Football: Salako ready for the real thing: Back from injury, Crystal Palace's dashing winger is ready and willing to resume his international career, writes Geoff Brown

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The Independent Online
'THIS penalty to win the World Cup,' John Salako shouts, as he steps back from the ball. A short scuttle and a powerfully clipped shot later, the ball is spinning in the back of the net as Salako, the Crystal Palace winger recalled to the England squad this week, wheels away in celebration.

Not yet the real thing, of course. This is only Palace's training ground in Mitcham, not the United States, but for Salako inclusion in the squad for England's opening 1994 World Cup qualifier against Norway is genuine reason for celebration because he, like other more publicised internationals with cruciate knee ligament injuries, has spent the best part of a year recuperating.

'Of course I'm delighted to be in the England squad again,' Salako says. 'I'm delighted to be playing. I'm delighted just to be out there.'

It is after 12.30pm, well past the time League players normally finish training on the day before a match, but Salako and Palace strikers, Paul Williams and Chris Armstrong, are still working on their play in and around the penalty box. For half an hour, Salako's repertoire has included shots on the run, shots across the goalkeeper's body, wickedly curling left-foot free-kicks from the right-hand side of the area, and left-wing crosses. England strikers might remember these.

Whipped into Williams at the near post or hoisted high and hard to Armstrong at the far, they dip late or curve away from goal, tempting the goalkeeper but always keeping him in two minds. It is the sort of service of which Gary Lineker was starved during the denouement of his England career and from which Alan Shearer has yet to benefit.

Salako has begun to take penalties: something of a sore point, for he had missed one the previous Saturday as Palace played Southampton off Selhurst Park, yet still managed to lose.

'We've been playing well,' he says, 'especially in the last few weeks. I really should have had a hat-trick last week,' he adds, more in annoyance than disconsolation.

Salako's running, twisting and turning shows no signs of the injury. When he returned to full training, Salako said, 'I was aware of it for the first five or six weeks, but I don't even think about the injury now'.

Having been part of the Palace side in their exuberant run to the replayed FA Cup final against Manchester United in 1990, Salako then missed only three of the 38 First Division matches the following season which saw Palace finish third. Strikers Ian Wright and Mark Bright were scoring the goals, but Salako's fleet-footed work on the left set up many of the chances and brought him to the notice of the England manager who picked him - not before time, as Nigerian-born Salako was also qualified to play for Wales - for the 1991 summer tour to Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia.

That June, he was just about the only player to return from the four matches with his reputation enhanced and he duly appeared at Wembley on 11 September against newly unified Germany. Not a howling success, substituted just past the hour, he had nevertheless made a strong bid for the left-flank position, which had become something of a problem area.

But on 1 October, playing against Leeds at Selhurst Park, Salako damaged his cruciate ligament so severely that it required an operation whereby a donor's Achilles tendon is used to replace it. Salako flew to California for the operation, from which recovery is slow.

'We didn't push him too hard,' said Alan Smith, Palace's assistant manager, who has known the 23-year-old player since Salako arrived at the club 10 years ago. 'We've taken John's progress very gradually. The main problem was persuading him not to do too much too quickly. He went away on holiday to Spain a couple of times, it was better than coming here to the training ground and trying to do too much too soon or getting frustrated.

'But John is a rarity in English football,' Smith said, 'he's a natural. Most players are manufactured.'

In the meantime, Andy Sinton of Queen's Park Rangers laid claim to England's left flank.

On his return to the first team this season, Salako found that not only had the training changed, he was working with two new strikers. Shortly before the injury Wright had moved to Arsenal and shortly after this season started Bright was sold to Sheffield Wednesday in the deal which brought the former Charlton striker Williams back to London.

'When Ian Wright and Mark Bright were here it tended to be focused on them,' Salako said. 'It' being both the football and the media attention. 'Now, it's more of a team effort,' he added.

Back on the training pitch one last time, Salako lines up a final shot. Cutting into the penalty area from the left, he unleashes a left-foot drive that arrows fast and unerringly into that sensitive portion of a goalkeeper which God did not put there for shot-stopping. He pats the shoulder of the prostrate figure. Happy to be back, John Salako knows that there is vigorous athletic life after the curse of the cruciate.