The Matt Holland Column: We had a cunning plan, and at last we used it

Matt Holland Was Talking To Iain Fletcher
Sunday 04 November 2001 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Much has been made of the quality of our second-half performance in the Uefa Cup tie on Thursday against Helsingborg, but let me explain how we adjusted our play and, possibly more importantly, why.

Much has been made of the quality of our second-half performance in the Uefa Cup tie on Thursday against Helsingborg, but let me explain how we adjusted our play and, possibly more importantly, why.

Despite struggling near the bottom of the Premiership with only one League win, we have felt that we have played some good football. Admittedly not consistently, and only for small periods, but good football all the same. What we have been doing, however, and this is fully evident on the countless videos we have as well as the coaching staff's recollection, is playing the attractive passing game that won us so many admirers last season in front of teams. That is the key part. Teams have strung a defensive line of four, sometimes five, across midfield and behind them have had their defence, so despite passing and linking well we have never threatened the last defender and given our strikers a series of fair chances.

So the tactics were altered for Helsingborg with the idea being to try to turn their defenders by playing the ball behind them. Naïvely, we had not wanted to do this, believing it to be a step backwards towards the old "long ball" game, but what it does do is stretch defenders deeper into their own half, which in turn creates more space for us and allows us to pressure them nearer their goal.

The best-laid plans of mice and men! For the first 20 minutes on Thursday we completely ignored the gameplan and carried on as before, were suitably ineffective, as before, and easy to defend against, as before. So the half-time discussion at 1-0 down was fairly straightforward – "Stick to the plan".

And we did, to great effect. We pushed their full-backs towards the corners, turned their defenders and exploited the gaps that emerged between their midfield and defence. Numerous chances were made and the confidence that has been missing started to come back. Even before our equaliser I felt the game was ours and it was no surprise to me that Marcus Stewart scored twice. Tord Grip, Sven Goran Eriksson's assistant, had wanted to see him score against continental teams to suggest that he was a candidate for England selection, and as Grip was at the ground he must have been pleased.

There was little celebration in the dressing room, however, because there is a purposeful determination growing around the team. The frustration of our poor start has manifested itself in a resolve to prove ourselves and stop people saying that last year was a fluke. The atmosphere may have been lacking humour and frivolity recently but that is because we are all working so hard to get the football right. Team spirit, that X-factor ingredient in any sport, comes mostly from success, as we have found in the last couple of seasons, but this time round we have developed a different spirit, one forged from failure and disappointment and I think it may even be stronger.

So the quiet two days in the pretty coastal town of Helsingborg in Sweden may be regarded in May as much more important than a simple victory and the gateway to Internazionale.

Inter – what a dream draw. Everything about them is big: club, stadium, fanatical support. You name it, they are it in spades. My travelling continues and Italy is the latest destination. Before then, however, I have to swap the tranquility of the Swedish coast, for the hustle and bustle of Tehran.

Iran may not be top of the holiday destination list, but I am looking forward to going. Part of my enthusiasm is the game itself. A tie to decide if you are going to the World Cup, the greatest football extravaganza. Who wouldn't want to be part of that? And I love playing for the Republic of Ireland and the camaraderie of the players. But it is more than ambition. Frequently we travel to other countries and other cultures and experience too little of them. The odd sightseeing excursion may be planned but the norm is a diet of training, Hilton hotels, movies and CNN. We are exceptionally well paid and this can, and often does, cocoon us from the outside world, so we know very little about the places and people we visit. Not Iran, and not this time. I would suggest that despite primarily going there to win a football match, all of the players will have a far greater understanding of the country, its culture and history than before.

And from a footballing perspective they are not to be underestimated. I have caught a few clips of them on an Asian sports show and they look to be pretty decent as an attacking side but less organised, even a little naïve defensively. Being two legs we will feel that we cannot lose the tie in the first leg, only win it, but Chelsea's humiliation against Hapoel Tel Aviv from Israel is a stark reminder to avoid complacency and arrogance.

Whatever the result out there, it will be an experience, a chance to learn about other peoples and societies from within the protected confines of top-level security. Most people don't get that opportunity so it is up to us to grasp it.

Iran twice, Inter twice and, let's hope, a World Cup in Japan and South Korea. I know I have plenty of grasping to do.

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