If Belgium fully express their great talents, if Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne strike form on the day, I cannot see the England defence resisting them. They are beyond doubts the star figures in a talented Belgian side, but there are several other accomplished players in the squad, and Benteke on his day can be a menace in the air.
For reasons which utterly elude me, the Football Association has just assured Gareth Southgate that whatever England’s results in Russia he will remain in charge of the team. The mind boggles at the mindlessness of the FA. All being well, though it is however unlikely, England will have an impressive run in Russia. But if they don’t, how can a decision on Southgate’s future possibly be taken before a ball in the World Cup finals is even kicked?
As things stand, I cannot see that Southgate’s current record entitles him to such indulgence. True, the recent friendly goalless draws at Wembley against such powerful opponents as Germany and Brazil have been encouraging, all the more so that England were without so many first-choice players. But before that in the World Cup qualifiers we have been subjected to several embarrassingly drab displays.
England of course duly qualified but only after making such surprisingly heavy work in what seemed a far from demanding group.
Graham Taylor has just published a posthumous and ghosted autobiography in which he clearly aims to make an exercise in self-justification. That every English League match was preceded on a Saturday afternoon happy clappy session to observe his death seemed strange to me and indeed still does. It never happened to Alf Ramsey or Bobby Moore, World Cup winners.
At Vicarage Road, Watford, you could see the logic of it. He had spectacularly taken them from the depths of the 4th division all the way to runners-up in League and FA Cup. His methods may have been controversial, based on the remote long ball theories of the late Wing Commander Charles Reap (whom he used as his advisor then abrubtly ditched) but the tactical change to the English game was plain enough to me, and a colleague in Jeff Powell.
After a spell at Aston Villa – where he is reported to have discouraged a young player from revealing he had been a victim of a club paedophile – he was most surprisingly made manager of England. Things quickly went awry.
In a qualifying game against Ireland in Dublin he ditched the unquestioned star of England’s team Paul Gascoigne on the grounds that the ball would often be in the air given the Irish tactics. Only to replace him with Gordon Cowans, who was shorter than Gazza.
His selections and his tactics were consistently bizarrre. He did manage to take England to the 1992 European finals in Sweden, but when England had to play the Swedes themselves, and were losing 2-1, he mysteriously pulled off Gary Lineker, who was within a goal of an all-time England scoring record, putting in his place Alan Smith to hold the ball up, as he said at the time, when attack was paramount.
In this autobiography he tells a different story, saying that England were unable to make chances for Gary. Previously he had been severely critical of Lineker after a friendly against Brazil.
At the Press Conference after the Swedish defeat, he blamed it on Sweden’s physical superiority. I suggested that the turning point was the two bad first-half chances missed by winger Tony Daley.
His strategic nadir was surely reached when in Oslo, in May 1993, England met Norway in a World Cup qualifier. Taylor managed to perplex himself into a quandary over how to counter the burly Jostein Flo, a centre-forward whom his team has been playing on the right flank. Taylor’s arcane answer to this was to play with an extra centre-back, deputing the big, heavy centre-half Gary Pallister to mark Flo at left-back. Disastrously.
It all too predictably came to pieces. An unbalanced England were beaten 2-0 and though they put up a bright and perhaps unlucky display in Holland – Taylor on the bench emitting on a TV documentary the hapless words “Do I not like that” – England lost and were out of the competition.