The curtain goes up on England's dress rehearsal for the European Championship at Wembley today to reveal a cast of understudies on parade. Facing opposition that barely merits a role in repertory, let alone the venue of legends, will be four newcomers to the international stage and three others more used to being kept in the wings.
However, several of these players are more than capable of earning a leading role on a regular basis, none more so than Stan Collymore. The 24-year-old striker, currently (but probably not for much longer) of Nottingham Forest, will form a striking partnership with Alan Shearer that is potentially as exciting as anything England have had for years. Each has power, poise and presence. Both can work alone, or in tandem, and have an eye for making and taking goals.
Three defenders also make their debuts, Gary Neville - who was still a teenager four months ago - David Unsworth and John Scales. Not included, at least not yet, is Paul Gascoigne, who is regarded as needing more work on the after-effects of his broken leg.
However, Terry Venables, the England coach, said he did hope to use Gascoigne at some stage of the Umbro Cup and he was "under consideration" for the substitutes' bench. England play Sweden on Thursday and Brazil next Sunday.
Collymore's rise vividly illustrates the fickleness of football fate. In January, he seemed poised to join Manchester United when they swooped instead for Andy Cole. Cole went on to be capped ahead of Collymore, against Uruguay in March.
But today, as Collymore prepares to play at Wembley for the first time, Cole will be in the Midlands undergoing an operation in an attempt to solve his shin-splints problem finally.
The Manchester United striker saw a specialist yesterday and was immediately booked in for the operation, which will involve cutting into both calves. Colin Cooper, the Nottingham Forest defender, takes his place in the squad. In Cole's absence, Collymore has the chance to establish himself. For all the young striking talent around, Shearer still stands alone in the international reckoning.
"He has had a good year and impressed me with his ability," Venables said. "He is good at interchanging and passing, he is a great crosser of the ball, he is powerful, strong and quick with two good feet. He has the potential to be an excellent international player."
David Platt will play just behind these two, with Darren Anderton on the right and Peter Beardsley on the left, although both will be given licence to roam. David Batty is also part of this sextet, which should have the firepower to inflict damage on a Japanese defence described by Gary Lineker, who played for two years in the J-League, as "naive". It is, however, not averse to the physical stuff - against Scotland last month each side had a player sent off, and Scotland had another carried off.
England's defence is inexperienced, but not naive. Stuart Pearce returns at left-back, partly to ease Collymore's arrival but also to bolster a back four without another cap between them.
Neville, who was playing for Manchester United reserves a year ago, starts at right-back and the Merseyside pair, John Scales and David Unsworth, will be in the centre, protected by Batty, who returns to the holding role in front of them. Their selection means Venables has now picked 36 players in nine starts, 17 of them debutants.
Scales's debut is good news for Wimbledon, who will earn another pounds 500,000 as part of his transfer to Liverpool in the autumn. His total fee is now pounds 4m, making him the most expensive defender in Britain.
The defence will probably have little to do, but will have to keep a tight watch on Kazuyoshi Miura, who has been playing in Italy's Serie A with Genoa this year. "He is a very good footballer - he would hold his own in most countries," Lineker said.
"But overall they will struggle," he added. "Two to three years ago most of these players were working in car factories - it is a huge change. They will be competitive and they will keep going, but they will regard a three- or four-goal defeat as a good result."
Venables insisted it was dangerous to assume that Japan would be rolled over, and added: "I can't believe you can still feel there are countries around this world that are miles behind us. The facts don't support that. You have to look at the results - they have just drawn with Scotland."
But Scotland fielded a weakened side and Japan were at home. In Saudi Arabia earlier this year, they were beaten 3-0 by Nigeria and 5-1 by Argentina. England ought to be looking for at least the four goals Lineker mentioned.
ENGLAND (4-4-2): Flowers (Blackburn); G Neville (Manchester United), Scales (Liverpool), Unsworth (Everton), Pearce (Nottingham Forest); Anderton (Tottenham), Batty (Blackburn), Platt (Sampdoria), Beardsley (Newcastle); Shearer (Blackburn), Collymore (Nottingham Forest).
JAPAN (3-5-2): Maekawa (Hiroshima); Omura (Yokohama Marinos), Hashiratani (Kawasaki), Ihara (Yokohama Marinos); Narahashi (Hiratsuka), Soma (Kashima), Yamaguchi (Yokohama Flugels), Kitazawa (Kawasaki), Morishima (Osaka); Miura (Genoa), Nakayama (Iwata).
Referee: J Uilenberg (Netherlands).
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