Football; Venables plays the guessing game

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England held a most unusual training session at Bisham Abbey yesterday. No, the traditional end-of session shooting practice had not improved - the finishing was still unworthy of a hungover Sunday league defender. What was different was the lack of apprehensive, track-suited players on the log that passes for a pitch-side bench.

For the first time in memory, Terry Venables had been able to conduct a training session with a full squad and it put him in a positive frame of mind for next week's friendly in Norway. Venables did, of course, lose Paul Gascoigne and Steve Howey to injuries before the squad met up, but, he said, he had already decided on Gascoigne's stand-in, the team and the system.

Not that he was going to reveal all yet, much to the relief of a press corps that needs a bit of speculation to fill the allotted acres of newsprint. Instead the England manager underlined that no one player was indispensable. Indeed, the England coach said he was getting closer to achieving his aim of a squad in which "no one was an automatic choice" more quickly than he had thought possible.

This assessment came as he was pressed on how well England could cope with Gascoigne's absence. Venables says England will play "similarly" to the way they did against Colombia last month, a match which produced an encouraging performance but no goals.

At its heart was Gascoigne and it is hard, in the absence of both John Barnes and Matthew Le Tissier, to see who can replicate him. Perhaps Jamie Redknapp, though that is asking a lot of a 22-year-old with one cap, or Robert Lee, though he is more of a power player than a touch one. Step forward Dennis Wise? At least he shares Gazza's temperament and is a perceptive passer.

Of equal interest is who will be the target - Alan Shearer is no longer an automatic choice. A mischievous FA arranged simultaneous press conferences for Shearer and Les Ferdinand. Shearer began with the greater audience, 16 hacks to Ferdinand's 14, but ended 17-13 down. This was as much due to his ability to avoid contentious comment as anything, but it also indicated their respective moods.

While Shearer, after eight goalless internationals, was on the defensive, Ferdinand, recalled to the squad after an eight-month absence, was brimming with positive thought. Shearer insisted that there was more to his game than scoring goals, that criticism never bothered him and his self-confidence was undimmed. Such is Shearer's self-assurance that may be true.

Ferdinand's confidence has long been more fragile. However, the move to Newcastle and the 11 goals this season have concentrated his mind and crystallised his ambition. "I used to be just pleased to be in the England squad. Now I want to play, I want to do well for England and myself," he said.

If Ferdinand does not start for Venables this time, he may never do so. But will the England coach leave out, Shearer, his leading forward, just when he needs to be backed? All will be revealed on Tuesday.