Venables needs a flying start

Ian Ridley says England have to win their first Euro 96 game on Saturday
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When Terry Venables gathers the England party tonight at their Berkshire base for Euro 96, his first job will be to establish exactly who was Cathay's clown. One hopes that he can pass quickly on to the real business which starts in six days.

Last night Venables insisted that any culprit would be punished. "If someone is guilty I will come down on them like a ton of bricks. But I will not throw them to the wolves for the sake of it. The lads know me well enough to realise that if I am not happy with anything I hear, they will have to suffer the consequences."

The assumption in this week of pots and kettles has been that Paul Gascoigne is chief culprit in the saga that ended with a twist on the old phrase of "what's the damage?" The FA's chief executive, Graham Kelly, has conceded, indeed, that the incident occurred at Gascoigne's seat.

There the matter resides, and Kelly has been criticised for his organisation's hesitation in laying it to rest. They may have been trying not to rush to judgement, but the matter should have been dealt with in the slow week that inevitably precedes a major championship when issues are being sought and magnified. It should not have been allowed to spill into this week, when England's concentration should be on Saturday's game against Switzerland at Wembley.

It may well be that Gazza, who confessed on television last Sunday to a fear of flying and may have considered a nerve-calmer or two necessary, is the culprit. Whoever it is, appropriate action should be taken for the good of England's preparation.

That should not involve anything so drastic as a player being dropped from the squad, but if England, which is hoping to host a trouble-free tournament, wants to send out a message to its own young footballers and to a Europe bemused and outraged by the sky jinks, something must be done. The miscreant(s) should be punished with suspension for the first game.

And promptly. Venables has crucial decisions to make this week in the way he intends to play against the Swiss and the personnel to be used. He should know early on if anyone is unavailable for what will be a match that England must be expected to win with the opposition in apparent disarray.

Venables was in Basle last night to see Switzerland's 2-1 loss against the Czech Republic. The country's football followers have been stunned at the changes wrought by their new coach, Artur Jorge - changes that could alter Venables's thinking.

Jorge, who took over from the Englishman Roy Hodgson earlier this year, has left out of his 22 the stalwarts Alain Sutter and Adrian Knup and has also been toying with a change of tack from Hodgson's system to a 3-4-3.

Sutter is an eye-catching blond left-footer of the sort who induces scepticism among coaches. Jorge believes he does not use his skills enough in areas that hurt the opposition. Knup, who scored Switzerland's goal in the 3- 1 defeat at Wembley last November, has been injured for most of the season and did not impress when returning to play for his club Karlsruhe in the German cup final.

Up front instead, Jorge will probably pair Kubilay Turkyilmaz with Marco Grassi and employ Stephane Chapuisat just behind, if he is fit enough after missing most of Borussia Dortmund's season with damaged knee ligaments. A problem for Jorge is that all these players are naturally left-footed (an irony of sorts given England's dearth in the same area). It may also have influenced the omission of Sutter.

The decision for Venables is whether to field three of his own at the back as a response, with a midfield player helping out when necessary, or whether to line up with a four. Either way, Paul Ince should be a certainty, capable of holding the fort or breaking forward as his game becomes less ragged, more precise.

Inevitably, the search for clues to Venables's best side has centred on the numbering of his squad. If he does indeed go with 1-11, it will mean, as is probable, a back four that includes Gareth Southgate, who performed so capably when deputising for Mark Wright against Hungary a fortnight ago.

That is likely to mean sacrificing an attacking player, which would be regrettable if Jorge, as expected, adopts an initially defensive approach. With David Platt's selection looking more secure these days, having a reminder of his goal-scoring knack against Hungary, it could be that Steve McManaman's No 17 is up.

Though McManaman has not looked entirely comfortable as the left-sided player in the squad, possibly feeling inhibited by the role, his ingenuity could be needed at some stage and he will certainly be a substitute at least. The burden of providing the crosses alone may prove too much for Darren Anderton, who is still attaining full fitness.

Possibly following the example of Ajax and Manchester United over the past two years, Venables appears to have decided in several areas that kids can win you something. The only real quibbles with his final selection are the jettisoning of Jason Wilcox's left foot as an alternative and Peter Beardsley's mature influence on the party.

Nicky Barmby's goals in China were attractive in the short-term, but Beardsley's invention is more durable. At least the coach has positively included five strikers, though this may have something to do with lingering doubts over Alan Shearer's fitness, not to mention his dry run in front of goal.

Whichever team Venables plumps for on Saturday, victory should be theirs. Then they havethe unpredictable Scots, who will be energised by history, and the potentially dangerous Dutch to come. If they are to win their group and remain at Wembley for the quarter-finals, it is essential that they put their misguided in-flight entertainment behind them, and get off to a flying start.

What became of Venables's first squad

v Denmark, Wembley, 9 March 1994

David Seaman (Arsenal): Always first-choice goalkeeper.

Paul Parker (Man Utd): Stayed in squad for handful of games.

Graeme Le Saux (Blackburn): Started in 10 of first 11 games, then broke leg.

Gary Pallister (Man Utd): Eight caps for Venables before injury last November.

Tony Adams (Arsenal): Rock of Venables's defence when fit.

Paul Ince (Man Utd): Lost favour after refusing to play in Umbro Cup, citing fatigue. Regained place in March as defensive midfielder.

Paul Gascoigne (Lazio): Injured, then regained place against Colombia.

Darren Anderton (Tottenham): Started in 9 of Venables's first 11 matches before his lay-off, but for which he would have been automatic choice.

David Platt (Sampdoria): Venables's first captain.

Alan Shearer (Blackburn): Hasn't scored a goal for England since September 1994, but a Venables favourite, missing only one game before recent operation.

Peter Beardsley (Newcastle): Aged 33 when Venables took over but given a second "life" by new coach; 59th cap against China may have been last.

David Batty (Blackburn): Earmarked originally for the holding midfield position since won by Ince, but failed to convince Venables he was up to job.

Matt Le Tissier (Southampton): Always likely to be the coach's greatest challenge, one which Venables ultimately decided to pass up.

Rob Jones (Liverpool): Seemed to have right-back slot sewn up until a broken leg cost him place in Umbro Cup. Then Gary Neville emerged.

Tim Flowers (Blackburn): Seaman understudy now challenged by Ian Walker.

Ian Wright (Arsenal): On bench for next three matches, but soon ditched.

Stuart Pearce (Nottm Forest): Good attitude won recall when Le Saux injured.

Des Walker (Sheffield Wed): Omission not easily explained. He was 28 and had 59 caps when Venables began, but never made subsequent games.

Les Ferdinand (QPR): Patience rewarded with cap against Portugal last year.