The last four contenders slip-ped by the wayside yesterday as England finally completed their long march to the European Championship. Dennis Wise, Robert Lee, Ugo Ehiogu and Jason Wilcox left Heathrow Airport knowing that, like Peter Beardsley, their role in Euro 96 would be confined to that of spectator.
After what appears to have been a more eventful flight than the Football Association would have liked, there can only have been only relief for the remaining 22 players on England's tour to China and Hong Kong: a long, and perhaps unnecessarily boisterous journey eased by the knowledge that, on Sunday evening, they will be meeting again at Bisham Abbey to prepare for Euro 96.
There must have been some difficult goodbyes at Heathrow. Ehiogu and Wilcox have come late into contention and that will ease the pain of rejection. But Wise was in the second squad Terry Venables named, more than two years ago. He and Venables are relatively close. The only consolation for Wise, as he began to contemplate his summer, is that at the end of it his former club manager, Glenn Hoddle, will be coaching England.
There is no such straw to clutch at for Lee, the man who was described as the best midfielder in England by his club manager, Kevin Keegan. At 30, his England career, which began 19 months ago, could be over. His exit is a surprise - he has played in every England match for which he was fit this season.
The damaging absence was against China - Jamie Redknapp appears, like Nick Barmby, to have won his place that night. Lee missed both that and the Hong Kong game with a muscle strain, as did Wise. That both should be dropped suggests that by the time of the latter match their injuries were more tactical than actual.
The Football Association normally provide cars to take their players home: one suspects Lee shared one car with Beardsley, while Steve Howey and Les Ferdinand shared another. Both of the latter two would have been relieved not to have found Venables asking for "a quick word".
Howey was not even due to travel to China. He came in late when Mark Wright dropped out and has still to prove his fitness. Venables, incidentally, made one last telephone call to Wright at the weekend to see if there was any chance of including him.
"I know I'm lucky to be in, but only because of my injury problems," Howey said. "If I hadn't spent so much time out of action, I'm certain I would have been picked automatically. I know I can get myself into shape. I'll train with Derek Wright [the Newcastle physio] tomorrow and Thursday, and go down to London on Friday before the rest of the lads for some more work."
The Newcastle defender, who struggled in the early stages of Sunday's game against Hong Kong, added: "After about seven minutes I was taking in water, but I got my second wind. At half-time Terry asked me how I was feeling and I said my hamstring was tightening up a bit. He told me: 'That's to be expected. But don't be a hero. Have another quarter of an hour and I'll bring you off'."
In the end, Venables chose both Ferdinand and Robbie Fowler, presumably on the basis that it was too risky to have just one alternative to Shearer. That meant something had to give, and it appears to be on the wing.
In omitting Wilcox and Wise, Venables has lost two of the best crossers. Wilcox's omission also means there is no left-footed winger in the party - the surviving wide men, Darren Anderton, Steve McManaman and Steve Stone, are all right- footed.
Anderton is one of four Tottenham players, which suggests that Alan Sugar's one-time ban on Venables visiting White Hart Lane was less damaging than they feared. No other team provides more than three: the champions, Manchester United, have only two, the Neville brothers although, to be fair, almost half Alex Ferguson's team were not available to Venables on grounds of nationality. With Barmby also included, the chant of "England Hotspur" could be aired.
Only four of the party have playing experience of a European Championship: Stuart Pearce, David Platt and Alan Shearer were in Sweden in 1992, Tony Adams played in Germany four years earlier. Paul Gascoigne also has tournament experience from Italia 90. Their know-how will be vital in the coming weeks as the attention and pressure intensifies.
It is a youthful squad, only David Seaman, Pearce and Teddy Sheringham are over 30, half are under 25 with Phil Neville just 19.
Venables did not go into detail about his choices, but did say: "I have always said who to leave out would be the most difficult decision of my footballing life. It has been, but professionals have to take difficult decisions and others have to accept them. Those who missed out have been unfortunate. The 22 gives a squad of quality, versatility, flair and, above all, a squad which believes in itself. Over more than two years a real unity of purpose has grown up. We want to win for everyone."
Can they? Yes, along with about 10 other countries. It is a decent squad with genuine potential but there are question marks. Can Gascoigne dominate opponents as he did six years ago? Will the centre of defence hold? Will the forwards ever start scoring?
Seaman, Paul Ince and Sheringham are likely to be the most consistent performers. Barmby, McManaman or Fowler could establish themselves as international stars. Anderton probably will.
It has taken Venables two and a half years, 19 internationals and 46 capped players to get to this stage. The next five weeks will determine how his reign as England coach will be remembered. A nation expects.
BOYS OF '96
1 David Seaman
Age 32. Caps: 24. Goals: 0.
Established himself as clear first choice. Calm, safe handler, brave. Capable of banishing memories of Gascoigne at Wembley, Bergkamp in Rotterdam and Nayim in Paris.
Forecast: Will prove one of the tournament's best.
2 Gary Neville
Age: 21. Caps: 10. Goals: 0.
Perfect player for new three at the back system, under pressure from younger brother Phil if four are played. Fast learner with a good temperament, and a mature reader of the game.
Forecast: Will confirm great promise.
3 Stuart Pearce
Age: 34. Caps 65. Goals: 5.
A comforting presence in the dressing room, an unnerving one to play against. A better international player than he is given credit for; rarely booked despite the physical nature of his game. Distribution a weakness.
Forecast: Solid but unspectacular.
4 Paul Ince
Age: 28. Caps: 19. Goals: 2.
Emerging as England's crucial player, his buccaneering talents refined, and ego tempered, in the pressurised world of Serie A in Italy. Has the opportunity to establish a world reputation.
Forecast: England's best player on the field.
5 Tony Adams
Age: 29. Caps: 40. Goals: 4.
Slight doubts about fitness, pace and technique, but none about heart, experience or presence. A leader of men who is comfortable with big occasions. Aware of his limitations and how to cover them.
Forecast: Could end up captain.
6 Gareth Southgate
Age: 25. Caps: 4. Goals: 0.
Already beginning to show the same poise on the pitch as he does off it. Has settled well into international football, but is still learning and opportunities may be limited in this tournament.
Forecast: Ince's understudy.
7 David Platt
Age: 29. Caps: 58. Goals: 27.
Long-time captain whose position increasingly appears to rely on his phenomenal goal-scoring record. Passing lacks inspiration, but his experience and composure remain valuable assets.
Forecast: Early goals or he may be out.
8 Paul Gascoigne
Age: 29. Caps: 38. Goals: 7.
Ambition: to recapture the spirit of Italia 90. England's great hope, the one who could make the difference. Fitness and attitude improving; can he still do it?
Forecast: Magic remains but now needs greater support - must survive Scotland game.
9 Alan Shearer
Age: 25. Caps: 23. Goals: 5.
The man in possession despite not scoring for England for 20 months. Still leads the line well, but needs goals to prove he can do it against international defences.
Forecast: Will survive drought as long as England are scoring goals.
10 Teddy Sheringham
Age: 30. Caps: 15. Goals: 2.
The ugly duckling has matured to become England's most important striker. Proof that speed of thought is more important than fleet of foot at international level. Good passer for a striker.
Forecast: Must expect, and defeat, tight marking.
11 Darren Anderton
Age: 24. Caps: 11. Goals: 5.
Venables' first new cap; he settled in to the manor born. Recovery from persistent injury is a massive bonus. Gives England options wide and in the centre; a maker and taker of goals.
Forecast: One of the stars of the tournament.
12 Steve Howey
Age: 24. Caps: 4. Goals: 0.
Fitness is a worry, especially with such an inexperienced player. Very promising player with a cool head and developing technique, but his England football education is still in the early stages.
Forecast: Warming the England bench.
13 Tim Flowers
Age: 29. Caps: 8. Goals: 0.
Erratic Umbro Cup and poor start to the season cost him the chance of being No 1. Now under challenge from Walker. Good shot-stopper, usually even temperament.
Forecast: Bench-warmer waiting for break.
14 Nick Barmby
Age: 22. Caps: 6. Goals: 2
Late brace against China sealed his place and ended the international career of his idol and mentor Peter Beardsley. Difficult domestic season but always impressed during England training sessions.
Forecast: Sheringham's understudy.
15 Jamie Redknapp
Age: 22. Caps: 4. Goals: 0.
Surprise inclusion who may go straight into team on the back of his promising partnership with Gascoigne. Good passer, powerful shot; thoughtful player and mature attitude on the field.
Forecast: Could blossom through the tournament.
16 Sol Campbell
Age: 21. Caps: 1. Goals: 0.
Ability to play in variety of positions got him in squad, but "jack of all trades, master of none" uncertainty has slowed his progress into the team. Strong and gifted, but does he know enough?
Forecast: Probably wanted only in a crisis.
17 Steve McManaman
Age: 24. Caps: 10. Goals: 0.
Frustrating - or frustrated? Not allowed the freedom he enjoys at Liverpool but given his predictability - cuts inside on to right foot every time - could he justify a place on dribbling alone?
Forecast: Peripheral impact on the tournament.
18 Les Ferdinand
Age: 29. Caps: 10. Goals: 4.
Venables took a long time to give him his chance, and he has yet fully to take it. England's style of play may not be suited to him, but he will worry timorous defenders and goalkeepers.
Forecast: Whether he gets off the bench depends on Shearer.
19 Phil Neville
Age: 19. Caps: 1. Goals: 0.
Only teenager in party, and began the season in United's youth team. Better going forward than his brother Gary, but inexperienced in the new system. Only capped on Thursday. Fine temperament.
Forecast: Will respond well if required.
20 Steve Stone
Age: 24. Caps: 6. Goals: 2.
Not as gifted as Anderton but took to the international game almost as well. Unfazed by step up, though poor tour raised questions after long season. Hard-working and a developing eye for goal.
Forecast: Will not let England down - if he plays.
21 Robbie Fowler
Age: 21. Caps: 3. Goals: 0.
Finest prospect in English football, but yet to look the part in an England shirt. Needs first goal breakthrough for confidence. Powerful shot, good positional awareness, natural finisher.
Forecast: Shearer has to fail up front first.
22 Ian Walker
Age: 24. Caps: 2. Goals: 0.
Pushing for place as Seaman's understudy. Agile and easy-going, but prone to occasional lapse of concentration. Son of Mike. Won first cap 11 days ago, and yet to start an international.
Forecast: Not this time, but future prospect.
THE FOUR WHO DID NOT MAKE IT
Tipped by Ron Atkinson as a future England captain, the Villa defender's stock is rising and he has time on his side
A wretched end to the season has just become a lot worse for the Newcastle player who was receiving rave reviews in the autumn
The Blackburn winger's exclusion after a reasonably promising debut only makes his inclusion in the original squad all the more mystifying
Favoured at one point by Venables, his exclusion is something of a surprise despite his lack of involvement in recent matches
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