Ferdinand takes traditional route

Norman Fox believes a pounds 6m man will be out to make a national case today
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The Independent Online
MUCH as Blackburn Rovers now know that in European competitions brute force and the artless long-ball game lead straight to despair, the bold, dashing centre-forward will forever hold a favoured place in the domestic game. And nowhere more so than at Newcastle, where quick, courageous men like Jackie Milburn and the hustling Malcolm Macdonald created a tradition that Les Ferdinand is beginning to follow. There is no better place to be an archetypal No 9 than at St James' Park.

Today Ferdinand leads the Newcastle line at Everton, a club with similar appreciation of his sort of qualities. Having scored twice and deserved three against Chelsea last Sunday, he ought to be in the mood to make a pre-emptive strike against Terry Venables, whose next England squad will be announced this week.

In spite of Blackburn's problems, Alan Shearer remains the immovable object in the way of Ferdinand's international aspirations. But it is Ferdinand who is now regarded as the best of the traditional English centre- forwards.

He is 28 and probably destined never to be a regular international. Nevertheless the argument in his favour over the claims of say, Teddy Sheringham, is that he genuinely leads the attack, and since joining Newcastle in June he has become more confident and less likely to be put off by a few missed chances.

Kevin Keegan's decision to buy him for pounds 6m seemed a risk. After all in his eight years at QPR, Ferdinand was injury-prone and had given the impression that internationally he lacked the necessary appetite. Gerry Francis, the former QPR manager, remembers him as "someone you sometimes had to put your arm around and tell him to believe in himself."

Keegan is benefiting from the work of Ferdinand's previous managers. "I paid a lot for him to do what he did last weekend . . . I'd watched him a lot. I knew he would be all right. He knew what was expected of him as Newcastle's No 9." Keegan, who points out that at less than six feet Ferdinand is not as big as some of his predecessors who wore that famous number, added: "He gives the impression of being six inches taller."

What was expected of him last weekend was to ram in goals when Peter Beardsley was absent and David Ginola lasted for only the first 17 minutes. He did, and Keegan was delighted, partly because Ferdinand had not had an easy time when he arrived from London, having been bought with the money Newcastle had gained from selling the popular Andy Cole to Manchester United.

Keegan had said at the time that Ferdinand was worth every penny. The disgruntled fans, especially the older ones with memories of modest, under- paid Milburn, wanted proof that anyone was worth pounds 15,000 a week. When Milburn signed from Ashington he got 30 shillings a match.

Ferdinand had been pursued by several clubs, including Everton themselves, before he decided on Newcastle. "I loved it at Rangers but I was 28 and I didn't want to retire before I'd got a few medals," he said. "I wanted to get them with Rangers but I was impressed with Newcastle's ambition".

He says that no one had a more beneficial influence on him than Ray Wilkins, although it was Gerry Francis who made him stop being sorry for himself when he failed to get goals: "I was told I was a good player with a bad attitude. I know I was a bit laid back."

Before Wilkins improved him, he went on loan to play in Turkey, where he won a cup-winner's medal. "That was a lifeline," he said. He had to play in front of fanatical crowds but scored 22 goals and wanted to stay there. Then Trevor Francis took over as manager at Loftus Road and called him home. "So I came back and had to prove myself all over again."

This season, at last, he seems to be the finished product, but just when England need goalscorers, they seem to have finished with him.