Football: Shearer's trials not over

NOW WE are being asked to take Alan Shearer seriously. Now it is up to Shearer to restore English football pride, see off Poland in Warsaw on Wednesday, lead a charge into the European Championship finals and get things going for Bobby Robson at Newcastle.

If he can't, no problem, off with his head and bring on the next victim.

Have we been too cruel? Say it loud, which Kevin Keegan did after Saturday's stroll against Luxembourg at Wembley - Shearer's decline exists only in the twisted imagination of critics eager to put down another hero.

Say it soft and it sounds like praying. That a hat trick plundered from hopeless opposition, his first for England, will do wonders for Shearer's confidence and restore him to the front rank of international attackers.

Shearer's glowering assertion that he is oblivious to criticism has never rung true - "uneducated" he said on Saturday - and there has been plenty of evidence to justify the view that we have seen the best of him.

It is what Shearer has got left that matters most to England. The second of his goals against Luxembourg was struck with the the power that helped to forge a reputation but then power is the last thing he will lose.

However, that lethal strike, reminiscent of his days at Blackburn and when turning out for England in Euro 96, does serve to justify Shearer's belief in the benefits of opportunity, in what can still be achieved if chances are set up for him.

In fact it was an unsuccessful attempt in the second half, a shot set over the bar, that gave us the most revealing glimpse of what has gone missing from Shearer's game.

The source of Shearer's apparent decline can be traced to his deployment - whether by choice or in the tactical scheme of things - as a pivotal attacker playing mostly with his back to goal. In that one moment on Saturday he looked his old self again, coming off his marker for a pass before turning to fire.

But it was only Luxembourg after all, a team so inept that their sole striker looked as though he had been recruited from behind the wheel of the team bus and could not wait to resume his duties.

Nevertheless, Shearer has got a sniff again and if the criticism has been more valid than either he or Kevin Keegan are prepared to concede, his contribution to England's immediate future could be more important than anyone would have guessed a couple of weeks ago. But physical limitations imposed by serious injuries mean we can't expect Shearer to operate fully in the old routine, especially thrusting out wide on the right from where he once did damage with his crosses.

Shearer feels he does not have to answer to anyone other than Kevin Keegan and Bobby Robson - whose delight at being guest of honour at Wembley was embellished by the sight of his centre-forward on the rampage.

If Keegan and Robson are right in retaining an unshakeable belief in Shearer's effectiveness there will be plenty of hurrahs both on Tyneside and nationally, but the truth will be revealed in more difficult matches. It was said about the Shearer of old that no defenders relished the prospect of playing against him, and his very presence on the field was enough to strike fear into the opposition.

This was not the case in last summer's World Cup finals when Shearer played with so little of the old freedom and zing, and depended so much on the cruder aspects of his game, he often appeared to be performing from memory.

The look on Shearer's face when his second goal bulleted past Luxembourg's tormented goalkeeper, Phillipe Felgen, spoke of intense personal satisfaction and a renewal of confidence. Given the sight of goal, something he used to thrive on, Shearer buried the chance.

The big question now is that while time waits for no footballer, can Shearer make it slow respectfully to a crawl?

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