So it goes on

Published : Oct 04, 2003 00:00 IST


NOW it's Joe Cole, but should we really be surprised? Is he not just the latest fantasista, maverick, unusual talent, call it what you like, to be snubbed and set aside by an England team manager, or, before such a character existed, by the committee of selectors? When England were recently playing so poorly and uninventively in the first half in Skopje against Macedonia, Trevor Brooking, who was commentating on television, suggested that it would be a good idea to bring on Joe Cole, with his ability to do original things. The kind of things the England midfield was eminently incapable of doing.

Trevor knows what he was talking about. For years, he was himself the fulcrum of the England attack. But Cole wasn't brought on; and when he was brought on late in the previous match against Croatia at Ipswich, very nearly scoring a goal, what did Eriksson have to say: in public, at that? Why, Cole should have paid more attention to his defensive duties, at a time when England were comfortably ahead: for fear they would lose their lead!

These are not by any means easy times for Joe Cole who may already be regretting that he left West Ham, now relegated from the Premiership, for Chelsea who are spending like drunken sailors and to vary the metaphor now have more midfield players than you can shake a stick at. He has been coming on as a sub for Chelsea, too, and what price his England claims if he isn't playing regularly?

So Eriksson oddly enough is displaying the same strange antagonism to the unusual player that, as I've said, has been all too prevalent through the years. You can go back as far as Charlie Buchan, the big Londoner who probably invented the third back game when he returned from Sunderland to Arsenal (he had been an amateur on Wollwich Arsenal's books till 1911) on his � 100 a goal deal. The third back game was what the Gunners used in the light of the new offside law which tipped the balance towards attacking play. Buchan was a fine ball player, a creative force on the field but he won only a handul of caps. My late father, an Arsenal fan, always used to tell me that he was too clever for the others to play with.

But what of the incomparable Stanley Matthews, Prince of outside rights, the so called Wizard of Dribble, the man with the magic swerve, who at the ripe old age of 41 at Wembley was still capable of humiliating perhaps the best known left back in the world, Nilton Santos of Brazil? He won his first caps for England as a 19-year-old in 1934, but time and again he would be left out of the team only to force his way back and scintillate again. Problem for the dumb selectors; you could not categorise him.

And then there was Len Shackleton, alias the Clown Prince of Soccer? Another Sunderland inside forward though of course of much later vintage, supremely talented but hardly capped at all. "Shack" was discarded by Arsenal as a lad before the war, shone during it with Bradford — he was a Bevin Boy, a young miner and excelled in the North East with Newcastle United and Sunderland.

Once, when he was called up for England and its over theoretical team manager, Walter Winterbottom, was taking training out at Roehampton, Walter said: "I want you five forwards to run down the field inter passing, then when you reach the penalty area, put the ball into the goal."

"Shack" looked up wearily from the ground. "Which side of the goal, Mr. Winterbottom?" he enquired.

Winterbottom initially was none too keen on the tremendous talents of Bobby Charlton, destined to score a multitude of goals for England and to win the respect of the world game. Bobby was still suffering from the traumatic aftermath of the February 1958 Manchester United air disaster at Munich airport, which he survived by a miracle, when England played in Belgrade in great heat: and lost 5-0. He had a poor game, but who didn't? On went England to the World Cup finals in Sweden; and Bobby never got a game. Even though when it came to a play off against the Russians, England chose two debutants in Brabrook and Broadbent. And salt was rubbed into the wounds when Winterbottom in the book he subsequently wrote with his devoted captain Billy Wright had critical words for Bobby, even doubting whether he could make a true international!

Sweden reached that World Cup final under the lively aegis of the little Yorkshireman, George Raynor: who used to tell me, when managing Lazio in Rome, "Ball players are important because they create unorthodox situations." Just what so many England teams have lacked, not least under Alf Ramsey, who left Jimmy Greaves, that prolific goal scorer, out of the 1966 World Cup Final and could have paid the penalty when the pedestrian Roger Hunt, whom he so admired, missed two palpable chances.

Becoming England manager even seems somehow to get to coaches who previously stood up for technique and flair. Ron Greenwood for example who, as manager of West Ham United, made it the so called Academy of Arts and Sciences, encouraging skill before all. But when in 1978 he came out of retirement to manage England, what did he do? In his first game immediately dropped Trevor Brooking, who had been his protege at West Ham in favour of the 35-year-old Liverpool ex-winger, Ian Callaghan, a mere toiler?

And when Glenn Hoddle emerged as the brightest, most creative English talent for years, how did Ron Greenwood react? Why, after Hoddle had made a fine debut against Bulgaria at Wembley and scored a spectacular goal, by dropping him from the next game with the words, "Disappointment is part of football."

Greenwood's successor, Bobby Robson, was still more hostile for Hoddle, first excluding him then using him ludicrously wide on the right; other England players conspired in a Mexican tournament in 1985 to see he played centrally. Though the following year Robson was praising Hoddle to the skies before the World Cup!

Robson was equally slow to appreciate the tremendous talents of Paul Gascoigne, and put him under huge pressure before the 1990 World Cup when he chose him against the Czechs at Wembley. Gascoigne kicked the tunnel walls in his anxiety, but played superbly, got picked for the World Cup in Italy, where he excelled.

But far too often in England teams, mediocrity rules. At damaging cost.

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