Football: Shearer's sureness disarms the doubters: Dutch worried by a rejuvenated Rover's striking power. Joe Lovejoy talks to England's forward thinker

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The Independent Online
Relaxing over a beer or three after their annihilation of San Marino in Bologna, the Dutch were unanimous about the biggest obstacle barring their path to the World Cup finals. It took the imposing, four-square shape of Alan Shearer.

Despite all the talk about missing Gullit and Van Basten, the Netherlands' defence is their Achilles' heel, and players and management alike are fearful of the damage Shearer's pace and aggression could cause when the two sides slug it out in Rotterdam on Wednesday week.

When it was put to Bergkamp and Co that Blackburn's rampaging Rover might not play, it was all smiles and drink up, before suspicion and the 'Are you sure?' look took over. No Shearer? They should be so lucky. It had to be English disinformation.

Not so. Graham Taylor will be tempted to keep the same team after that restorative victory over the Poles. In any case, respected judges say Shearer is not quite ready after his long lay-off with knee trouble.

The man himself appreciates the irony of the situation. While he was injured, he was England's best player - the one whose absence Taylor cursed time and again. Now that he is fit, he finds himself no longer the saviour, but the option.

Shearer says he expects to be back in the squad, for the first time for 11 months, when the 22 for Rotterdam are named on Monday, but that is the limit of his expectations. He hopes to play, but will not be surprised, or put out, if Taylor instead keeps faith with Les Ferdinand and Ian Wright.

The Saturday night sages, Trevor Brooking and Alan Hansen, suggested on last week's Match of the Day that he should not be in the team, because his stamina was still suspect. 'They are entitled to their opinion,' Shearer said, leaving it to his tone and expression to make it plain that it was one he did not share. He had, after all, still been going strong in the 81st minute, when he supplied Blackburn's equaliser against Sheffield Wednesday, and Trevor Francis had taken a different view from the Solomons of the Beeb. 'Outstanding,' enthused the Wednesday manager. 'I was envious, watching him play like that.'

He can be grateful or dismissive, but Shearer pays little attention to comments from anyone who does not have a direct bearing on his career. 'When we are talking about England,' he says, 'the only opinion that matters is Graham Taylor's' And his own? 'I don't think I'm 100 per cent yet, but I'm certainly not far off it, and by the time the Holland game comes around, I should be even closer.'

Mature beyond his years at 23, he has experienced triumph and disaster, and has learned to treat Kipling's twin impostors just the same.

A triumphant scoring debut against France in February last year, and the impressive performances which followed, had him hailed as the answer to England's prayers - Lineker's heir apparent. Then disaster struck at Christmas, when he suffered a Gascoigne-type injury, and instead of 20 caps he has had just six.

The wheels, or rather the ligaments, came off in the home game against Leeds United on Boxing Day, when he volleyed a shot from an awkward stance and damaged his right knee.

No one, least of all Shearer himself, appreciated the seriousness of the injury, and he played on after it. He did miss the following game, at Ipswich, but was happy enough to return for what proved to be his last appearance, in the FA Cup tie against Cambridge United on 6 January. 'I knew the knee wasn't right, but felt I could get away with carrying what I thought was just a knock. I was confident that it would be gone in a week or so. I certainly didn't think it was as serious as it was. We didn't realise that until February.'

A barnstorming season, in which he had already justified his pounds 3.3m transfer fee with 22 goals in 26 games, was over before its mid- point. Proper diagnosis revealed that he had mangled his cruciate ligaments, and he was told that he would be out for six to 12 months.

'It hit me hard. I had the operation, and then it was all hard work. There were bad times, when I was very down, and disappointments when I didn't seem to be improving.'

The comradeship of the dressing-room pulled him through when he was at his lowest ebb. 'To keep my morale up I would come to the ground, or go to watch training, nearly every day, and I used to go to every game. I never missed one. Being among the lads kept me 'up'. So did my family - my little daughter, particularly. The one good thing about the injury was that I got to see a lot more of her.'

Diligent rehabilitation had its reward, and he confounded medical opinion by playing again in under six months. Coming on as substitute, he scored twice in a pre- season friendly in the Republic of Ireland on 8 August, and he has been champing at the bit ever since. Blackburn were determined not to rush him, and Shearer felt Kenny Dalglish erred on the side of caution in confining him to the bench until 21 September. Now, though, he can dismiss their small contretemps with an all's-well- that-ends-well shrug.

Some work is still needed to strengthen the muscles and hamstring supporting the knee, but the joint itself is sound. 'I'm not feeling it at all, and I'm certainly not going to be pulling out of any tackles. If I lose that, I lose a lot. The physical side is an important part of my game. If I become less committed I'll start to go downhill as a player. If anything, I think I'm going into more tackles, to prove that I'm all right. There's no mental block or anything like that. The confrontational side of things has never been a problem, and I don't think it ever will be.'

Shearer scored on his last appearance for England, when the Turks were beaten 4-0 at Wembley in November, then saw his stock rise in his absence when a toothless team went six games without a win.

Taylor has often said how much he has been missed, suggesting that all would be well on his return, but was it not asking a lot of a young man just turned 23, with only half a dozen caps behind him, to carry such a burden of expectation? Apparently not. 'If the manager says he has missed me, then its nice of him to say it. I don't feel it puts me under any pressure. When I was playing for England I felt very comfortable, and I'm sure I did myself justice. I think I did very well. I've got six caps and two goals. I don't think that's great, but it's certainly not bad.'

International football was a different game, he said. 'It is much slower, and you have to go and hunt the ball. You nearly always come up against the sweeper system, so if you go past one defender, you've still got to get past another one. In the league, you've usually got one man tight on you, and it's a battle between the two of you.

'At international level the sweeper is there to cover, which does make things more difficult. Ninety per cent of countries play that way, and it's a lot harder to break down. Perhaps that's why Ian Wright has found scoring so much more difficult.'

Shearer says he would love to play in Rotterdam, not just because it is 'the most important game England have had for a long time', but also because he foresees a memorable win.

'I don't envisage us going out to play for a draw, although I think a draw will be good enough. I can't imagine any England team playing for a draw, it's not our way. I'll be surprised if we don't come back with two points. The Dutch aren't the force they were. Van Basten and Gullit, two exceptional players, are no longer in the squad, and any team in the world would miss them.

'I would love to be involved - of course I would. The players had a bad summer, but I think they've proved that they're a decent side with their performance in the Poland game. Graham Taylor may be reluctant to change the team after that, but he could be forced to. With two or three Premiership and cup matches to play beforehand, you can't predict who will be there on the night.

'Anything can happen, as I know better than most, and an injury a week or so before we play Holland would leave very little recovery time. As long as it doesn't happen to me, I think I'll be in the squad, and then it's a matter of keeping my fingers crossed.'

The Geordie who first brought goals from Newcastle as a 17-year- old, when he announced himself with a hat-trick on debut for Southampton, has since been driven by the ambition to play in the World Cup. It is an ambition he expects to fulfil in the United States next summer.

'People started to doubt England, didn't they?' he chided - the scolding a mite premature. 'That was before we played Poland at Wembley. There's never been any doubt in my mind that we would qualify, and I'm even more certain after that last game. Everyone always said it was going to come down to the Holland game, second to last, and so it's proved.

'I'm sure I speak for all the other players when I say there's no reason why we can't go to Rotterdam and pick up two points, but when all's said and done, all we can do is give our best. If our best isn't good enough, then we'll hold up our hands, but we're all very confident that we'll get to the finals, and feel that if we do get there, we can do very well.'

Taylor said before Poland's visit that when he came to make his final selection, he looked first and foremost for nerveless confidence. If the same criteria apply this time, the fears the Dutch expressed in Bologna could be well founded, after all.

(Photograph omitted)