Press gang up on the nation's fall-guy

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The Independent Online
GARY LINEKER and David Gower have been reminding us recently that, even in retirement, dignity is not always available to our sporting heroes. They star jointly in a television quiz show called They Think It's All Over ... which is a programme of largely innocuous daftness laced with leers and insults aimed mainly at the famous pair, who take it all with the patient charm that accompanied their many gifts on the field of play.

But it occurred to me the other night that in earning a living by having the piss taken out of them by trainee comedians, Lineker and Gower were enduring an experience not dissimilar to that of the England football team. Indeed, I begin to wonder if the England football team exists for any other reason than to provide material for wit-mongers, headline writers, pundits and commentators and provide travel opportunities for xenophobes.

This fixation with a national team that has been failing to produce the goods for the best part of the century is distorting our game. Only last week, we discussed a survey that revealed the average English football fan as more concerned with the fortunes of his club than the foibles of the team that represents his country. But the media seem to invest every move made by the national team with incomparable importance. After watching, hearing and reading their reaction to England's goalless draw in Norway you would think that they'd been beaten 5-0 and that Terry Venables had run amok with a meat-axe.

The fact is that England are not really germane to the thrust of footballing matters at the moment. They are in preparation for next year's European Championships for which, as hosts, they don't have to qualify, unlike the other inhabitants of these isles in various painful stages of qualifying or not qualifying. England are almost an irrelevance under the circumstances.

Did we need them last week, for instance? It is hardly England's fault if their automatic qualification as hosts has doomed them to a series of friendlies, but their presence on the agenda was never going to bring any genuine weight to a week already brimming with football interest. Middlesbrough's signing of Juninho was enough sensation to be going on with and we had three real international matches involving both Irish teams in Group Six and Wales's home tie with Germany.

Yet, such is the obsession with England and their coach that these were regarded as piffling events compared with the appearance of a weakened English team in a friendly fixture in Norway. Before we reached that point, however, the ritual hooligan scares had to be undergone while a sprinkling of patriotic Englishmen who hadn't gone to Blackpool to strut their stuff were winkled out of Oslo by a very efficient local police force.

Apart from a resolute determination to eject the yobs we allow to leave our shores, Norway also possess a football team not renowned for welcoming England's footballers, whose last victory there was 30 years ago. The most notable defeat was suffered there in June 1993 when England's 2-0 defeat in the World Cup qualifiers brought the pitiless avalanche down upon the head of Venables' predecessor Graham Taylor.

It was brave, foolhardy even, for Venables to present his team at such a place and against a country lying in fourth place in the world rankings. To come away with a goalless draw, unappealing as it might have been, was no mean feat in the currency of these occasions. Indeed, in 12 matches the England of Venables have prevented the opposition from scoring in eight and have lost only to the world champions.

I have never yet encountered a footballing authority who didn't advise that the way out of a football recession was to build on solid foundations. Venables has stiffened the resistance but clearly has a little progress to make on the offensive front. Alan Shearer, the manager's choice as the lone front-runner, has not scored for eight games. Regrettable but by no means catastrophic. There is not a better striker in the country, but how often has he played in a complete England team?

Paul Gascoigne, David Platt, Darren Anderton and Peter Beardsley were among those missing. Had they played, England might well have won. Then, of course, the media would have gone so far over the top as to produce an opposite distortion that would have been no more helpful. Had Gascoigne played and had he performed with half the brilliance shown by Ryan Giggs, BBC's Sportsnight team would have wet themselves. As it happened, they showed only a brief glimpse of the excellent game between Wales and Germany. By then the resident judges, Jimmy Hill and Alan Hansen, who had been required to give marks out of 10 to Venables, had presumably left to catch the last tube home and the one meaningful demonstration of footballing skills by any Briton that night went unrecognised.

I don't blame them, any more than I blame my writing colleagues. They don't set the priorities. But Terry Venables - or Verry Terribles as the Sun now calls him - is being pilloried before he has put out an England team into a competitive match. It is a madness. He should be given at least until after the 1998 World Cup, and in the meantime those res- ponsible for our football coverage should bring a touch of balance and perspective to their work.

T HE BBC gain deserved sym- pathy for the way satellite television can outbid them for the big sporting events. But I doubt if rugby league followers will be so forthcoming with the pity in future. What have the Beeb done with their exclusive contract for the World Cup? They have cornered the three Saturday afternoon plum fixtures and are giving minimum coverage to the rest.

Live TV have captured the cable rights and are showing the lot, but to a very restricted audience. In Wales, viewers will see tonight's game against Western Samoa with a Welsh commentary, as they did the French match last Monday. The France-Western Samoa match didn't get an airing. Viewers either side of the Pennines are given the occasional evening highlights programme but no one else in Britain. A shame; the New Zealand-Tonga match last Sunday was rated one of the best ever seen.

At a time when league is fighting to display its wares, the BBC are doing the minimum to help. It may not be their fault but it underlines their inadequacies when there is more than lip-mike service to be given to a sport. Never mind; the RFU will be delighted.

LAMMTARRA, arguably one of the great racehorses of all time, has been retired from the track. The three-year-old has raced only four times and has won the Derby, the King George and the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. Now he retires to stud, where he can look forward to about 17 years of service before another 10 years of quiet grazing. I don't know if Linford Christie, John Regis and the lads believe in reincarnation but a silent prayer to come back as a racehorse wouldn't hurt.