Wilcox willing to harass Hungary

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The Independent Online
To anyone over the age of 50, the name Hungary conjures images of magical Magyars, and humiliated Englishmen. Today offers England the chance to continue redressing the balance, and signal a new era of their own.

Hungary's first visit to Wembley, in 1953, brought England their first home defeat by continental opponents, by a shattering 6-3. A year later, in Budapest, Hungary proved it was no fluke by dismissing an England team containing Billy Wright and Tom Finney 7-1.

This is all well known to anyone with more than a passing interest in the game, but it is worth remembering as an illustration of football's changing order. At that time Hungary were the best in the world. They lost the 1954 World Cup final to a German team they had defeated 8-3 in an earlier round.

Today they are bit-players on the football stage. They have not qualified for a World Cup in 10 years and not beaten a serious team at that level since 1966. Their failure to make Euro 96 included a defeat by Iceland.

While other East European countries, such as Bulgaria and Romania, have prospered since the fall of the Iron Curtain allowed their best players to move west, Hungary have slumped even lower. It is fair to say England will face tougher opposition in China next week than at Wembley today.

Yet there are probably newspapers and supporters in Budapest who expect Hungary to beat everyone else, simply because they could 40 years ago. The pundits have probably told a succession of national coaches that, if only Hungary went back to the old-fashioned virtues, the Magyars could be magical again.

Or maybe they have not. Perhaps they have recognised that no country has a divine right to success, that football moves on, that those nations who do not adapt will be left behind.

It is a lesson which has not always been heeded in England. The reaction, in some quarters, to England's match against Croatia suggests some do not want to heed it, while others cannot. Yet, as Blackburn Rovers found in Europe, going into battle with the Dad's Army rallying call of "they don't like it up 'em, Mr Mainwaring" no longer succeeds.

At least the message has got through to the people who matter: the players. Teddy Sheringham said at Bisham Abbey yesterday: "We have played a system for 30 years since the World Cup and it has not worked."

Thus England will today continue blending a continental approach with the best of British; tactical sophistication and technical excellence allied to the traditional virtues of hard work and a refusal to give up.

With Tony Adams still recovering from injury, the defence remains the same as against Croatia, as do the occupants of the two key roles: Paul Ince as defensive midfielder and Sheringham as supporting attacker. Les Ferdinand leads the attack - a timely opportunity given the opposition - while Rob Lee replaces Scottish Cup finalist Paul Gascoigne in midfield.

The spotlight will be on the players in the new flank roles. On the right, Darren Anderton returns for his first international since June. On the left, Jason Wilcox makes his England debut.

Had Steve Stone not been troubled by a hamstring strain Anderton would probably have played in midfield. He is, said Terry Venables, "one of those players who looks an international from the first game".

That must be the aim for Wilcox, who may only have this game to claim a Euro 96 place. It has been a long time coming. He was first called into an England squad for the get-together that followed the aborted friendly with Germany in April 1994. Eight months later, he played well in a B international against Ireland.

Then came the cruciate knee injury which put him out of the game for a year. The Blackburn Rovers winger also thought it had put paid to his European Championship aspirations.

"When I came back there were 10 games to go and the manager, Ray Harford, said I should be aiming at making the squad. I did not think that was realistic," he admitted yesterday.

Venables said: "He is unusual in that he exploded into form as soon as he was back. Players who have been out for a long time do not often do that. He gives [Blackburn] balance on the left, he is a good early crosser and Alan Shearer thought he was vary valuable to him. He is very industrious and will score goals. He is very under-rated and, if anything, is even sharper than he was before the injury."

Wembley expect a crowd of around 45,000 to watch England's last home game before Euro 96. "It is important," Venables said, "to win." England, who have not conceded to Hungary in their last six games, should do that, and do it well enough to gaining a smattering of revenge for 1953.

HUNGARY: Petry (Genclerbirligi); Hahn (Kispest Honved), Banfi (Eendracht Aalst); Plokai (Kispest Honved), Mrasko (Bekescsaba), Urban (Gyori), Illes (MTK) or Sebok (Ujpesti), Nagy (Ferencvaros), Balog (Charleroi), Horvath (Fehervar), Vincze (BVSC Dreher).

v Hungary