Football: Shearer's fall not just result of poor service

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The Independent Online
DOES ANYONE out there remember the nastiest foul committed in an FA Cup final? Was it a brutal lunge by Bobby Collins, of Leeds United, in 1965 that left the Liverpool full back Gerry Byrne with a broken collar- bone? Was it the chest high demolishment of Liverpool's powerful left winger Billy Liddell by a renowned Arsenal hard case, Alex Forbes, 15 years earlier?

None of the challenges launched at Wembley on Saturday could be compared with those and some other incidents that spring to mind, but enough harsh liberties were taken in the opening phase to suggest that intense focus on the FA Cup final is not so much an added deterrent to foul play but a reason for aggressive participants to suppose that the referee will not act punitively upon it.

Hearing Trevor Brooking refer euphemistically on Match of the Day to Newcastle's eagerness to set about Manchester United before they could settle raised again the thorny issue of consistent interpretation.

Not for the first time you were left wondering whether a word had been dropped in the referee's ear to ensure that an internationally viewed spectacle was not marred by dismissals and the distribution of yellow cards on a scale now commonplace in English league football.

A view held firmly here is that football is not best served by the mandarins who would outlaw all vigorous attempts at dispossession but consistency is essential.

For example, it can be imagined that any number of managers who watched the final, either live or on television, must have shaken their heads at the sight of players avoiding cautions for tackles that normally bring instant retribution. One I came across at half-time made the point that while many referees do not leave themselves enough leeway there had been a case for stronger action.

Saturday's referee, Peter Jones, was neither one thing nor the other. In the present circumstances players on both sides could not have complained had their names been added to that of Dietmar Hamman who went into Jones's book for a mindless late tackle on Phil Neville but leniency prevailed in those early stages.

Whether or not it was the result of complaints or discussion with his assistants at half-time, Jones came back out with a different attitude to Alan Shearer after allowing England's captain to get away with the persistent fouling he gets away with in Premiership matches.

Coupled with the reduction in mobility caused by serious injuries it was the refusal of referees to license Shearer's barging when taking passes with his back to goal that explained his moderate performances in last summer's World Cup finals.

Certainly, the second half on Saturday saw Jones adopt a different attitude to Shearer, one that led to bitter complaints and the risk of being cautioned for dissension.

The argument that a player of Shearer's type needs much better service than Ruud Gullit's ordinary team can provide is legitimate enough, but so is the suspicion that one of the game's great goalscorers is on the wane. Indeed, Shearer's body language, shoulders dropping, head shaking in frustration once it became clear that Newcastle's was a lost cause, spoke as much about the effect of imposed physical limitations as poor support.

If it can be said that Teddy Sheringham by contrast was a revelation that would be to underplay qualities for which he has long been admired and often caused Terry Venables to argue a resounding case for him.

Only lack of pace has prevented Sheringham from becoming one of his generation's truly outstanding attackers because few are blessed with such nous and an appreciation of personal deployment.

Coming on so quickly as a replacement for the unfortunate Roy Keane enabled Sheringham to create unexpected problems for Newcastle and perhaps give Alex Ferguson food for thought before this week's European Cup final.

The choice of Sheringham in a diamond shaped midfield with Nicky Butt, David Beckham and Ryan Giggs now becomes one of Ferguson's options.

Not that Newcastle ever gave the impression that they were capable of troubling greatly a Manchester United team that began with four men who won't make the starting line up in Barcelona.

Gullit said that Newcastle made critical errors during periods of ascendancy but it was pretty obvious even to the Toon army that Manchester United never fully engaged top gear.

Clear enough, too, that the gap between the best and the rest grows ever wider. If not quite a stroll in the sun for Manchester United it was close to it. Take away the Premiership's top six and what have you got? It's called survival.