Ferdinand is handed his chance at last

FOOTBALL: England coach selects prolific Newcastle centre-forward to play alongside Shearer against Portugal tonight
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The clamour has been answered, although whether by luck or planning is unclear. Now it is up to the player to reward his backers. Les Ferdinand, the Newcastle United figurehead and Toon Army totem, starts an England match for the first time under Terry Venables tonight. The opponents at Wembley are Portugal, but it is the identity of his partner which is more interesting, Alan Shearer, England's regular centre-forward.

With more than 40 goals between them this season the pairing clearly has much to recommend it. Whether Shearer and Ferdinand dovetail as smoothly as Shearer and Sheringham, or Ferdinand and Beardsley, remains to be seen.

Venables' decision to put the Premiership's leading scorers in tandem may have much to do with Teddy Sheringham's injury but it was by no means his only option. Peter Beardsley or Nick Barmby could have played in Sheringham's linking role and Venables insisted he had always intended to play the two Geordie heroes, one born and one adopted, together at some point.

Ferdinand has been in nine of Venables' squads but played only nine minutes, when he replaced Shearer as substitute against the United States in September last year. That was the last time Shearer scored for England, yet he has only missed one of the 10 matches since.

"I was particularly pleased with Alan's performance in the last game," said Venables, referring to the 3-1 win over Switzerland. "I thought he played very well. I have got no qualms about Alan whatsoever and I think I have proved that in my selections. He has played fairly consistently.

"Les has been close for a long time and now his chance has come. He will be under pressure but players have got to be able to deal with pressure. There will be pressure during the European Championship. You have got to take whatever comes your way."

Ferdinand walked out of Wembley after the Switzerland match with the words, "I think my chance has gone", but yesterday he reflected, "I said that in the heat of the moment. It was disappointing to turn up so often and not get involved. I am sure we can work well together but I would lke more than one game. Other people have more than one game to have a crack at it but I may not get it."

Ferdinand's fears appeared to be confirmed when Venables, pressed on that point, said: "We have only got one match. This is it and this is his opportunity. That is what competition for places is all about." The pair will play as "conventional" strikers, although Venables will encourage them to "use the width and depth of the field".

There is a danger that the two, who have not played together, will find themselves taking up the same positions. But both have prospered as part of a twin strike force: Shearer has done so with Mike Newell at Blackburn this season, Ferdinand did so with Kevin Gallen at QPR last season.

Venables will name the rest of his side today, a series of injuries to midfield personnel having delayed his selection. The choice of twin strikers enforces a change in his recent policy of playing two wide men. With Steve Stone a near-certain starter this means Steve McManaman is likely to step down.

Two games ago such a move was unthinkable, McManaman having been hailed after his performance against Colombia. But he disappointed against Norway and Switzerland and Stone is now flavour of the month. The level-headed Forest winger will no doubt have noted how quickly fortunes change.

n Goalkeeper Vitor Baia and midfielder Rui Costa will both miss tonight's game. Portugal's No 2 goalkeeper, Adelino Neno, is being given match practice, while Rui Costa has reached the maximum number of times that his club, Fiorentina, will release him under Uefa rules.