Football: Shearer partnership has an appeal for Ferdinand

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The Independent Online
MIKE ROWBOTTOM

On the one occasion when Alan Shearer and Les Ferdinand have played as twin strikers for England, in the pre-Euro 96 friendly against Portugal last December, the partnership looked distinctly unpromising - just, you suspected, as Terry Venables suspected.

Venables's preference for playing Shearer with a less powerful but wily partner such as Nick Barmby or Teddy Sheringham was not seriously challenged. But the picture has changed since then.

Venables has departed, and his successor as England coach, Glenn Hoddle, has been putting a big emphasis on flexibility as he prepares his men for Wednesday night's World Cup qualifier against Poland.

When Ferdinand was given his chance against Portugal, Venables made it clear that that was exactly what it was. Ferdinand's second-half substitution left questions open which he was given no subsequent chance to answer.

Until now. Hoddle was insistent on Friday that he was not going to be operating on a "now or never" basis with any of his players - a statement which offered potential comfort not just to Ferdinand, but others such as Matt Le Tissier and Paul Merson.

But with Ferdinand and Shearer now thriving together under Kevin Keegan's managership at Newcastle - where they have 13 goals between them so far, Ferdinand contributing eight - the case is being stated every week for their institution as an international double act.

"The partnership is getting better with each game that goes by," Ferdinand said. "Kevin Keegan has been drumming it into us, the fact that we can play together. We both feel that we can. And that's the most important thing."

The two men do not make a point of going out with each other or rooming together, but they get on fine socially within the framework of regular outings with the other Newcastle players.

Keegan talks often about his forward partnerships as a Liverpool player, the most famous of them being with John Toshack, a man with whom he conspicuously failed to strike up a rapport off the pitch.

"He says you don't have to be the best of friends to have a great partnership, as long as you two are on the same wavelength on the pitch, that's all that matters. He never said he hated Toshack. They never went out as a pair."

When Keegan signed Shearer for pounds 15m this year, he rang Ferdinand to reassure him that the move did not mean he would be on his way out of St James' Park. The rapport on the pitch was not instant, but it has developed.

"Sometimes it happens just like that and sometimes you have to work at it," Ferdinand said. "He's had to understand the runs I make, I've had to understand the kind of runs he makes."

In the process, Ferdinand has felt the pressure of being the lone striker lifted from him, and reverted to the more wandering role he had at his previous club, Queen's Park Rangers.

"With Alan playing there I've been able to run around the pitch a lot more than I did last season because I was always, if you like, the get- out ball. But now they've got both of us up there."

The effect of this double power-pack has been profound at club level, as Gareth Southgate, who was on the wrong end of Newcastle's 4-3 win over Aston Villa last week attested. "They are the best I have faced at any time as a defender," he said. "They are power, and if it's not Ferdinand coming at you, it's Shearer."

Ferdinand describes his experience with England thus far as being frustrating. "I don't think I've ever let England down," he said. "But I don't think I've ever had a decent crack of the whip, to be honest. I just need a run, you know."

He accepts, however, that Shearer has deserved his pre-eminence at international level. "I think Alan has proved to be the best striker in Europe over the last two seasons," Ferdinand said. "You have to appreciate his holding up of the ball, his twisting and turning, the way he brings other people into the game. But first and foremost, it's his goalscoring. He's second to none."

You get the feeling that Ferdinand could handle being second to one for England. As long as it meant a decent crack of that whip. In the meantime, Poland's central defenders are likely to be awaiting Hoddle's team selection with some trepidation.

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