The night of the kick-start

while the young ones respond to Venables' innovations as the European Championship finals draw near; Ian Ridley watches a new creative force begin to catch up with the rest of the world
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The Independent Online
THERE was a moment in the recent Channel 4 comedy drama Eleven Men Against Eleven when the old-fashioned-manager character lamented a modern game in which even Patsy Kensit was given a platform for her opinions on football, absolute beginner though she may be.

Graham Taylor had been much amused by it, he said last week at the end of the latest press conference on his Wolverhampton Wanderers' mediocre start to the season, even if there had been a little swipe at him in one scene. This patsy, too, seemed in a world-weary mood, bemused by all the attention and expectation - not just on his own club - inflated these days by pervasive press and television and copious phone-ins and forums.

An hour earlier, Wolves had played with a similar tiredness, the 4-4- 2 which had served Taylor well as a club manager down the years looking predictable and outdated. Then came Terry Venables's newish England, the energy and enthusiasm of youth travelling without the baggage of the bad old days.

It is not just Venables's charisma that has seen him treated with more respect than the Vegetable. After all, Taylor's record as England manager after 11 games - won eight, drawn three - compares favourably with his successor's won five, drawn five, lost one after the 0-0 draw at Wembley against Colombia, a result for which Taylor might have been vilified.

It is more that, finally, Venables offers optimism, the Colombia match the first time his ideas have neared fruition. While Taylor adhered to fin de siecle football, the present coach hints at a new century. "We either stay as we are, me shut my mouth and say this is the way it is always going to be," Venables said, "or we actually try to do something about it."

And finally we saw something stirring in his attempt to implement some of the innovative tactics on view in the world game. We saw a defender stepping into midfield out of a traditionally rigid, and often unnecessary, back four in the manner of Frank Rijkaard last season for Ajax, whom Venables and his assistant Don Howe, a recent visitor to study the set-up in Amsterdam, much admire. We saw not ball-winners but ball users. We saw flexible players further forward, embodied in the neat Nicky Barmby, offering variety to pose defences diverse problems.

"That's what you have got to do if you are going to go into those areas of the best," Venables said. "Just to play 4-4-2 may be all right, but I don't think so. The players just need convincing. I was pleasantly surprised they were up for it quickly, all of them. Normally players say, 'We don't do that' or, 'It's an international, we'll get stick.' I say, 'Well, that's my problem. You play the football and I'll take the stick.' "

Perhaps the English player does have a capacity for open-mindedness, even though the Austrian coach Willy Meisl's Whirl and Dutch Total Football largely passed him by. It is probably more the coaches in need of change. A more cosmopolitan Premiership, forced on them by prices at home, will surely help. In this week's European ties, featuring six English clubs, we may see some development so far and evidence of the need for more.

Rarely can a goalless home draw have taken less stick, even allowing for the goal-frame thrice denying England. But after 15 minutes of 'can we have our ball back, senor?', Venables's youngsters bucked the Latin system. It was for such impudence, as they hustled to press a talented midfield, at times matching what Alan Sugar might call Carlos Kickaball and Co in passing and movement, that they were indulged.

Indulgence will turn to expectation, however, and Venables recognises that there needs to be development. Style is one thing, the right men to implement it another. A fit Gary Pallister might take over the Steve Howey role of defender moving into midfield when circumstances dictate. It may be a function that Paul Ince can fulfil. A personal, though longer- term, preference remains Chris Sutton, who might yet be used as a defender, and become a top-class one, if Blackburn's striking problems continue and they fail to sign a back-four player.

More needs to come, too, from the wide attacking players. Dennis Wise was probably just keeping the right side warm for Darren Anderton; which may be why Steve McManaman remained on the left rather than switching, to see if he could operate in the same team as Anderton and fill the left- sided position that has caused Venables concern. McManaman, like his Liverpool team-mate and debutant Jamie Redknapp, concentrated on doing the simple things well and one hopes he gets another chance, when he might be more confident of attempting the ambitious.

That is not Paul Gascoigne's problem - to England's detriment sometimes, when he insists on taking control in deep areas only to give the ball away. But just as Bobby Robson used to say that when Bryan Robson played, England were a taller, prouder team, when Gazza plays, they are a brighter, livelier team. It is a mood that others catch, notably last Wednesday Barmby, who could be an international player for a long time.

One wonders where the captain, David Platt, might fit into all this after his recovery from a cartilage injury, with the tempo and balance of the team changing when he is present. England do, though, need his capacity for a goal every other game with Alan Shearer still short of sting and Rene Higuita's hairy scorpion kick consequently stealing the show.

Shearer has now gone seven games without a goal, which is a concern rather than a worry. Gary Lineker, after all, endured a similar spell in 1988- 9 and twice went fallow for six games in his 48-goal England career. Rather than a deficiency in the system, it was probably down more to Shearer's quiet start to the season with Blackburn.

His substitute last Wednesday, Teddy Sheringham, however, is no replacement as leader of the line, and events over the next month should lead to at least one of Stan Collymore, Les Ferdinand and Andy Cole being restored to the squad. Robbie Fowler may also come close; so too may even Matthew Le Tissier. "People say I have favourites," Venables said. "That's bullshit. I have got a big job. I have got favourite people for playing football, no other reason."

Norway beckon next month - hooligans permitting - and it will be interesting to see if Venables persists with formation and personnel in the face of a probably more physical encounter. Oslo in June 1993 was close to the nadir for Taylor, when confused tactics and players, including Gazza, foundered and floundered, with Lee Sharpe left-back and Nigel Clough left baffled.

The match represents a hiatus for the Norwegians in a difficult qualifying group for next summer's European Championship finals. Their 2-0 midweek defeat by the Czech Republic means they need a point from their game in Holland in November to be sure of qualifying - possibly denying the Dutch in the process. Elsewhere, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey and Bulgaria are all but through, with Romania, Denmark, Croatia, Italy, Portugal, Germany, Russia and Scotland close to joining them.

For England, meanwhile, the Norway match represents a reminder of the dull, dog days of two years ago and, if they can stay brave, another step on the road to redemption. We look now for product to match promise.