Football: The second incoming of Sheringham

'Teddy has sent out a message to everyone - get your form right and you'll be back for England'; Nick Townsend says the nation can benefit from the United effect
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The Independent Online
IT IS A splendid piece of management-speak. "The door is always open." Well, yes, as long as you swim the moat, force your way past the armed guards and scale the walls of fortress Keegan, a few well-seasoned cynics contended when the new England coach first rationalised the absence of a few old favourites, including Paul Gascoigne.

This week it was Paul Ince and Nicky Butt for whom the door remained ajar as Kevin Keegan revealed his squad to face Sweden in next Saturday's European Championship qualifier at Wembley. After having spoken to Ince just before the party was announced on Friday, Keegan spoke of the "disappointment" in the voice of the Liverpool midfielder, who has failed to regain his place since being sent off against the Swedes back in September. Remembering his response when he was dismissed, that was probably putting it mildly.

Yet one man vindicates the coach's vehement rebuttal of the charge that it is an almost impossibly arduous way back once cold-shouldered.

When Kevin Keegan scribbled out his first list of England "possibles" back in March, one Edward Sheringham was not even among the 33 names. Not playing club football, not considered for England. That, understandably, was the coach's maxim. If the Manchester United striker was disgruntled at not being selected for his club in this of all seasons, the fact it also debarred him from representing his country must have been triply irksome. But then not-so-swift Teddy has become used to being consigned to the footballers' home for discarded thoroughbreds - next stop the glue factory - and responded with typical resolve.

After an outstanding finale to the season, the zenith being Wednesday night's equaliser, it scarcely required Alex Ferguson's endorsement for Keegan to include him in a 22-man squad. Although the national coach downplays suggestions that he is a natural ally for Alan Shearer, playing off the England captain rather than competing for similar territory, Sheringham appears certain to play a prominent part in the qualifying games next Saturday and away to Bulgaria four days later.

Whether Ince heeds it or not, Sheringham's attitude should be instructive to him. As Keegan insisted: "People say to me about Incey 'You said last time that the door was open for him, but he still hasn't got back in'. Teddy has proved that, at 33, that open-door theory does work. He has forced his way back in, by playing. He's got to play. Gascoigne's got to play, [Paul] Merson too, and play well, to come back into the England group. That's the challenge to all of them. Teddy has sent out a message to everyone, 'get your form right and you'll be back in'."

The coach added: "He's in really good form and, unlike other players, not over-footballed. You can see that freshness in a player who's had a bit of a rest. Teddy gives you options. He doesn't give the ball away and, although he hasn't really got electric pace, he does find space. He just kept knocking at me with his performances - in the Cup final, you saw him the other night, at Old Trafford, when he came on against Juventus he was terrific."

Sheringham's almost intuitive link-up with his fellow forwards and ability to deceive a marker through sheer guile negates criticism of the absence of wings in his heels. Arguably, though, the evidence is that he profits most from appearing as substitute, and the indications are that Keegan - without the injured Michael Owen and with his Liverpool team-mate Robbie Fowler not match-sharp after his lengthy suspension - will start against Sweden by retaining the Andy Cole-Shearer partnership.

Neither particularly emphasised their well-being in their final games, Shearer in Saturday's FA Cup final or Cole in the Champions' League final. But Keegan, who watched Sweden's 2-1 defeat of Jamaica in a friendly on Thursday night, retains faith in them, principally on the basis of their last internationals. "He's one of the players I don't have any worries about," said Keegan of his captain. "I know Alan, I know what he's about and I thought he was absolutely outstanding against Hungary. Against Poland, Alan - and Andy Cole, too, to be fair - never got the credit he deserved, possibly because Paul Scholes' hat-trick overshadowed everything else."

He added: "It's easy to knock people like Alan because his standards are so high. Even if he's down to 80 per cent, he's still better than most players. You can always make a case for and against Alan, and other people may have concerns, but that's because he's a big name and in other seasons he's knocked in 30-odd goals and this year it's only 20-odd. There's no doubt where I stand on it."

Keegan will not hear of giving the scorer of 23 international goals, who is due to claim his 50th England cap against Sweden, an enforced "rest" after an arduous campaign which has followed recovery from a serious injury. "When it gets to that situation Alan will be the one who will have to say, 'Eh, I could do with a real good close season, five or six weeks'. If you're a top player, you're on the merry-go-round and you cannot get off it. When you're at the top of the tree you have to learn to accept that that's the way it's going to be for you. The day it's not like that is the day you'll probably be finished."

Keegan is fast learning how capricious the job can be, with withdrawals frustrating the best-laid plans. This time, already, there is no Tony Adams, who has asked for a six-week break from the game; no Gary Neville, who is being treated for a long-standing hip problem; and no Steve McManaman, whose mother died recently; or the injured Darren Anderton.

But to counter that the inspiration of the "Manchester United effect" should not be underestimated on the whole squad which, even without Butt and Neville, contains five representatives of the treble-winners. "You could say they were a little bit lucky when they did it on Wednesday, but I think everyone relates to success and everyone will feel the same way as we all did when United won it," said Keegan. "You can argue about which league is the strongest, but the top team in Europe at the moment, with a lot of English players in it, plays in the Premier League in this country."

One of the five is Scholes, who is almost certain to start. Keegan has already left him a message: "Don't forget your hand-grenades." The coach explained: "It's an old Bill Shankly saying, because he's got that free role. In other words, 'go and cause problems wherever you want'."

Against the highly organised Swedes, Keegan may well have to depend on Scholes' enterprise to ensure his side's passage. That and the wiles of the nation's favourite Teddy boy.