Football: Dublin stays smiles ahead

Norman Fox pays tribute to a striking display of selfless leadership
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The Independent Online
GLENN HODDLE did not need a Carling Opta fact sheet recording more or less everything that moves in the Premiership to confirm his view that Andy Cole misses a high proportion of goalscoring opportunities. In international football you sometimes get only one. So he trusted his instinct, omitted Cole from his squad for the Czech Republic match and trusted that Dion Dublin would open the eyes of the cynics and play a blinder, which he did.

To suggest that on the basis of one outstanding performance in a friendly match Dublin, at 29, is going to establish himself as England's regular long-term centre- forward would be as rash as to believe that in spite of all his effort and effect on Wednesday, Ian Wright will also continue to claim a place, except in the odd emergency.

But at least Dublin has drawn Hoddle's attention to what has been missing in the England attack: selfless work and a buoyant spirit. That the example should be offered by a player who the great Tom Finney could not believe was worth a pounds 7m bid by Blackburn was the sort of wonderful irony that the perky Dublin himself would appreciate.

He is not lacking in confidence but knows his limitations. Alan Shearer will soon be back to leave Dublin among the bench warmers, but whether he returns as the player who used to be in the company of the outstanding strikers in the world is questionable. He has not been at his sharpest and there is also the problem of his loner attitude. He has yet to work well with Michael Owen, whom he probably considers a rival, and he lacks the adaptability Dublin showed so efficiently when forming an immediate understanding with Wright.

Dublin's attitude to an international recall was spirited and giving. Unfortunately Shearer too often gives the impression of lethargy and wanting to be served. Many of the best performances against the Czechs were by players who knew that they were only there because of injuries and suspensions, but they gave of themselves as if with the ambition of youth. Perhaps for Dublin it was as much a matter of playing for personal pride as of pride in wearing an England shirt. After all he has won only one medal, and that in the Third Division. He said that was the main reason for leaving Coventry ... one last try.

He has never been able to shake off his old long-ball, hit-man reputation as easily as he got rid of the Czech defenders. Yet at Coventry he would sometimes put in such controlled defensive displays that you wondered why he was not recognised as a potential England sweeper. Now it is too late. Rio Ferdinand is a lot younger and considerably better.

John Gregory, at Aston Villa, is proving to be a good judge of players who may not be up among the meteors of the game but do what he wants within a team context. That was why he bought Dublin for what seemed an expensive pounds 5.75m and linked him with Paul Merson, who is being played in his best position, centrally just behind the attack in a positive but supporting role. Against the Czechs Hoddle followed Gregory's tactics.

The fact that Dublin scored five goals in his first two matches for Villa was confirmation of a natural goalscorer and of a player who can quickly understand the needs of a team. If he could strike up an immediate understanding with Stan Collymore, who may well have thought his days at Villa Park were numbered, there were obviously no worries about his working with the easy-going Wright.

Having seen Dublin perform so well, Hoddle may believe that the similar and younger Emile Heskey, of Leicester City, should be the automatic reserve for Shearer. But for the moment Dublin has put a smiling face at the head of the England attack. He says he really believes that over the past three years he has acquired qualities of leadership that get the best out of the players around him and that he is a lot better player ... a lot better than his old reputation as the target for Cambridge United's rustic football and substantially better than he was in his injury- hit career with Manchester United. But he admits that he is not the type of striker who "beats two players and curls it in the top corner". In other words, he is no in-form Shearer. The longer Shearer stays out of form the happier this big, jolly guy will be.