Football: Stage set for England understudies

To many people today's England international against Cameroon at Wembley is just a meaningless friendly. It isn't to the players. With the World Cup just seven months away, and England not playing again until February, this is their chance to leave a ling
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Wembley's casting couch welcomes a clutch of aspirants this evening as auditions open for the potentially award-winning role of Alan Shearer's understudy.

With the Newcastle United striker still a far from certain starter for England in France next summer, Robbie Fowler, Andy Cole and Chris Sutton are seeking the chance to nudge Ian Wright aside as understudy-elect.

With the less promising position of David Seaman's reserve also up for grabs, along with defensive and midfield positions, there is much of interest in tonight's match against the potentially awkward Cameroon, one of the World Cup's earliest qualifiers.

As Wright is lacking form and confidence and nursing an ankle injury he is unlikely to start, nor is Sutton who is new to the squad. This leaves Fowler and Cole as the most likely first contenders and who plays may depend on whether Paul Scholes is fit after a chest cold.

If Scholes does play, Cole, who has played only 33 minutes in two substitute appearances for England, may get the nod but Fowler remains favourite. He has started twice, come on as substitute four times and scored once so far. His ability to take chances is not in doubt but his ability to find them at international level remains unproven as does his temperament after three dismissals for retaliation.

"He has talent," said Hoddle yesterday, "but there are things in his game which he needs to improve on at this level. You are marked tighter so movement needs to be a lot subtler, your touch and hold-up play is important. You need to keep the ball in international football and the hardest place to do so is in the last third. It took Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham time to get that assurance."

Unfortunately for Fowler he does not have that much time. "As I know myself," added Hoddle, "it takes 10 to 15 games to make - or break - an international player and not many get that opportunity. The jump from League football to international is massive. The only way to find out if he can score at international level is by giving him games but I only have six to play with, not 14. If players get an opportunity they must take their chance as Paul Scholes did."

On Fowler's disciplinary problems Hoddle added: "He needs more settling time. All you ask of young players is that they learn from mistakes. It was a silly sending-off a few weeks ago [against Bolton] and it is only him who loses from it.

"I've not spoken to him about that. Sometimes you want to see if players learn themselves. He is young enough to do that but sometimes it needs explaining. He has tremendous ability and I have belief in him."

Since Cameroon are noted for their tackling this could be a good test of Fowler's temperament.

With five substitutes allowed out of eight on the bench, Cole should also get a chance as should whichever goalkeeper between Nigel Martyn and Ian Walker starts on the bench. The in-form Martyn should start.

In defence, Rio Ferdinand may win his first cap while Andy Hinchcliffe and Phil Neville contest the left-flank position in the absence of Graeme Le Saux.

In midfield Gascoigne seems a likely starter alongside Paul Ince, who retains the captaincy. With Shearer, Sheringham, Tony Adams and Stuart Pearce all out that was to be expected but it is, said Hoddle, because of the job he did in Rome not by default.

The performance is the main thing, but the result may be more important than first appears. Fifa are yet to decide whether to use their rankings in deciding seedings for the World Cup draw and a win will keep England highly placed.