Pride before a fall

Stan Hey watches a day full of great expectations end in frustration
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The Independent Online
So England got less than half of what they wanted. They rediscovered their long-lost goal-scorer but lost the plot of this opening game so emphatically that, by the end, a Swiss victory seemed more likely. But on a day when the virtues of Englishness had been celebrated in the pre- game show, it seemed somehow inevitable that national pride should come before a fall.

The opening pageantry had been medium to overdone in terms of stodginess, with a mounted St George taking on a man in a rubber dragon suit. The absence of Vinny Jones in the VIP ranks was noted at this point. But then, when one of the jousting knights fell from his horse and collided with a wall, it seemed that some of the national self-glorification had backfired.

However, the spirits of the stadium were lifted by the spectacular free- fall display by the Parachute Regiment, and by the parade of former England internationals. The biggest cheer of the preliminaries came, though, with the arrival of a well-filled blond on to the pitch - Gazza warming up.

Indeed, Gascoigne's bubbling enthusiasm infused the opening 10 minutes of the game with the team giving a fair impression of having watched Henry V in the dressing room - "Cry God for Terry, England and St George!"

But a surefire source of the adrenalin was the simple fact of a return to competitive football after nearly two-and-a-half years. The last time England had a match with anything other than prestige at stake was against San Marino in November 1993.

However, a more significant date as far as England's tournament prospects were concerned was 7 September 1994, the last time Alan Shearer had scored for his country - a double against the United States. Most professional eyes were on the Premiership's most devastating marksman, who had scored only five goals in 23 internationals.

With Shearer's input limited to one clever chest pass from a throw-in during the first 20 minutes, the theorising had already begun: "He doesn't like playing with his back to goal... the system is wrong for him."

But then, suddenly, the beleaguered striker was in the clear, the ball at his feet with a clear sight of the Swiss goal, and the right foot swung instinctively like a jack hammer into the ball, blasting not just a goal for England but a personal escape route for Shearer from his entombment.

Suddenly, he was playing like a man who could see all the patterns again and the surge in self-confidence was instantly visible. He might have scored again with a downward header from Stuart Pearce's deep cross and then, early in the second half, a skimming drive was just wide of the post as Shearer sought a follow-up fix.

It has to be said that his return to form was much needed, because it coincided with a distinct uncertainty in the England defence and midfield cover, which had allowed the Swiss clear-cut chances to register a score of their own.

More worryingly for England was Gascoigne's rapid decline from strutting around in centre stage in the early period to puffing around on the fringes after less than an hour. His 77th-minute substitution looked at least 20 minutes overdue, and England's fitness coaches will want to know whether it was just the heat, his tendency to over-excitement or a refuelling problem which did for him.

No less important than how Gascoigne faded was the encouragement his removal from the field gave to England's opponents. Johann Vogel drove a shot just wide, and then came the fateful penalty award, which left England's players who are still fit with an Alp to climb.

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