Football: Shearer still the best, says Keegan

THE ENGLAND manager, Kevin Keegan, yesterday said he would stand by his highly-criticised captain Alan Shearer - and said he was becoming tired of having to defend him.

Keegan also said that he had ruled Paul Gascoigne out of the squad for the final Euro 2000 qualifiers early next month, but would include Michael Owen, Sol Campbell and David Seaman if they proved they were on the way back to fitness.

Shearer has been the subject of intense speculation recently over an alleged rift with the Newcastle manager, Ruud Gullit, under pressure himself following the Magpies miserable start to the season. It has cast a doubt over the striker's leadership qualities and form going into the vital matches with Luxembourg at Wembley on 4 September and Poland in Warsaw four days later.

"I think I've made my feelings clear on Alan Shearer," Keegan said. "I still think he is the best around, I'm looking for people to play around Alan Shearer at the moment. That may change in six months, a year, two years, but please God from Alan Shearer's point of view it's longer. People are looking at him and saying he's not doing much, but his goal record is still very good, even under myself in the four games I've been in charge he has still scored two goals."

Keegan admitted he felt sorry for Shearer. "He has a tremendous scoring record, regardless of what people think of his form in the present Newcastle side in the first few games of the season. He has always been honest, he has always given of his best, he's always turned up and wanted to play for England."

Keegan ran the rule over Gascoigne during Middlesbrough's meeting with Liverpool at the Riverside Stadium after hearing the midfielder was back to full fitness. Gascoigne was under serious consideration for the two forthcoming matches, with England on a must-win mission, only for the midfielder to limp out of Boro's 1-0 win after just 19 minutes with a calf strain.

The Middlesbrough manager, Bryan Robson, revealed Gascoigne would be out for at least a week, with Keegan confirming there will now be no place for him in the squad which he names on Thursday. Keegan said: "Sadly I didn't have much of a chance to assess Paul. He went into a crushing tackle after about 20 minutes and up until that point he had done as well as anybody. I've got to say having seen him for the first time, if you like, in the flesh, he has certainly got himself fitter and that's something that will not only please Bryan Robson, but everybody in this country."

But when specifically asked whether Gascoigne would be in the England squad, Keegan revealed: "The answer to that now has got to be `no'."

Keegan, however, had better news for Owen, Campbell and Seaman. Owen is on the brink of a first-team return after being out since mid-April with a hamstring problem, although it could come too late for Keegan and England.

Keegan added: "I shall name a bigger squad than normal because there are five players on yellow cards, while a lot will also depend on David Seaman, Michael Owen and Sol Campbell. If they get a game in then I will pick them in the squad. I'm not so much worried for David and Sol, but if Michael got a game for Liverpool - and I think the whole country hopes he does - then I will put him in the squad without any shadow of a doubt and assess his fitness in the training.

"But I will name a bigger squad than normal. It won't be massive, around 24 or 25. Every time a game goes on - like today with Arsenal and Manchester United - you hope and pray from an England manager's point of view that none of them get injured."