Football: The mild Rover puts his best foot forward: Alan Shearer has quickly become England's great strike hope. Jasper Rees assesses him

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'He already had a big backside and big thighs when we took him on, so he always had that power but it was a raw power - there was no finesse at all. He had a touch like a bricklayer: real heavy on the ball, he was. It just wouldn't stick at his feet. I remember at The Dell we had to keep him behind to work on his touch, both in the air and on the ground, day after day.'

If you did not know you were reading an article about Alan Shearer, would you ever have guessed that the words of Chris Nicholl, the erstwhile manager of Southampton, refer to Blackburn Rovers' pounds 3.3m man? It makes for another of those tidy little comments on the English game: the most that an English club has ever paid for a footballer went on someone not blessed with the natural skills you would expect to come with that sort of a price tag. Still, the coaching worked and Shearer is indisputably the man of the moment.

The way he scorched the Norwich captain, Ian Butterworth, a week ago will go down as one of the abiding images of this or any season. Don't be surprised if sooner or later it turns up on Match of the Day's opening sequence. Butterworth, not previously renowned as a slouch, is retrieving a ball lobbed over his head towards the right-wing corner-flag. At first Shearer is not even on his heels, but over the course of a few yards he hares round him, whips the ball off his toes and delivers to Roy Wegerle a low cross of perfect weight and accuracy. One-nil, and the first of seven which would oust Norwich from the top of the league.

Shearer is not a natural winger and he did not make it look easy in the way that Tony Daley or Lee Sharpe would. The joints in his limbs pump with furious power, like a runner in the last leg of a 4 x 400 metres relay veering out to overtake the leader and hit the line first. But this was consummate wing play none the less, and there was much more to come, the highlight of which was a dribble- and-chip that would walk away with Goal of the Month were not Dalian Atkinson's similar effort at Wimbledon on the same afternoon even more outrageous.

It is not just Blackburn's cock-a-hoop following who will be calling for an encore when England play host to Norway on Wednesday night. Seven-one was a freak result, but Shearer's was not a freak performance. He seems to be having one of those seasons that come very rarely to very few centre-forwards, when everything he touches turns to gold. Twelve goals in 11 league games so far sets him on target for the sort of tally that England's top division has not seen since Gary Lineker's spree in an Everton shirt in 1985-86 or Clive Allen's for Tottenham Hotspur the following season.

One more and he will have scored as often for Blackburn in the Premier League as he did for Southampton in the whole of last season's First Division programme. But beware. He was fast out of the blocks last year, too, scoring 10 of those goals by Christmas in a much poorer side, only to run in exhausted and slightly deflated by May after missing only one league game. No wonder his contribution in Sweden was as undistinguished as everyone else's.

'He was shot to bits, wasn't he?' Nicholl says. 'I could see that - with too many games played, playing twice a week, playing extra-time in cup games, playing internationals.' And yet Shearer's strength and stamina are second to none among centre- forwards, which bodes well for the international career that beckons. 'He relishes the physical challenge,' Nicholl says. 'He can handle most centre-halves who are looking out for him: anybody who tries to out-physical him will probably come off second-best.'

Like Matthew Le Tissier and Rod Wallace, he graduated straight from Southampton's youth team into First Division football, but few would have guessed that he would be the first to win a full cap.

'Shearer certainly wasn't as naturally, instinctively skilful as the others,' Nicholl says. 'He had to work very hard on his technique, but he had the determination, strength and will and that shows through now.' The other thing he has is timing: the goals come when all eyes are on him. There were three on his Southampton debut against Arsenal, one on his debut for England against France last February, two on his Blackburn debut against Crystal Palace.

With sceptics at Old Trafford and elsewhere declaring that he was not worth the fee he fetched, those two, and the 10 that followed, have been the most important goals of his brief career. 'Had he not scored at the start then it would have been a problem, I'm sure,' Nicholl says. 'But he's always level-headed: that's the way he was brought up. I'm sure that Kenny Dalglish and Alan realise that there's still lots to be done. He's still raw; his sheer strength at the moment gets him by.'

How exactly can anyone improve on more than a goal a game? 'I still haven't seen him kick a ball with his left foot,' Nicholl says. There is a precedent for one-footed matchwinners: how many times has Maradona scored with his right?

(Photograph omitted)

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