Football: Shearer's game of catch-up

Norman Fox says England's pair of formidable forwards need time to gain a full understanding
ALTHOUGH HIS future as England coach remains open to rumour, Glenn Hoddle will spend whatever time he has left - days, months or probably two years - attempting to convert this afternoon's opposing strikers at St James' Park, Alan Shearer, of Newcastle United, and Liverpool's Michael Owen, into an international partnership second to none.

Hoddle's reluctance to thrust Owen straight into this summer's World Cup finals, with all of the criticism that brought down on him, seems to have made him all the more determined now to be seen encouraging this still-emerging young player, whose ability he described as "awesome".

When he announced the squad, Hoddle said Shearer had a similar exceptional talent that has, he trusts, only temporarily faded. But he admitted that if he were to select "the player in form" against Sweden in Saturday's European Championship match in Stockholm, he would have to go for Dion Dublin of Coventry City. Dublin should not hold his breath.

With Teddy Sheringham now excess to needs at Manchester United and probably about to move, his inclusion alongside Shearer for England at the expense of Owen is not a logical option. Ian Wright's return to the squad is insurance while Dublin's versatility, brilliantly displayed in his club's opening games in which he attacked and defended with equal skill, makes him an ideal substitute, though probably no more. In other words, injuries excepted, the Shearer-Owen strike force is likely to be maintained throughout a championship that, given an encouraging early result over the dangerous Swedes, England have a fair chance of winning.

Even if Hoddle should be enticed back into club football, any successor would want to retain the Shearer-Owen potential, unless, of course, Shearer's present poor strike rate should continue indefinitely. The question raised by the likelihood of their being the front men until Shearer (28) retires, probably in two years time, is whether it will be an understanding or a competition between two goal-hungry players. Hoddle has the problem of attempting to serve England's needs while satisfying the career aspirations of them both, but particularly Owen who is only 18.

Although Hoddle likes to emphasise the past value of the Sheringham-Shearer partnership, which has been impressive though not of late, the benchmark is Gary Lineker and Peter Beardsley who played together on 29 occasions. In the World Cup of 1986, particularly, Beardsley acted as a wonderful foil to Lineker, taking defenders away from the areas they were supposed to guard and unselfishly offering Lineker chances that he might have taken himself. Lineker scored 25 of his total of 48 in matches also involving Beardsley who in the same period scored only six. Hoddle saw the benefits to England from close range, having played in midfield behind them.

Since Owen is now scoring more freely than Shearer and, as a result of the World Cup, is portrayed as a special goalscorer on the international stage, he can hardly be expected to have Beardsley's sometimes almost servile approach to his partner. You cannot imagine Owen, in the flush of youth and praised to the skies, risking his own new reputation by continually doffing one of his early international caps to Shearer's seniority. His position relates more closely to that of Jimmy Greaves in the Sixties than to Beardsley in the Eighties. Greaves was aligned with, among others, Geoff Hurst and Roger Hunt but remained a single-minded predator.

Reminded that Shearer had not scored for Newcastle for nine matches and that the upheavals at the club may not have helped him psychologically, Hoddle said: "I don't think that is a major concern from an international point of view. Other players have been in similar situations and come good. Alan scored two goals in the World Cup, and that was the last time he was with us. He'll get his chances - he's going through a slightly sticky time, but there's nothing wrong with his all-round game. When his scoring form comes it will come pretty quickly." Ruud Gullit will be praying so.

Of the Owen-Shearer link, Hoddle said: "Even when you write down your squad and put those two together you sense what awesome ability they've got. Michael has come back from the World Cup still in good form, scoring goals and making good movements. But a partnership takes time and work and you don't know that you will have the time to make it work. I can't be sure that it will gel, but individually they can put fear into any defence. The challenge is to get the best out of them both." Today at St James' Park, Gullit's first duty will be to get more support up front for Shearer. What would he give to have Hoddle's choice for that task?

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