strengthened Venables's case in his quest to change Anglo-Saxon attitudes of the pre-Heysel ways. There does need to be an appreciation of the seemingly fallow periods in games when defenders retain possession, when the patient probing at which Eric Cantona excels is indulged before the direct approach is employed.

Such is the case in Italy, though their televised football often bores many here. That probably has much to do with pedestrian coverage of games played in the middle of running tracks and thus sometimes lacking atmosphere. Were Sky Sports, with their excellent camera work, let loose on it, it would undoubtedly visually eclipse the Premiership.

Today the cameras are trained on Goodison where Everton and Blackburn, last year's two main domestic winners and subsequent Euro casualties, will probably contest another exciting scrap more to their liking. Blackburn will also have Lars Bohinen back to further their claim to be a passing team. The difference between this Sunday and last, with a week of weary crosses leading to a string of noughts, is that we probably won't get fooled again. If we do, we have further in the re-education process to go than we thought.