Football: In search of the perfect partner for Shearer
An abundance of strikers, Alan Shearer working back to match fitness, Michael Owen's exciting progress. No wonder that Glenn Hoddle is thought to be envied by every other coach in the World Cup finals.
But wait a minute. Robbie Fowler is underachieving, Les Ferdinand is injured again after missing most of the season, Chris Sutton's pique has probably ruled him out of contention and, at 32, the dip in Ian Wright's performances could be permanent.
Beginning at Wembley tonight, Hoddle will have his strikers under close scrutiny, marking them up or down for individual effectiveness and collective understanding.
Barring a serious setback in rehabilitation, Shearer is a certainty, leaving two, maybe three of the 19 outfield places to be filled by designated attackers, a category into which Teddy Sheringham falls despite the blurring of function brought about by strategic development.
The success of a partnership put in place by Terry Venables for Euro 96 makes Sheringham the favourite to operate in conjunction with Shearer, whose role he could duplicate in emergency. If further proof of maturity leads to Owen's inclusion, World Cup history suggests that only one other place will be available to Hoddle's remaining strikers, with the choice falling possibly on Dion Dublin, who has not only the advantage of being able to fill in at centre-half but to provide an aerial threat.
Strange things can happen. It was unthinkable that England could win the 1966 World Cup without Jimmy Greaves, who was established beyond all reasonable doubt as one of the greatest goalscorers football had ever known. But Greaves failed to regain his place from Geoff Hurst after dropping out through injury.
Less than a month before recording the only hat-trick in a World Cup final, shortly after Greaves put four goals past Norway, it was thought unlikely that Hurst (substitutes were not introduced until 1970) would appear in the tournament. Struggling to overcome the difficulties imposed by a barren, bumpy surface, Hurst looked so clumsy when selected for a friendly against Denmark in Copenhagen that Alf Ramsey's judgement was called into question by a member of England's training staff. "Not up to it," was Harold Shepherdson's private word on Hurst as we passed through Copenhagen airport the following morning.
With only three strikers in his squad, Ramsey returned to the pairing of Greaves and Roger Hunt for England's final warm- up, their toughest, against Poland in Katowice. Powerful and selfless, Hunt secured victory with the game's only goal.
When Hunt and Hurst clicked as a pair in Greaves' absence (the Tottenham forward failed to score in three group games) a pattern was set, critically, to the team's private satisfaction. In a book we later did together, Bobby Charlton wrote: "I felt for Jimmy [Greaves] but I don't think any of us were astonished by Alf's decision. When Geoff Hurst came in for him against Argentina it all began to slot into place. Roger Hunt was a certainty; he was strong, he was tough, he scored goals and he'd run all day. He and Geoff suddenly hit it off.
"They tugged defenders out of position, opening up gaps we could get into from midfield. Geoff also had a good understanding with the other West Ham players, Bobby Moore and Peters. So, on the one hand, Alf had Hurst and Hunt who would sweat cobs and, on the other, Greaves, a fantastic finisher, but a moderate team player. I'm sure that Alf didn't think himself brave in leaving Jimmy out. He simply did what he felt was best for the team."
The international careers of Greaves and Hunt were over when Ramsey assembled his strike force for the 1970 finals in Mexico. Able to use substitutes, bearing in mind the difficulties of playing at altitude in extreme heat, he increased the complement to five. Realising the need for a more measured approach, he chose Manchester City's skilful and pugnacious winger Francis Lee to play up front with Hurst, with Allan Clarke of Leeds United, the tall West Bromwich Albion centre-forward Jeff Astle and Chelsea's Peter Osgood as back-up.
Strikers came and went during the 12 years that would separate England from their next appearance in the finals, including three - Paul Mariner of Ipswich, Arsenal's Tony Woodcock, and Peter Withe of Aston Villa - taken by Ron Greenwood to Spain in 1982.
Bobby Robson's choice of three strikers for the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico led to so much indecision that England were soon thinking about an embarrassing early exit. Robson took Mark Hateley of Milan, Gary Lineker, who would shortly join Barcelona from Everton, with the burly Chelsea centre-forward, Kerry Dixon.
Poor performances, a near mutiny, the recurrence of Bryan Robson's shoulder injury and the loss of Ray Wilkins, who was sent off against Morocco, led to the inclusion of Gary Lineker to play in partnership with Peter Beardsley. Lineker's hat-trick against Poland secured England a place in the next round, saving Bobby Robson's reputation.
Only two players, Lineker and the muscular Wolverhampton Wanderers centre- forward Steve Bull, could be regarded as strikers when Robson announced his squad for the 1990 finals in Italy. Along with Beardsley, Chris Waddle and John Barnes, they appeared on the squad sheet as forwards.
If this is the most sensible designation (Pele had no specific role for Brazil) television and newspapers do not allow for it. Shearer has all the attributes associated historically with centre-forwards, but how do you describe Sheringham? In oldfashioned terms, he is essentially an attacking inside-forward with the subtlety and vision to make chances as well as being a chance taker.
The fruitful partnership Sheringham and Andy Cole have struck up for Manchester United may well strengthen the case for Cole's inclusion if he shows the temperament for international football.
Owen is surely prominent in Hoddle's thinking, his development so rapid that age hardly enters the equation. Uncommonly in a speedster, Owen's head is always up, and who in England can claim to be a more clinical finisher?
Hoddle's choice narrows. From being perhaps the most promising of England's young strikers, Fowler has fallen behind but has time in which to recover form; Ferdinand's history of injuries make him a risk; Wright's best days are gone.
But who knows? Hurst came out of nowhere to make history. Lineker's international career was shaped by the mistakes in selection and strategy that caused a shake-up. For Greaves, whose record of 44 international goals has only been bettered by Charlton (49) and Lineker (48), the World Cup brought only a shattering personal disappointment.
England's World Cup strikers since 1966
1966: Geoff Hurst, Jimmy Greaves, Roger Hunt.
1970: Hurst, Francis Lee, Allan Clarke, Peter Osgood, Jeff Astle.
1982: Paul Mariner, Tony Woodcock, Peter Withe.
1986: Tony Hateley, Gary Lineker, Kerry Dixon.
1990: Lineker, Steve Bull.
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