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Football: Shearer glowing with fresh optimism

EURO 2000 PLAY-OFF The England captain is bubbling with a renewed confidence while Scotland's talismanic defender may miss out at Hampden
BOBBY ROBSON may no longer be the England manager but the next six days could show that he has performed one last service for his country.

Since Robson took over at Newcastle United in September, Alan Shearer has rediscovered the art of scoring goals. The impact of this revival has been akin to the effect eating a tin of spinach has on Popeye.

Two months ago Shearer saw enemies at every turn and was suspicious and defensive. Now he is supremely confident, so much so that he happily took Kevin Keegan's place in front of the media yesterday, allowing the England coach to take a break from the relentless build-up to the coming European Championship play-offs.

Shearer, who has scored 18 goals this season, looked ahead to the first leg at Hampden Park tomorrow with such relish it almost seemed the Scots might as well not turn up. Even the loss of Steve McManaman, who will not be available for either leg having suffered a recurrence of his groin injury, and some pointed questions about his relationship with Andy Cole, failed to disturb the England captain's sense of well-being.

Instead he positively glowed with optimism, like a Ready Brek kid after breakfast. Whenever he referred to the match it was with victory on his mind. Asked: "With away goals counting double will 1-1 be a great result for England?" He responded: "2-1 will be better. We're approaching the game as if we are going to win it. I don't see any reason why we can't."

And when he was asked: "If England win 1-0 at Hampden Park and Andy Cole scored [rather than you], would you be happy?" He looked incredulous. "Happy? We want an England victory. If the Man in the Moon comes down and scores I will be happy."

That said, Shearer did admit that in normal circumstances the relationship between him enjoying his football and scoring goals was a symbiotic one. But this was not a normal situation.

He said: "England v Scotland games are different from other internationals because there is so much surrounding it... the hype, the expectations, the fans. We're fans. We feel exactly the same as the fans do. We know what everyone is feeling because we're feeling the same."

Recalling the Euro 96 group game, when Shearer scored in England's 2- 0 win over Scotland, he added: "That was a great moment, it was a great afternoon for me and for the England team. But that's gone, that's history."

The only doubt surrounding Shearer is who will play alongside him - Michael Owen or Cole, who called Shearer England's "golden boy" in his recent autobiography.

"I haven't got a problem with that," Shearer said. "Why should I get worried about what someone has said in a book? I've been around for a long time and to be called `golden boy' is better than being called `boring'.

"We met up on Monday night, I spoke to Andy and shook his hand, he apologised for the way it had come out. To me people are judged on how well they play on a football park, not what has been said or what hasn't been said.

"My relationship with Andy hasn't changed. We're not great buddies. We don't hang around together. We don't go out and drink together. We've never done that because I don't know Andy that well. What I do know is he's a very, very good player who can score goals."

Shearer added that he was not a drinking buddy either of Owen or Chris Sutton, with whom he formed a successful partnership at Blackburn. "We had a tremendous relationship on the park, which is what it's all about."

Indeed, and since modern footballers are supposed to be drinking mineral water with pasta rather than lager with curry, Keegan might be more concerned if Shearer, Cole, Owen and Sutton were boozing partners.

More pertinently Shearer, without saying so in as many words, did appear to suggest that he gelled better with Cole on the park than he did with Owen, though he pointed out that the latter's presence did tend to give him more space as defences sit deeper.

Who partners the centre-forward is, however, a concern for Keegan rather than Shearer. He is just concentrating on the match.

The 29-year-old, who will get his first taste of Hampden Park when England train there this morning, added: "This is what you are in football for, England-Scotland at Hampden in front of 50-odd thousand screaming people. There will be an atmosphere around the place but if you can't handle that, you shouldn't be here.

"When we are standing listening to the National Anthem, that will be a great moment. Even if they drown it out we will still sing it. But you only enjoy [the day] if you get the right result.

"I've been to Wembley the last two years with Newcastle. People say `enjoy it', but I don't enjoy getting beat. I enjoy the build up but it's an even better feeling if, two hours later, we are walking off the pitch with the right result."