Football: Owen steals Shearer's limelight

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THE LAST time Alan Shearer was in Stockholm he narrowly avoided being the fall guy in Graham Taylor's most infamous substitution. With England losing 2-1 to Sweden and about to miss out on a place in the semi-finals of the 1992 European Championships, Shearer was told to warm up only for Alan Smith to be sent on instead. Off came Gary Lineker, still a goal short of Bobby Charlton's England record.

England lost, neither Lineker nor Smith played for England again and Taylor's relationships with press and public were irretrievably damaged. Shearer went on to be Lineker's successor as captain and centre-forward.

Six years on England and are again searching for their first win in Stockholm since 1937, again in a European Championship tie, again with the manager and captain under pressure. While Glenn Hoddle needs a result to damn the growing criticism of his manner and methods Shearer needs a goal, or at least a dynamic performance, to silence the whispers about his place.

His captaincy is challenged by Tony Adams' assertion that he should be skipper. His role as goalscoring totem is under threat from the emergence of Michael Owen. While Shearer's place is not in doubt as yet - and unlike Lineker he has the support of his coach - the time is coming when Owen may be regarded as the leading striker.

Since returning from injury in January he has had a poor return for Newcastle and scored once from open play in his last five England games. Shearer's World Cup performances were disappointing given his previous high standards and, in difficult circumstances, he has not started the season well at Newcastle. Sweden, where no English forward has scored since the war, does not appear the best place to stage a revival.

Yet there remains, most of the time, a calm certainty about Shearer and as he looked forward to tomorrow's first qualifying match, he generally appeared at ease with himself and his "rivals".

Of Adams, whose comments came in his recently serialised book, he said: "I haven't spoken to him about it but he would say that because he is Tony Adams and you make sure you look after your own interests. Glenn Hoddle has chosen me for his reasons and that's as far as it goes."

Adams and Shearer are not close but there is a deep professional respect. Shearer is clearly unhappy with this week's focus though and he added: "There been enough rubbish written and said this week but the only important thing is the match. I've no problem with people doing books but it's a shame we're so close to it and this is dominating the build-up." He realised, though, that "without the game the serialisation would not have come out this week".

Shearer is more forthcoming on the subject of Owen in whom, he said, (when pressed, Shearer is rarely boastful) he saw "something of myself in the way he handles things on and off the pitch.

"He's under more pressure than most 18-year-olds will ever be and has handled it. He hasn't changed from the day he came in. He's a very confident lad, he gives and takes his fair share of stick like everyone."

Last night he saw at close hand just how much pressure Owen is under. Attending a joint press conference for the benefit of the Swedish media Shearer was lost in the crush as Owen was surrounded by a pressing battery of cameramen and television crews.

Shearer was virtually ignored and, perhaps understandably, slightly chippy when a rare question came his way. Earlier he had added of Owen: "He is a very exciting player with a great future ahead of him. If there's one thing defenders don't like it's movement and pace and he has both. He presents a dilemma for defenders. Do they sit deep and cut his pace off which creates space in midfield for us? Or do they play up the pitch, try and play him offside, and leave space for him to run into? The important thing is he wants to learn and wants to listen."

Shearer has passed on a few tips to Owen though he is not convinced he needs much help. he recalled: "He said to me when we were taking the penalties against Argentina 'what shall I do?' I just said, 'do what you normally do: put it in the back of the net'. And he did. I was always confident he would score."

Shearer got over his World Cup disappointment with some R & R in Barbados on a family holiday. "I was disappointed but also relieved it was all over because of the pressure involved. It was difficult to take it home because I have two little girls. They want to hold you and you can't be running around being miserable. They don't understand and I don't want them to."