Football: Ferdinand completes his exotic adventure

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The Independent Online
EVERYONE did their best to look suitably concerned, but England versus San Marino is akin to Italy playing Rutland, and the result at Wembley tomorrow is a foregone conclusion, regardless of Ian Wright's fitness.

The captain, Stuart Pearce, is also a doubtful starter, but the tiddlers from the tiniest of principalities are such cannon fodder that, for once, it matters little how many reserves Graham Taylor has to put in.

In fairness, it matters a great deal to Wright, of course. Still to score after seven internationals, the Arsenal striker is looking to fill his boots against the side crushed 10-0 by Norway, and will be busting a gut to be there.

Unfortunately, the gut he bust in shooting Nottingham Forest out of the FA Cup on Saturday was still troubling him yesterday when, like Pearce, he took no part in training.

Both players hope to prove their fitness after more treatment today, the suggestion being that Wright is the likelier of the two to come through.

If he does, England's strikers for an important, if undemanding, World Cup tie will be without a goal between them at international level.

Taylor took the unusual step yesterday of announcing the selection of one player ahead of the rest of the team, and Les Ferdinand of Queen's Park Rangers will definitely be making his debut - the understudy's understudy for Alan Shearer. The original intention was to assist Wright as much as possible to reproduce his club form by pairing him up with Alan Smith, his partner- cum-provider at Arsenal.

Smith's withdrawal, injured, scuppered that plan, and so Ferdinand arrives in international football via the exotic route: Southall, Hayes and Besiktas. The debutant confessed to mounting excitement last night, but revealed that he had played at Wembley before - in 1986, when Southall lost 3-0 to Halesowen Town in the final of the FA Vase.

Coming from north-west London, the famous old stadium seemed like a home from home to him, which is just as well. Ferdinand travels as effectively as German humour, with 11 of his 12 goals this season harvested at Loftus Road. Surprisingly, for an international striker, he has never scored more than two in a club match.

If Wright, who rarely scores less, was to go the way of Shearer today, the likeliest beneficiary would be another Arsenal forward, Paul Merson.

In Pearce's case, the groin injury which threatens to deny the captain his 54th cap could be a blessing in disguise. Tony Dorigo, who stands by to replace him, is in much better form, and the Leeds left-back's more constructive approach would be a bonus against such modest opposition.

Of the two casualties, Taylor seems more anxious to have Wright in the side. 'Ian is on song,' he said. 'Since coming back from suspension, he has been scoring some spectacular goals, and his condidence is very high.

'I want him to play, but while my first responsibility is to England, I also have a responsibility to the player and to Arsenal Football Club, and I have to be sure that Ian, in his desire to play for England, isn't kidding me he's fit when he isn't'

Wright and Pearce will both have the opportunity to demonstrate their recovery before the team is finalised today. Des Walker and Paul Ince also missed training yesterday, but for precautionary reasons only, and both are assured of continued selection, with Taylor intent on keeping changes to a minimum after the encouraging 4-0 victory over the Turks.

ALAN SHEARER, the England and Blackburn striker, yesterday had a second operation to repair cruciate knee ligament damage and will not play again this season. Shearer, who cost a British record pounds 3.4m from Southampton, is still the Premier League's leading scorer with 22 goals. He had his first knee operation last month, but broke down in training.

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McCoist doubt, photograph, page 27