Football / Coca-Cola Cup Focus: Warhurst up front about lingering doubts: Wednesday's unlikely striker encounters Arsenal's once wayward midfielder at Wembley tomorrow: A place in England's squad should delight any player, unless . . . Joe Lovejoy reports

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The Independent Online
ROY of the Rovers? Roy of the Miners more like. The most reluctant striker since Brother Lynk set up his alternative mineworkers union is still not convinced. The new Gary Lineker? Paul Warhurst would much rather be the old Alan Hansen.

Surely selection for England must have banished the doubts? Not at all. He still regards himself as a centre- half, and is not ready to commit himself to a permanent change.

Graham Taylor's unexpectedly early recognition of his success last month had persuaded him to think deeply about his future, but it was too early to reach any decisions, he said. Que sera, sera.

The esteem in which Sheffield Wednesday hold their defender- turned-goalscorer was revealed after that protracted defeat by Manchester United last Saturday, when they lost 2-1 for want of a decent finisher.

Trevor Francis's rueful comment 'Next time, we'll bring Paul Warhurst' would have been greeted with bafflement, if not outright mirth, as recently as January, when the player in question was a reserve centre-half.

Three months and 12 goals on, Arsenal are only too aware of the damage his fleet-footed finishing could inflict on their one-paced defence in tomorrow's Coca-Cola Cup final.

Had he been fit to win his first cap in Turkey, when it is reasonable to assume that Warhurst, rather than Lee Sharpe, would have substituted for Ian Wright, he would probably have accepted the permanence of his change of direction.

A groin injury having cost him his place in Izmir, he remains undecided, and makes no secret of the fact that he would be much happier if promotion to the senior squad had come as a logical progression from his eight appearances at under-21 level. As a defender.

It might be different if he could understand, or at least rationalise his prosperity in the new role. Instead, he is at a loss when asked to explain the fast-forward metamorphosis which had him rattling in a dozen goals at the rate of one a game.

The most remarkable aspect of the transformation is the way he looks born to the job - as if he had never played anywhere else. As Taylor put it, he is doing all the things strikers do, naturally.

A reminder of his dexterity and expertise came in Wednesday's recent match at Aston Villa, when a long ball from Roland Nilsson came hurtling out of the air like a mortar shell. Unpromising material for the most experienced of forwards, but Warhurst let it drop over his right shoulder before bringing it under control with his left foot, turning and testing Mark Bosnich with a venomous volley from 20 yards. Eat your heart out, Mark Hughes.

There is no shortage of defenders who have had their moments in attack, but they are usually big bustlers with obvious limitations. Warhurst is not a target man, picked for intimidating strength or aerial prowess. He is scoring his goals with both feet, relying on pace and stealth to get him into position.

After half a season he looks the part as an international striker-in-waiting, and if the man himself is amazed, so too is everbody else who has had anything to do with him.

Typical is the puzzled reaction of Earl Barrett, who partnered him in central defence for Manchester City reserves, Oldham and the England under-21s. Aston Villa's own Mr Versatility said: 'We're good friends, but he's doing things I never thought he was capable of. Towards the end of our time together at Oldham, he was in and out of the team.'

Barrett had been moved to put the question everyone else was asking. 'I spoke to him a while ago and asked: 'What on earth is going on?'. To be fair, it has gone on too long now for it to have been a fluke.

'He has always had good touch, two good feet and the ability to strike the ball well, but there was no indication that he would end up doing this. You would never have thought of him being an out and out forward, banging in the goals.

'It's a totally different game, playing as a striker, and he's doing things I never thought he could do, like laying the ball off and spinning away from a defender and getting it back. His natural pace then enables him to get away and make, and take, goalscoring opportunities.'

The maker and taker seems slightly embarrassed by his new-found celebrity, although he has had the perspicacity to bring in an agent to maximise the trappings of success.

At 23, he is the sort of son-in-law mums would kill for - clean-cut and prosperous with an easy-going temperament and a disciplined lifestyle which takes him no further than the golf course on his occasional days off.

Too late, ladies. Already the reconstructed family man, the 14 handicap is going to pot while he shares the baby-minding duties with his wife, Jayne. The new Lineker in more ways than one.

Warhurst's father, a Telecom engineer, is given most credit for nurturing a fragile talent, so nearly choked in its infancy by the asthma which still has him in need of an inhaler at half-time.

As a beanpole right-back, he pulled up no trees during his apprenticeship with Manchester City, and was hived off to Oldham at 19, having got no further than the reserves.

'I was shoved around a bit in those days, too,' he said. 'I always preferred to play at centre-half, but Joe Royle wanted to use me at full-back. I wasn't keen.'

Francis was. He paid pounds 750,000 to make Warhurst his first signing as Wednesday's manager, pairing him up with Nigel Pearson in central defence last season, when his continued progress took him into the under-21 team which beat Germany 2-1.

He always had high hopes of 1992- 93, but made a start which was anything but auspicious. After partnering Pearson in the first three games, he found himself in the reserves, behind Peter Shirtliff and the rejuvenated Viv Anderson in the queue for places.

The seeds of the harvest to come were sown in September, when he was played as a striker, in extremis, at Nottingham Forest, and scored in a 2-1 win. Two more came in the 8-1 annihilation of little Spora Luxembourg, in the UEFA Cup, but then it was back to three-men-and-a-dog obscurity and the Pontins League.

The second coming, and the breakthrough, came late in January, when injuries to Mark Bright and David Hirst saw him restored to the attack, at Chelsea. Score? Only in seven successive games - nine goals in all - after which there was no going back.

He is still pinching himself. 'When he (Francis) first told me he wanted me to play up front I said: 'Are you winding me up, or what?' I didn't really want to do it, but we had a lot of injuries, so I gave it a go.

'After a while, I went to see him and said: 'Come on, what's going on?'. He told me he thought I could do a job for him. I said: 'Yes, but I want to play at the back.' He still wouldn't have it. He kept playing me up there, and I suppose you've got to say he's been proved right.

'What's happened has turned everything on its head. I got into the England squad as a striker, so I've got to sit back and think about my best position. Where am I going to do well? At the moment, it's up front, but that's hard for me to accept because I've always wanted to be a defender.

'I used to love watching Alan Hansen. I'd think: 'I want to play like that. I want to be cool and in control.' He really looked the part, and I tried to model myself on him. It's funny - when I'd bring the ball down and maybe dribble it out from defence, like he used to, people would say: 'You shouldn't be doing those things in your position.' When I do the same thing now, they love it.'

The groin trouble which cost him his England place, and forced Wednesday to rest him over Easter, had left plenty of time for cogitation. 'I'm not kidding myself that what's been happening will go on indefinitely. I've just had one of those patches all strikers enjoy from time to time, when everything goes in and you can't miss.

'I honestly don't know how I've done so well. Somehow, I've been in the right place at the right time.'

It has helped that when it comes to forward play, there are few teachers better qualified than Francis, and he has also learned a great deal from Hirst - now an England rival. It is to Chris Waddle, though, that Warhurst acknowledges the greatest debt.

'Chris has been fantastic,' he said. 'He tells me where I should be running and when, and picks me out every time I make a run. The service he gives me is marvellous. You'd have to be a fool not to benefit from playing with someone with his experience and ability.'

Waddle and Warhurst, sorcerer and reluctant apprentice, are certain to stretch an Arsenal defence weakened by Lee Dixon's suspension and the ineligibility of Martin Keown.

The Gunners' best bet is probably the FA Cup. This time, it is Wednesday who look like The Real Thing.

(Photograph omitted)