Venables ends experimental era

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The Independent Online

Continuity is what football managers strive for above all else. From it flows understanding, consistency and, so the theory goes, success.

However, it is also the most elusive feature of the international game. The chance of the same 11 men avoiding injury, loss of form and other domestic difficulties for a whole month is slim indeed.

It is five years since England fielded an unchanged side - it was in the first two matches under Graham Taylor. Against Norway tonight, Terry Venables is able to send out a team with only three changes - a level of continuity unsurpassed in 21 internationals since the spring of 1993.

Stuart Pearce comes in for the injured Graeme Le Saux, Paul Gascoigne's groin injury lets in Robert Lee, and Gary Pallister, injured for the draw with Colombia, replaces Steve Howey, who is himself injured.

That these changes are all enforced is significant. It appears the time for experimenting is almost over. "Given the players available I would have picked the same team if this was a competitive match," Venables said.

That suggests Gary Neville is now ahead of Rob Jones at right-back, David Seaman is confirmed as the No 1 goalkeeper, and Alan Shearer, despite failing to score for England in more than a year, remains the preferred centre-forward. Put Graeme Le Saux and Paul Gascoigne back, add Darren Anderton for Dennis Wise or Steve McManaman, and, maybe, David Platt for Jamie Redknapp, and you have Venables' ideal XI. Peter Beardsley is injured, but Nick Barmby may well retain his place when he recovers.

The positions of Barmby, Redknapp and Neville will obviously be strengthened by a good performance tonight. So will McManaman's claims. After three substitute appearances and a first start against Colombia, he has the chance to establish himself.

"It is time for me to stamp my authority on the game," the 23-year-old said yesterday. "There are only so many times you can come on as a substitute and do well. I have been in the squad for a while and played my first full game. I should now be able to express myself. If you want to achieve things you should aim to be the star player whichever team you play for."

McManaman will start on the left. "It is not the free role I have at Liverpool. It is more of a wide-midfield-cum-winger, but it is a position I have played in many times."

"I expect him to give us width when he can," Venables said, adding, "but if he cannot find space on the wing he has licence to go and find the ball and show us what he can do. I want him to attack them."

It is a young side; even with the addition of Pearce's 59 caps the average is 15. Four players are under 24 and the midfield five (Barmby will play just behind Shearer) have made 20 appearances between them.

But, while it may be raw in parts, this team is full of promise. Who will be around to realise it is, however, still a matter of debate.

The weekend report that Venables was approached by Internazionale has been swiftly followed by a denial from the Italian club. However, the Italians have good reason to deny the story: they are expected to appoint Roy Hodgson, Switzerland's English-born coach, as their new coach tomorrow.

And even if they are telling the truth it does not mean Venables was not approached. A third party could well have inquired as to his availability with, or without, the knowledge of Inter. This is the most likely situation.

Whatever the truth, and Venables said he would discuss the issue further after this match, attitudes within the FA are unlikely to change.

The team themselves seem unconcerned. They are concentrating on what is only their second away match under Venables. The first, in Dublin, never even reached half-time but, in the 27 minutes played, England looked very uncomfortable at the back. Similar problems had appeared during travels with his predecessor; of their last 12 completed matches overseas England have won only in San Marino and Turkey.

"Playing away gives me a chance to find out if we enjoy defending," Venables said. "At Wembley we have to deal with counter-attacking. Here is a team that will take the game to us."

Norway, who include six Premiership players, will be a stern test. Although their fourth place in the world standings makes a mockery of that list, they are effective and organised.

They give a debut to 20-year-old Tore Flo, the younger brother of Sheffield United's Jostein, but are otherwise experienced. This is a side that has developed together. Every other player has at least 20 caps and, apart from Flo, and 32-year-old Erik Thorstvedt, all are aged 25 to 29, the peak years for a footballer.

England could be in a similar position in a few years' time. For now several members of the team are still learning and they will be happy with a draw. It should not be beyond them. But, with Dublin again in mind, one hopes that it is their performance, good or bad, that is the centre of attention tomorrow.

NORWAY (4-3-3): Thorstvedt (Tottenham); Loken (Rosenborg), R Johnsen (Besiktas), Berg (Blackburn), Bjornebye (Liverpool); Bohinen (Blackburn), Rekdal (Lierse), Leonhardsen (Wimbledon); T Flo (Tromso), Fjortoft (Middlesbrough), Jakobsen (Rosenborg). Substitutes: Grodas (Lillestroem), Haaland (Nottingham Forest), E Johnsen (Chelsea), Solbakken (Lillestroem), Brattbakk (Rosenborg).


v Norway, Oslo, tonight