Stone rolls to the fore as Venables' flexible find

England's draw against Portugal has given their coach a lot to think about
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As interest rates drop in the City they rise in the Chancellor's sporting passion. Tuesday's World Cup draw, and the impending European Championship lottery, have dispelled the phoney-war feel about Terry Venables' England. Even the team appeared to catch the mood on Tuesday, rousing itself after a cautious start to partake in a second successive entertaining international.

The draw with Portugal was illuminated by Steve Stone's goal and overall performance. Maybe the feel-good factor he engendered in Kenneth Clarke, a noted Nottingham Forest fan, helped foster yesterday morning's cut in the base rate. It certainly helped Venables: most of the tabloid reaction was along the lines of "gem-Stone" and "Stone me". That England were, for the sixth time in 11 home internationals, held to a draw seemed to escape notice.

Not that Portugal are easy to beat. Their only defeat in 16 matches came in Dublin in April, and that was avenged by last month's 3-0 victory in Lisbon.

Since his appointment Venables has attempted to adhere to a policy of playing the best: there is nothing to be learned from knocking over the likes of San Marino. In that respect England's warm-up games for next year's European Championship finals have been more useful than Scotland's qualifying matches, although they have lacked a competitive edge. Aside from the United States all the opponents, even Japan if judged by their Wembley performance, have been respectable.

"It was a good test," said Venables after the game. "If we could get two or three more games like that before the finals it would be excellent."

Who England do play next will be determined by Sunday's European Championship draw in Birmingham. Croatia are one likely opponent; Italy, following their World Cup pairing with England, are not. The spring series will be followed by a short tour to "bond" the final squad, perhaps to South Africa.

By then Venables will have had to refine his squad to 20 names plus a reserve goalkeeper. This will be difficult. He named 23 for this game and had Darren Anderton and Gary Pallister unavailable. Other contenders, such as Paul Ince, John Scales, Neil Ruddock, John Barnes, Stan Collymore and Paul Merson, were not selected.

As soon as the process of picking a theoretical 20-man squad begins problems emerge. Venables stressed that, if England were to play all six matches, he may need to call on all 20 players. Which makes the need for versatility particularly clear.

With that in mind Gareth Southgate's composed first appearance on Tuesday gains significance. Robert Lee, David Platt, Teddy Sheringham, Dennis Wise and Graeme Le Saux can also fill more than one position.

Southgate is a rarity in that he can play in central defence or midfield. At present England's defenders are limited in flexibility. Only Le Saux, of the full-backs, can play in midfield and neither the full-backs nor the centre-backs are interchangeable. Thus there may yet be a chance for the likes of Sol Campbell, David Unsworth, or Warren Barton to regain their place in the squad.

In midfield the performances of Stone, Wise, Lee and Jamie Redknapp threaten the place of the captain, Platt, but it is in attack the biggest selectorial controversy may arise. It is hard to imagine Venables picking five central strikers yet, if Barmby, Peter Beardsley, Sheringham and Alan Shearer are considered near-certainties, what happens to Les Ferdinand?

Pairing Ferdinand with Shearer did not really work. "Les and Alan had their moments, they worked hard," Venables said. "I do not know if I would play them together again but I would not be frightened to so. I was quite pleased with them. They do cause danger, both in the air and on the ground." Hardly high praise, but Ferdinand is the obvious cover if Shearer were to be injured, and it would be a risk to omit him.

There is, of course, six months to go and a lot of players could be injured before then. There is also the matter of arranging the World Cup qualifying fixtures, and settling Venables' future. "I would think we will have sat down and talked about it before we do the fixtures," Venables. said "It would be helpful for both parties."