Muddying the waters

Cris Freddi offers his view on England's chance of success at Euro '96

Definitely the short straw, this. With most of the other countries, you can come to a fairly quick conclusion (e.g. Scotland: no great players, good team spirit, might make the quarters), but the England waters are unusually muddy. Your one consolation is that no-one’s much wiser than you are.

It’s true that the weaknesses look obvious. With Psycho back on the left and Gary Neville not coming forward as often as Rob Jones, the delivery from the full-backs is as inconsistent as ever, and there’s still none at all from central defence, whoever plays there. Venables has shown his anxiety in that department (despite 10 clean sheets in his 17 matches to date) by picking ten different players there, including Bould, Ruddock, Scales, Unsworth and Colin Cooper.

This leaves the usual creative burden on the midfield, and since Gazza (famous last words?) seems to have lost it for good, who’s going to make the play? Not Platt, not Ince, not Robert Lee, and Redknapp’s still feeling his way back. So if McManaman’s marked out of it or freezes on the big occasion, if Stone’s not really an adequate replacement for Anderton, how many chances are going to be made for the front runners? The team already scores too few goals (one or less in 12 games under Venables). Potentially bad news. But even all this isn’t as damning as England mid-term reports used to be, which emphasizes how hard it is to be sure about this class – mainly because there’s still no knowing what Venables thinks of as his best team. To be fair, and to get this out of the way, injuries haven’t helped: to Le Saux, Anderton, Redknapp, Platt, and at least four central defenders: almost immediately after keeping a clean sheet against Bulgaria, for example, Howey and Southgate (the best ball playing combination?) seems to be ruled out for the season.

Even so, Venables seems to have fallen for the Graham Taylor trap of not knowing his own mind – so how can your humble assessor? Has the Christmas tree definitely been abandoned in favour of two up front and does one of those have to be Sheringham? When’s Fowler going to get that overdue run and is five matches long enough? Is Platt doing enough? Luckily, the Taylor comparison more or less ends there. One difference is that the Tel hasn’t picked any downright bad players, and you get the feeling that whoever plays, in whatever formation, they’ll do okay. They’ve done that so far, give or take, losing only once under Venables and generally looking the part against the likes of Denmark, Romania, Portugal, Croatia etc. Mind you, none of these seemed to be exactly flogging themselves. Bulgaria, for instance, not only should have been awarded that equaliser but might have won if they’d tried to and if Stoichkov had been in the side – so even the bare evidence of results isn’t conclusive.

Still and all, the bottom line may be that Fortress Wembley is still doing its stuff. No European team’s stormed it since 1991 and England tend to win the major competitions held there, especially when the year ends in a six. Plus it only takes one or two players to have a big tournament, like Gazza in Italia ’90, to swing an open competition towards home. McManaman, Fowler, Shearer if chances are made for him, a midfield playing as one: anything’s possible.

Unfortunately, that means defeat by Switzerland as much as victory over the Dutch – and you’re braver than I am if you’re sure where your money’s going on the Scotland match. Me, I’ll essentially stay on the fence by going for defeat in the quarter-finals, perhaps on penalties (despite a successful kick from Pearce), with hopes of greater things clouded partly by England’s gruesome record in the last two European finals, but mainly by not knowing who’s going to be in the team, and knowing that Adams and Pallister may be.

From WSC 112 June 1996. What was happening this month