Football: Inner steel of Captain Cautious

Ian Ridley searches for clues to the make-up of a quiet achiever
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Does being England's captain again, for the potentially epic encounter against Italy at Wembley on Wednesday, mean that he gets his choice of music in the dressing-room? "I don't think they would want my choice," Alan Shearer replies. What would it be? "I'm not telling you that."

Sometimes you ask Shearer daft questions just to seek some personal insight into what motivates the world's most expensive footballer at pounds 15m and his country's most explosive goalscorer. He has learned to reveal as little as possible. "I wish I had never said it," he responds when you ask if his pre-match meal is still the chicken and beans he once mentioned in passing on television and for which he has become famous. Such is the appetite for football tit-bits these days.

Perhaps Shearer is worried that if he risks saying too much about himself, or loosens up in public, some of the mystique that inspires respect, even awe, in opponents will disappear. Perhaps there is nothing deeper; maybe the straight bat he plays better than any Englishman in New Zealand serves to reinforce the even temperament that has made him astonishingly consistent in the most inconsistent of footballing roles. His musical taste, incidentally, is said to be Phil Collins, middle of the road.

The admirable Alan is always polite and courteous in interviews, rarely venturing humour or self-deprecation, and careful to skirt controversy. There is, though, a steely side to him, as can be seen in his physical presence and berating of officials on the pitch, and heard in his words off it. If Gary Lineker was "Golden Bollocks", Shearer - nicknamed "Billy Big Pockets" at Blackburn - seems to be armour-plated.

"I do it because I want to win," he says when you wonder if his image might have been dented by the TV close-ups of him shouting at linesmen and referees. "I want to win badly and if people don't like that, then there's nothing I can do about it. I wish there were many more with my faults of wanting to win badly. It's the way I was brought up. It's the only way I know."

Surely he can now admit that his barren spell before Euro 96 worried him? "No. That's half the battle lost. Once you start to waver, you lose your self-belief. You have to keep the blinkers on and say 'One day it will turn. Once one comes along I am determined to stick a few more in.' I knew that would happen."

Neither is he concerned by suggestions that his popularity among England colleagues waned after it was suggested he "dived" against Arsenal, resulting in Tony Adams's sending-off. "It's not a big issue. It's not even been mentioned and I'd be surprised if it was. I was fouled. My relationship with the players has never changed and I hope it never will."

And what kind of captain is Shearer? "Not one that will go around shouting and bawling but I will have my say in the dressing-room. Whether I am captain or not, that's the way I am. If the coach wants me to relay things, to say or do things, then I will do that."

Shearer has always been an old head on young shoulders. "You'd better ask him," said his father of the 14-year-old 12 years ago when the North- east scout Jack Hixon enquired if the sheet-metal worker's son would be willing to go to Southampton for a trial. A mature body, too, which clearly made him durable when a cruciate ligament injury three years ago threatened his career.

He was not the most naturally gifted or skilful, recalls the then Saints manager Chris Nicholl, but like Kevin Keegan a voracious self-improver. "He had the same sort of physical attributes as Mark Hughes and Kenny Dalglish," adds Nicholl. "Big, strong legs, wide hips and a big backside. He also had the same low centre of gravity. All these things are vital to a striker because they give him the strength to take the ball with his back to goal and hold off his defender until support arrives."

Glenn Hoddle, indeed the nation, will rely on those assets come Wednesday, when Shearer is sure to be fit despite missing two days' training last week at Bisham Abbey with stiffness in his back which also precluded him training before Newcastle's previous three matches.

No wonder the Italians fear him, and no wonder they tried to buy him in the summer after his five goals in Euro 96. "I had the chance to go abroad before Newcastle," Shearer admitted, if a little reluctantly, "but I didn't think it was right for the family or me." The pull of his native Tyneside - "I wanted my best years in front of my people" - and possible schooling interests of his daughters Chloe, four, and Hollie, two and a half, came before Juventus and Barcelona.

He confesses to having changed his game at St James' Park. "If you analyse my performances," he says, "I am certainly getting a lot more balls into my feet. No disrespect to Blackburn, because we were a successful team, but you have to play to the strengths of the players you have got. At Newcastle, it's more a passing game and I've had to get used to that. It means coming off a little deeper at times. Until then, only on the England occasions was I doing that because I was not asked to at Blackburn. Chris Sutton was asked to there and now me and Les Ferdinand are sharing it. It should help at international level, yes."

The partnership with Ferdinand, which has yielded 40 goals so far this season - Shearer's share is 23 - would look to be Hoddle's option for Italy, with Teddy Sheringham injured, as it was against Poland last October. "It's comfortable at Newcastle at the moment," says Shearer. "If given the chance to play with Les, that would be great." But he adds diplomatically: "There is no way I would say to the manager, 'Let me play with Les,' because that would be disrespectful to the other players."

It is fair to say, he concedes, that Ferdinand and he have had to adapt to playing together. Terry Venables always felt that, like Lineker, Shearer preferred the penalty box to himself at international level. "We have had to work hard and still do, because you are never the finished article," says Shearer. "We only had 10 days before the season started to work things out. You don't decide who will make the runs, it just happens instinctively."

It may be, however, that Hoddle favours a striker who operates from deeper than Ferdinand. Shearer professes not to mind, despite word behind the scenes that he likes company up front. "I want to be in the England side, whatever system the manager wants to play," he says. "Whether it's one, two or three up front, you have to get used to different systems if you want to be a top international player."

Neither does he unduly fear being marked by his opposite number as captain, Paolo Maldini. "A tremendous player and figure throughout the world. Great player, great temperament and playing in a great side, which obviously helps. But, like me, he is only human."

Finally an exclusive, certainly to Leicester City, though don't mention it to Italians: "Alan Shearer only human shock."