Football: Cole is likely to partner Shearer

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The Independent Online
KEVIN KEEGAN was pondering his striking options at Bisham Abbey yesterday. Should he go for pace or muscle? Experience or youth? Penalty- box poacher or roving creator? With Alan Shearer's place apparently cast in stone, as it has been since Gary Lineker's retirement seven years ago, and Michael Owen and Kevin Phillips injured, the decision comes down to who partners the captain out of Andy Cole, Teddy Sheringham, Emile Heskey and Robbie Fowler.

Having ended the Hungary match alongside Shearer, Heskey is technically the man in possession but, in the context of Saturday's vital European Championship qualifier against Sweden, he will have to continue his international education as a spectator.

Fowler is also unlikely to start, although he may be on the bench. Keegan spoke glowingly of him this week but the Liverpool striker is short of match fitness due to suspension and injury. Which leaves the Manchester United pair, Cole, who is ending the season poorly, and Sheringham, who is finishing on a high with crucial goals in FA and European Cup finals.

Cole, Keegan's former Newcastle protege, is likely to get the nod this morning. His finishing remains hit-or-miss but he linked well with Shearer against Poland, creating chances for each other and Paul Scholes. Merely being selected will raise his confidence and, maybe, restore his composure around goal. The pairing would also leave space for Scholes to play behind the strikers.

However, it will be a surprise if Sheringham is not involved, especially if things do not go England's way, and he may well start in Sofia against Bulgaria on Wednesday. It is not just form that is on his side, the figures back him up, too. He and Shearer are England's most successful partnership since Peter Beardsley and Lineker.

The Independent has analysed all England's matches since Shearer and Sheringham first teamed up, against the United States at Wembley on 7 September 1994. In the five years since, they have been partners on 24 occasions, totalling just under 25 hours of football. In that time England have scored 27 goals at a rate of one every 55 minutes, Shearer and Sheringham claiming 20 of them. In the matches and parts of matches they have not been in tandem England have scored 48 goals at a rate of one every 78 minutes, a staggering 30 per cent slower.

While Shearer has scored the bulk of the goals Sheringham's importance to the partnership cannot be underestimated. Shearer especially knows his value. With Sheringham alongside he has scored 13 goals at just under two hours football per goal. The nine goals scored without him have taken more than five hours each.

Sheringham's clever passing and his ability to take attention away from Shearer in the air are significant factors but it has been clear, watching Shearer with Owen, that he operates best with a partner who is prepared to do the donkey work and, unlike Owen, will leave the penalty area to Shearer.

Kevin Phillips did so to an extent in Hungary while Cole, with his growing awareness of other players, also looked a promising partner at times but, for the present, Sheringham is Shearer's best cohort.

With Shearer 28 years old, and Sheringham 33, the future may rest with Fowler (24) and Owen (19). Fowler, said Keegan, has been unlucky not to add to his three England starts. For Glenn Hoddle he started twice, scoring both times, but then went a year without playing until he came on as a late substitute in Hoddle's last match.

Much of this is due to injury and the fallout from Fowler's various brushes with authority but, said Keegan, "I can only judge on what I see and I like what I see. He has a tremendous amount to offer. He is as good a natural goalscorer as you are likely to see."

That is for the future. Sheringham said this week: "I feared I might be too old for the new manager", but Keegan, who paid pounds 1.4m for a 32-year- old Peter Beardsley at Newcastle, knows speed of thought can be more valuable than fleet of foot. The question is not whether to play Sheringham, but when.

Keown's approval, page 25