Football: Shearer still rewarding the faithful

Euro 2000: England's goalscoring captain is determined to make the most of another chance to shoot down critics
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HE IS, Kevin Keegan said in Warsaw yesterday, "a very special guy". Special enough for Keegan to have broken records by spending pounds 15m to take him to Newcastle United a few years ago, and to have publicly restated his faith last weekend, in trickier circumstances. And, as we know, Alan Shearer repaid Keegan's belief with a hat-trick against Luxembourg on Saturday, leading his team to a victory that refloated England's hopes of qualifying for the Euro 2000 finals.

"I had the advantage of having worked with him at Newcastle before I took the England job," Keegan continued, talking about the man who will lead his team out against Poland in Warsaw tonight. "It gives me an inside track. But it's not a blind faith. There will come a day, if I'm the manager of England for a long time, when I have to leave Alan Shearer out. But that time is nowhere near at the moment. I knew on Saturday that it would be all right. I know it was only Luxembourg, but afterwards I think you saw a guy who felt he had proved something. And the more he gets pestered, the more likely he is to come out and prove it."

By "pestered", Keegan meant the criticisms that have rained on Shearer's head in the past couple of weeks. First, there were those, like the former Newcastle striker Malcolm Macdonald, who took him to task for his alleged role in the downfall of Ruud Gullit. Then there was Graham Kelly, the former chief executive of the Football Association, whose new autobiography, noisily serialised in the Sun, accused him of "childish" behaviour in allegedly threatening to walk out on English football, on the eve of last year's World Cup, if the FA refused to drop a charge of misconduct following an incident in which Shearer appeared to kick Neil Lennon of Leicester City in the head.

At the weekend, Shearer dismissed his critics as "discredited men". Yesterday in Warsaw, on the eve of the critical match against Poland, and facing a posse of journalists keen to keep the story alive, he was only marginally more forthcoming.

"What I will say is that this season there've been some seriously untrue accusations made at me," he observed, his tone as even as ever. "But now is certainly not the time to go through them, with such an important game coming up. Being the captain of my country, I don't want to be sidetracked. It's pretty sad that we've here talking about it, because it seems that certain people have made it come out at this time to cause maximum damage to myself and maximum disruption to the England side. I choose to be professional, and it's a shame other people don't. There are two sides to every story, and there will be a right time for me to tell my side of the story, but this isn't it. They might sell more books on the back of me talking about this, and I don't want that to happen."

With Newcastle, he said: "If I haven't looked happy, it's for the simple fact that I don't like losing. I regret if I haven't looked well in the games, but it's only because I desperately want us to win. Newcastle have made a losing start to the season, and I'm not happy about it. There'd be a problem if I was. Results haven't gone for us, and I take my share of the responsibility for that. Now we have to get it right. And Bobby Robson's appointment has given everyone at Newcastle a lift. Wherever he's been, he's been successful. Hopefully it'll stay that way."

Keegan's belief in Shearer is exceeded only by Shearer's belief in himself. Had it, someone asked, ever wavered? "No." Never? "No." And no sportsman has ever been more expert at showing polite disdain for his critics. "It doesn't affect me. I've had it before and I'll have it again. I'm big enough and strong enough and I've been around long enough to take criticism - and to accept praise when it comes along. You have to take both, because that's what you're going to get when you've been in the game as long as I have."

In a team game, however, his own self-belief is not enough. He needs someone else to believe in him, as Terry Venables did by sticking with him before Euro 96, when he went more than a thousand minutes on the pitch without scoring before banging one home against Switzerland in the opening match of the finals. Now, with Shearer's effectiveness once more a matter of national debate, Keegan has demonstrated the same kind of loyalty.

"Without doubt," Shearer said, "for someone to come out and back you and play you when things haven't gone as well as you would have liked at club level, that's a good feeling. I have belief in my own ability, and it's nice that he does. When you need a little bit of help, as I did before Euro 96, when Terry gave it me, I appreciated it then and there's no doubt I appreciate it now."

Of his three goals on Saturday, the first - a penalty after 10 minutes - was the least spectacular but made the most impression on him, as it had on Keegan, who instinctively understood its significance. "There was a lot of pressure on me," Shearer said. "I was in a no-win situation, against a postman or a bank clerk or whatever he was. Thankfully that went in, and to hear the crowd chanting my name was a great feeling. So I played a part in the win, but that was only half the story. The other half is going out there tomorrow and winning."

His record against Poland away is encouraging. When England won 2-0 in 1997, in the World Cup qualifying campaign, he scored the opening goal and remembers the match as "one of my best performances in an England shirt". But that was in Chorzow. At Legia Warsaw's ground, where tonight's match takes place, he and Blackburn Rovers went down to a 1-0 defeat during their abortive Champions' League campaign.

"This is our most important game since the World Cup," he said, "so we have to be focused, we have to be concentrated. Which we are. The spirit is very good. But when that whistle goes, records count for nothing. Poland, justifiably so, are on the same points as us. It's a game we have to win, and we're all aware of that. We're aware of what it means to the country and the fans. It's a huge, huge game."

He played alongside Robbie Fowler on Saturday, and enjoyed the experience, but wouldn't commit himself on the choice of a striking partner for tonight's game. "Robbie was very unlucky not to score on Saturday," he said. "I wish he had, because his performance deserved it. His movement off the ball, his running and his enthusiasm were fantastic. It went really well. I felt comfortable with him. But Michael [Owen] coming on and scoring a tremendous goal has given the manager a problem which every manager would want, really. I also enjoyed a hell of a relationship with Teddy [Sheringham]. It would be wrong for me to say I prefer to play with one or the other."

When he sits down to a formal discussion about what he does for a living, Shearer plays such a dead bat that it is hard to believe he feels emotions like euphoria, even on the pitch. But perhaps the manner is deceptive, and the words really do tell the truth. "It was a huge lift for everyone, the good result and the good performance on Saturday," he said. "Don't let anyone fool you. Captaining your country and scoring a hat-trick in front of a full house in one of the greatest stadiums in the world, it doesn't get much better than that. It was one of the best days of my life."

He paused, and gave his inquisitors a level look. And then, very gently, he put us all - critics and well-wishers alike - in our place. "It's anyone's dream," he said. "If any of you lads play football at the weekend and you score a goal, I'm sure the feeling you get is tremendous. In the position I was in on Saturday, you can multiply that by millions."