Ferdinand fired by self-belief

England hope for an improved performance against a new football force no longer intimidated by the game's inventors; Ian Ridley studies the striking dilemma facing Terry Venables
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The Independent Online
IT IS 14 years since that Norwegian television commentator seemed to invoke every famous English person except Sherlock Holmes upon whom to heap shame after his team had humbled the givers of the game 2-1 in Oslo. Now not even Eamonn Holmes would wonder how they did that if they were to repeat the result on Wednesday.

The roles are reversed. Norway, conquerors of Graham Taylor's confused collection just over two years ago, have recently been hardened by European Championship qualifying and before that World Cup finals. Both have been denied England, one by their hosting of Euro '96, the other by ineptitude.

This England, though, should go to the Ulleval Stadium withmore optimism and organisation than the one which saw Gary Pallister and Lee Sharpe vying for the left-back position, even allowing for the absence of potential first-choice players such as Paul Gascoigne, David Platt, Peter Beardsley, Darren Anderton and Graeme Le Saux.

The draw with Colombia last month offered hope of inventive football beyond the English stereotype of direct industry at which Norway are the more proficient these days. "We have got to face facts and we have not been successful playing our way," said the England coach, Terry Venables. "Someone, somewhere has got to be a bit bolder."

Venables has already indicated that his formation will be similar to that for the Colombia match. That comprises a back four out of which and into midfield a defender should be expected to step when the opportunity arises, and a front six led by a spearhead striker around whom mobile players rotate to find gaps in defences. Thus are we close to Venables's modus operandi for the European Championship finals. Having been most influenced by Milan, Brazil and Ajax in the last couple of years, he intends England to adopt the best elements of all three; the back-four cohesion of the first two and the front-six fluidity of the latter.

"We expect England to be a lot better now," said Oyvind Leonhardsen, Wimbledon's Norwegian midfield player, scorer of one of his country's two goals against Taylor's toiling troupe. "We know they will be better prepared and hard to beat."

In defence, Pallister and Stuart Pearce are likely to replace the injured Steve Howey and Le Saux (Gareth Southgate and John Beresford may have been risked at Wembley but probably not against Norway's totem strikers in Oslo) and Robert Lee could take over from Gascoigne in midfield. The main question, once easily dismissed, is whether Alan Shearer will retain his place as leader of the attack.

The burden of carrying Blackburn Rovers' troubles on his manful shoulders so far this season appears to have wearied Shearer, now without a goal in eight international matches. Typically, on Friday he was playing down talk about loss of confidence and remaining defiantly positive, but he has not for some time looked comfortable in the Venables system.

Now Les Ferdinand appears a more than viable alternative, in form with nine goals having shrugged off persistent injuries, and looks in his new club Newcastle's line-up, which bears similarities to England's, an even more vibrant force than at Queen's Park Rangers. The move to a big club has helped him, Venables has said, a statement that might have been read with interest by some players,Matthew Le Tissier for example.

Of all the strikers now clamouring for attention in the Premiership, Ferdinand looks the most complete English example. His pace matches Robbie Fowler's, his shooting Stan Collymore's and his control surpasses Andy Cole's. Not even Shearer can match his heading ability and astonishing hang-time in the air - natural, he says, rather than worked on.

His link play may not yet quite rival Teddy Sheringham's, for Tottenham at least, but Newcastle's influence is beginning to tell on him after an initial, brief period when he was unused to laying the ball off to the variety of attacking midfield players, rather than flicking it on, and they unused to his need for the occasional ball played over defenders.

Ferdinand's main problem down the years has been his own lack of self- belief, probably fostered by his early experiences in the game. The scouting and apprentice systems missed him and he played in the non-League with Hayes until he was 19, working as a van driver and painter and decorator. Then QPR found him. "You go from looking at all these big-name players in sticker books and the next year you are one of them," he said. "It can take a long time to belong and it probably took me a bit longer than it should."

First Gerry Francis informed him of his potential, now Kevin Keegan has convinced him of it, he added. It flickered for England under Taylor; for Venables it could now catch fire. It will be a surprise if Shearer is not the starter on Wednesday but we should also see Ferdinand given a decent time to impress.

We hope for a surprise of another sort - an England away international passing off without hooliganism. Lumbered with Dublin in February, the FA has worked with its Norwegian counterpart and police in both countries to seek to prevent a recurrence. Should any of the 400 England Travel Club members, and the same number likely to go independently, be arrested, they can expect to be detained and charged, rather than merely deported. The Norwegians also have a law allowing them to deny entry to anyone they believe likely to cause trouble. The National Football Intelligence Unit has supplied them with a list of suspects.

The surprise of an away win would also be welcome. But the Norwegians should be shown that the game's inventors, whom they so used to admire, are not the dullards Blackburn Rovers revealed themselves against Rosenborg Trondheim. But it would again be nice to hear dear old Motty informing Noggin the Nog et al that their boys took a hell of a beating.

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