Timely tonic for flexible England

Stan Hey sees a long-lost talent provide the spur for the national cause
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Geoff Hurst did it three decades ago, finding his international form just in time to inspire England to an historic home victory in the 1966 World Cup, so can Darren Anderton repeat the alchemy for Euro 96 in less then five weeks' time?

It's an unfair question and certainly not one that a player of Anderton's appealing modesty would care to consider. But with his two-goal return to the international stage yesterday, the leggy 24-year-old generated asense of optimism in the crowd and in his team-mates.

It was not just the goals - welcome as they were in a barren year for England - but also the manner in which they were taken. The first, stretching on the run to reach Teddy Sheringham's cross, showed a willingness to test his groin, the injury which had blighted his season.

This personal courage was matched by the unhesitating confidence with which Anderton swung his boot at a dropping ball for his second goal. "I didn't hit it too well," Anderton said with a shrug, but the important issue was that he didn't shirk the challenge of shooting first time.

Since two spectacular strikes for Portsmouth in a cup tie four years ago, Anderton has looked the type of player to improvise match-winning goals. His pounds 1.7m transfer to the big time with Spurs had a stuttering quality initially, as did his progress towards an international debut, which he finally made in March 1994 against Denmark, but five goals in his 10 games is a strike rate that augurs well for the host nation's Euro 96 campaign.

"Very heartening," was how the England coach Terry Venables described Anderton's return to international duty, after a year when his long-term injury seemed to have deprived Venables of a prize asset.

Anderton's gloomy introspection during this period has been well documented, but judging by the pleasure on his face yesterday the goals were the perfect tonic. Moreover, they plainly infused this England squad with a sense of ambition that has sometimes been hard to detect during the endless parade of meaningless friendlies at Wembley over the past two years.

Mark Wright's injury, the result of over-stretching into a tackle, was a testimony to the surprising physical edge which permeated the game; but then the young Hungarians were visiting the scene of one of their nation's greatest victories, the 6-3 defeat of England in November 1953.

That win destroyed the myth of England's leadership of the world game, and provoked the right-back that day, one Alf Ramsey, to plot a route back to the summit, which he achieved 30 years ago this summer.

There hasn't been much for English football fans to dream about since then, but Anderton's performance may yet prove the prelude to restoring England's footballing self-esteem.