Caught in two minds

Ian Ridley assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the national side's front line; Euro '96: As England await the Swiss, Venables must decide whether to rest Shearer and pursue the Ferdinand option
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The Independent Online
THE Football League manager who happened to be in the grounds of Bisham Abbey on other business after England's training session had finished was wondering what Terry Venables had had to say. "Been blinding you with science again, has he?" he enquired.

Do you think, I asked him, you can play Alan Shearer and Les Ferdinand together up front? "Course you can," he said. "And it must be very difficult for the layman to understand why Terry doesn't." Not just laymen, nor Endsleighmen, it seems. Kevin Keegan is reported to be considering a pounds 10m offer to Blackburn Rovers to make Shearer a partner for Ferdinand, and even from within the England camp comes Geordie support for the idea. "I think they could play together," Peter Beardsley said, even though he is aware that it would probably mean his being out of a job. "Alan could adjust to being the link-man and Les could be the more forward one. They are two quality players."

But as Alan Partridge might say, it's not going to happen. For Wednesday's match against Switzerland at Wembley, the England coach seems sure to remain true to his belief that finesse rather than physique is the requirement at international level, that plonking two men up front will simply not sufficiently worry defenders of quality, even though the Swiss employ a back four rather than sweeper system. And given the variety and motion of his game, Beardsley will surely, with Nick Barmby injured, not be out of a job.

So, Shearer or Ferdinand? The question of where, and from whom, goals will come has assumed more gravity this month after the two goalless draws against Colombia and Norway. This despite Venables's insistence that England's record does not compare badly with the top European nations. Really? Germany have 24 goals from nine qualifying matches, Spain 23 and Switzerland 15 from eight. England have 10 from nine friendlies, all but one at home.

Not long ago the question of who will play striker would have scarcely been a contest, but Shearer is goalless in his last eight internat- ionals and, though remaining Blackburn's redeemer in the Premiership, he has failed to score against the tighter defences of the Champions' League. For the first time he is being seriously questioned, even if Venables retorts: "Not by me."

Neither is Shearer in particularly good humour at present, as Blackburn's struggles must turn his head to thoughts of his native North-east and what he might do with the kind of supply line that Beardsley, Keith Gillespie and David Ginola provide. Shearer has also been upset by the Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson apparently labelling him a "money-grabber" in a video. As ever, Shearer yesterday played such a straight bat to any ball from interviewers remotely short of a length that he could be with England's cricketers in South Africa. No comment on the Ferguson remark . . . got to adapt to different systems if you want to be an international . . . confidence still high . . . hope I contribute more to the team than goals . . . not worried by lack of them . . . just being asked to play my normal game.

Behind all the right noises, you do sense that Shearer may be a little out of sorts, however. Venables has tried and found wanting the flavours of the month, Andy Cole and Stan Collymore, persisting with the persistent Shearer. But the feeling returns that the striker has not looked at ease in the coach's formation. "I think Alan would like someone alongside him to help him out," admits Beardsley, who has played with them both, "but that has to be the responsibility of all of us."

Too often, goes the criticism, Shearer has looked isolated. Perhaps it is more that he can unwittingly isolate himself. The willing runs to the wings and into channels that are so crucial to Blackburn's game are less effective for England. Midfield players of the type that Venables believes will unhinge tactically astute defenders want to see his receptive feet in the centre of their vision, rather than galloping heels going into the peripheral distance.

Though both are brought up on the staple "over the top" ball in the English game, Shearer makes diagonal runs more instinctively than Ferdinand, who has the greater pace. But it is a tactic unlikely to work at a higher level. "If you look at Les's goal against Queen's Park Rangers," says Beardsley, "that was one ball from our box - and that won't beat people in international football."

A comparison of Ferdinand and Shearer in the match between Newcastle at Blackburn at St James' in midweek was not especially instructive. Neither had a shot or header on target; indeed, between them they managed only one attempt, Ferdinand's shot dribbling well wide.

It was more telling, though, that of Shearer's eight passes only two went astray; of Ferdinand's 15, seven did. Shearer probably envied his opposite number's 42 touches of the ball to his 23. It probably explains why Shearer has 15 domestic goals this season and Ferdinand 17.

There is another alternative, much as it may annoy those who thoughtlessly jeer Teddy Sheringham's arrivals as a substitute. Throughout all the flavour- of-the-month debates, one has warmed to Sheringham, who in an average Tottenham team has continued to want the ball and use it wisely, as well as score goals.

Whoever is selected, this time England will need to offer him the service and support lacking last month. "We need to get more crosses in," Beardsley says. "You know with Alan that if you put 10 balls into the box, he will be on the end of four or five of them. That's what we have got to do, but he hasn't had that chance for the last four or five internationals." It is his own and the team's responsibility, he concedes, to ease the burden by also contributing goals.

A personal preference would be to see Ferdinand given a chance to see if he can integrate himself into the system, though Shearer remains the better all-rounder and the first choice in the longer term. An understudy has to be viewed sooner or later, after all, and the rest might even benefit Shearer rather than damage his confidence - which, as they say on Tyneside, is rock 'ard.