Premiership beckons pocket rocket Earnshaw

They call him "Earnie" and, on Wednesday night, Robert Earnshaw duly lived up to his nickname by scoring the fastest goal in the West. Well, in Wales anyway.

It took the Cardiff City striker just 43 seconds to breach Scotland's non-existent defence in the friendly international at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium. By the time the full-time whistle had gone, he had added two more goals to complete a memorable hat-trick, the first by a Welsh international since Ian Rush 12 years ago. No wonder Earnie was milking the applause. "It's all a bit of blur right now," he admitted after Wales' 4-0 humbling of the Scots. "It's going to take time to sink in, but once I've watched a video [of the game] I'll be able to cherish every moment better. I'll never forget the match, that's for sure."

Nor, for that matter, will he ever lose sight of his beginnings. After all, here is a player who was repeatedly told that he was too short at 5ft 6in to make it as a professional footballer. "I've always had my doubters," he said, "but that's OK. There will be those who think that I am too this or too that, but the most important thing is that I know what I'm capable of. That's all that matters."

Earnshaw has let his goal-scoring, for both club and country, do the talking in the last three seasons. He has not only been a model of consistency, finding the net 19, 35 and, so far this term, 23 times, but he has also managed to take the step up the divisions effortlessly on each occasion. "Rob has now proved that he can perform at the highest level," was the view of the Wales manager Mark Hughes, a man who faced similar scrutiny when he started his career. "Size isn't everything, but equally neither is raw pace. What I like about Rob is that he does something with his speed and makes clever runs. He is a bright footballer."

Earnshaw answered many of his detractors' questions with his performance. Granted, this was "only" Scotland, but the variety of his three strikes proved his quality. "Rob made a statement on Wednesday night," Hughes confirmed, "there is no doubt about that. And, with his talent, there is no reason why he can't be a starter for the national team."

The former Wales front man, John Toshack, went a step further. "Earnshaw has to play, irrespective of who is fit," he said. "The hardest thing in football is to score, and six international goals in 10 games is saying something. I think Earnshaw has earned the right to be an automatic choice for Wales. I would guess Craig Bellamy will be very concerned."

Toshack is probably right to suggest that Earnshaw will be pushing John Hartson and Bellamy hard for a place in the team when the Germany 2006 World Cup qualifiers get under way in September (or earlier if Wales sneak into Euro 2004 if Uefa decide to expel the Russians when the Welsh appeal is heard on 19 March).

But the 22-year-old is by no means the finished article; for a start, he has yet to be tested in the Premiership. "Rob would be the first to admit he still has a lot to learn," Hughes said, "but he's hungry and willing to listen. He'll want to play in the top flight sooner rather than later, but I don't think there is a panic yet. He is at a club where he is happy and that shows on the pitch. I'd guess Rob will want to see whether Cardiff can gain promotion [from the First Division] this season and then he will take stock in the summer."

Toshack, though, is among those who believe that Earnshaw will no longer be plying his trade in the Principality next season. "If he keeps going the way he is then it is going to be very difficult for Cardiff City to hold on to him," the former Liverpool striker said. "The lad's like a little ball of electricity and he deserves to be on the biggest stage of all."

The consensus is that, should Premiership clubs offer him the chance, Earnshaw will shine. "Earnie can score goals at any level," the Wales captain, Gary Speed, said, "and he's good enough to make it. I know people go on about his height, but I actually think that's an advantage for him because defenders can't get hold of him. He might be small, but he's still a handful."

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