Collymore finds hidden depths

Glenn Moore hears the most expensive player in Britain make a persuasive case for inclusion in the England team to meet Croatia at Wembley next week
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There is a belief, held by some in the professional game, that Stan Collymore goes missing when it matters. They point to his anonymous debut for England last summer, and to his tetchy, impotent display at the City Ground last month, when the taunts of his former supporters at Nottingham Forest seemed to get to him.

It is not a belief shared by Collymore. "Nobody at Liverpool or Nottingham Forest has ever thrown that at me so I am not going to comment on that," he said after training with England at Bisham Abbey yesterday.

An understandable reaction, but that very unwillingness to comment suggested a raw nerve. Collymore is an articulate man and that was the only subject he was not happy to expand upon yesterday.

His mere presence, in Bisham Abbey's Warwick Room, displayed a measure of self-assurance. Relations between the squad and the media are currently strained. This follows exaggerated headlines attached to Les Ferdinand's comments on the signing of Faustino Asprilla before the last international. Some players are no longer prepared to talk - Sol Campbell yesterday refused to be interviewed, having apparently been advised not to by a senior team- mate.

Collymore could easily have followed suit. After all, he was disciplined by Liverpool earlier this season after criticising their handling of him in a magazine interview. Yet, there he was, surrounded by tape recorders and notebooks, playing with fire again.

And why not? This, after all, is a man with a sense of perspective. As he said himself, he has had "a few ups and downs" in his career. As a YTS boy at Walsall, he was felt so out of place even hypnotheraphy could not prevent his walking out on the club. Later, after rejection by Wolves and recovery at Stafford Rangers, he found himself the butt of dressing room humour at Crystal Palace.

He left to join Southend for pounds 100,000. "It was probably the best move I ever made" he said yesterday. The rest is history - the pounds 2.5m move to Nottingham Forest, the England cap, the British record pounds 8.5m transfer to Liverpool.

A glorious rise. Not quite. By the time he left Forest, his team-mates refused to congratulate him when he scored; soon after he joined Liverpool he was in the reserves wondering publicly why they bought him.

Having been signed as a goalscoring centre-forward, he thought that was where he was going to play. But Liverpool already had Robbie Fowler.

"The gaffer [Roy Evans] did not want me and Robbie pushing up against two centre-halves and it was noticeable that we were making similar runs early on in the season," he said. "I scored the first goal of the season and people said `he's doing well', but I knew I was not getting as involved in games as last season. When I got back in the side I had to decide where I could be most effective and justify my place.

"I'm now playing as well as I've ever done but in a different way. It's a different role to the one I had at Forest, almost the opposite to the partnership I had with Brian Roy. Brian used to drop deeper and I would push on to the last man. Although I would like to have scored a few more goals this season, the actual creating play has come on tenfold. I'm coming a bit deeper, going wider, getting more crosses in."

On Tuesday Fowler converted one of those crosses to earn Liverpool a late draw against Everton and Collymore added: "I enjoyed that. It's not the same as scoring but it's almost as good.

"I am more aware, more thoughtful when playing. Teams often come to Anfield and defend deep. You have to do something a bit different. In the Everton game we were getting hassled and harried in the first half so in the second half I dropped a bit deeper to try and cause them problems. I think it worked.

"I'm now better equipped to play at international level than before. People have compared my game to Teddy Sheringham's but I do not compare myself with anybody. I think I can play both forward roles. I have always felt I could play at this level."

Yet, when he got the chance last summer, he failed. "I was disappointed with the Japan game. It was not so much nerves as being in awe of the place. It was my first game at Wembley, my England debut. But going to a club like Liverpool means you are playing in a lot of high-profile games so I think I will do better next time.

"It's important to get another chance. I want to go on and do well for my country. After that game, people said: `Can he do this? Can he do that?' I do not think you should judge anybody on one game. A lot of the media in the Liverpool area described me as a flop earlier in the season, now suddenly I am a multi-talented attacker. I do not take much notice of either."

He was also criticised for staying in Cannock, his home-town, rather than moving to Liverpool. In the event it has probably helped. Being away from football-obsessed Merseyside and among familiar faces made the early-season struggles easier to deal with.

"I get this question a lot - `Why do I live there? Why not move up to Liverpool?' It is where I am happiest. It is an hour's drive and it doesn't seem to have affected my form yet. It is where I was born, my family and friends are there and they are very important. However I have played - good, bad or indifferent - I can go back and be treated normally."

Collymore, who incidentally believes Newcastle will win the title on goal-difference, also believes his slow start has helped him deal with the pressures. "I have seen a few non-League clubs. I do not envy some of the younger lads at a big club who are under pressure from day one to do it."

One of those is Fowler, who does not seem to have had many problems so far. But, warned Collymore: "I just hope he is allowed to progress naturally and not have too much pressure put on his back. He is still a young lad and it is when he gets to his mid-twenties, and there is a lot of expectation on him, that it might build up."

The pair may play together against Croatia on Wednesday. "Obviously they are one of the combinations you feel would do well," Terry Venables said. "They are very good together."

"It would help me," Collymore said, "but I don't think it makes any difference to Robbie who he plays with. He is an amazing player."

Collymore is no slouch himself. "He is capable of doing the role Teddy does," Venables said. "Against Japan I tried to get him to come out deeper and use the wider areas. He did not do it on the day but his game has progressed that way. It takes a while to settle in. He was a huge fee and there was a lot of expectation."

But, can he handle playing for England? His two goals against Newcastle suggests he can perform on the big occasion. Then again, he was quiet in the FA Cup semi-final. Everyone who has worked with him makes the point that he needs to be loved, he wants to be appreciated. It is one reason why he prospered under Barry Fry - ever a man to build up his players - but was discontented under Frank Clark. It may also explain his reluctance to leave Cannock.

With his undeniable talent, and his ability to learn, Collymore has the potential to establish himself in the international arena. But while Fowler, as Venables said, "looks as if he could come in and do something immediately", Collymore, whose game is less instinctive, more cerebral, may need a run of games before he feels comfortable enough to blossom. There may not be enough time for that before Euro 96 but, at 24, Collymore is young enough to wait.