'Moving to Wales was just like starting my life again'

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West Bromwich Albion registered their first Premiership win of the season on Saturday, hoiking themselves up the table after beating Bolton Wanderers 2-1. This they achieved without Robert Earnshaw, their record £3m signing from Cardiff City.

West Bromwich Albion registered their first Premiership win of the season on Saturday, hoiking themselves up the table after beating Bolton Wanderers 2-1. This they achieved without Robert Earnshaw, their record £3m signing from Cardiff City. The West Brom manager Gary Megson left Earnshaw on the bench, fuelling the perception that maybe the Welshman, such a hit at Ninian Park, is out of his depth at this level. Almost physically out of his depth, it is tempting to say. Earnshaw stands only 5ft 6in in his yellow socks, making him the Premiership's most diminutive striker.

He has had only two starts, and his brief career in the top flight can be summed up by the penalty he thrashed over the bar against Fulham.

Of course, he wouldn't be the first lower-league goal-scoring machine to malfunction in the Premiership; Bobby Zamora, rampant for Brighton & Hove Albion, was another. Yet Zamora did not score the winner against Germany on his international debut. Earnshaw did. And in February's friendly against Scotland, he coolly bagged a hat-trick. So he seems to be able to cut it in international football, and may yet be handed the job of unpicking the England defence in Saturday's World Cup qualifier. Saturday's result notwithstanding, suggestions that he is not good enough for the Premiership could prove to be grossly premature.

The first thing one observes on meeting Earnshaw is that he looks smaller than his 5ft 6in. Pairing him in the Albion attack with the beanpole Kanu seems like the work, not of a football manager, but of a music hall impresario. Indeed, an Albion-supporting friend of mine says wryly that the club should not have given Earnshaw a fitness test before signing him from Cardiff City, it should have measured him. And this is not a simple matter of sizeism. The same friend observes that the recent spectacle at Anfield of Earnshaw jumping against Sami Hyypia put him in mind of a frustrated little boy, having had his sweets confiscated by his dad, trying energetically but forlornly to get them back.

There is certainly something boyish about Earnshaw. He is 23 but could pass for 18, his lack of height compounded by angelic features and a shy, buck-toothed smile. On the other hand, football has had its share of baby-faced assassins, and the Premiership is ready for a successor to the stricken Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Moreover, I have interviewed some towering central defenders down the years, towering both in stature and accomplishment, and they all say - the Tony Adamses and the Alan Hansens - that the strikers who troubled them most were the guys with the low centres of gravity.

Earnshaw's centre of gravity is lower than most. Has he the correspondingly high level of skill and mental toughness to go with it? We will see.

In the meantime, Mark Hughes, into his last 10 days as Wales coach, will be aware that whichever pair of Sol Campbell, Rio Ferdinand and John Terry makes up England's central-defensive partnership at Old Trafford, they will have limited experience of Earnshaw. And vice-versa, of course, although Earnshaw recalls with some pleasure his one encounter with Ferdinand. "I played against him when Cardiff beat Leeds 2-1 in the FA Cup." A bright smile. "I enjoyed that."

I have had to wait for an hour to meet Earnshaw, Earnie to his team-mates and his website ( www.earnie.tv). I was told to be at the Albion training ground at noon, but he has stayed behind for some extra practice, and it is 1pm before he emerges to face the press, in the form of two local newspaper reporters and me. During our wait we have watched most of the first-team squad climbing into a variety of expensive cars and accelerating flamboyantly out of the car park on to the A34. It occurs to me, not for the first time, that this is nice work if you can get it, a job in which you are putting in unusually long hours if you stay until 1pm, not exactly having started at the crack of dawn.

Still, that's not Earnshaw's fault, and his enthusiasm for training does him credit. One of the local reporters asks him whether he feels settled at the Albion. "Not quite yet," he says, rather diffidently, "but it's getting better all the time." Again, his boyishness shines through; the answer evokes a lad moving up from primary to secondary school. And he looks amused but faintly embarrassed when his team-mate and cock-of-the-school Jason Koumas drives past, and seeing him being interviewed, yells out of the car window: "Come on Wales!"

Koumas is another who, having made such an impact in Division One, has yet to take the Premiership by storm. Has Earnshaw been surprised by the gulf in quality between the Premiership and lower-league football? "No," he says, this time more bullishly, explaining that the international game is of a higher quality than the Premiership, and that he is used to international football.

"I never once felt that playing for Wales was beyond me," he adds. "Fear never came into it. I remember when I was first called into the full squad from the Under-21s. I'd be training, eating and mixing with the likes of Ryan Giggs, Gary Speed and Robbie Savage, people I'd only ever really seen on magazine covers or on TV [but] I didn't feel overawed. It was more of a buzz for me. I told myself to take in every moment and enjoy things. It's the same in the Premiership."

The local reporters drift off, satisfied with their quotes. The arrangement was that they would ask him questions for 10 minutes or so, mainly about life at the Albion, and that I would then be given some time on my own with him to focus on the England-Wales game, and also to ask about his life story, which is more interesting than most.

He was born in 1981 in his mother's native Zambia, where his father, a Lancastrian, managed a coal mine. When Earnshaw was four the family moved to neighbouring Malawi, and when he was nine, his father died, at the age of 50, of typhoid fever. Devastated, but sustained by a strong faith in God, the family - his mother, brother and two sisters - then moved to south Wales, where his mum's sister had settled.

"It feels sometimes like I've lived two lives," he tells me. "When I came to Wales it was just like starting my life again. I still remember seeing snow for the first time. It was the craziest thing. I honestly thought the clouds were falling in. So to come over from Africa and for my mum to work so hard in a supermarket and a factory to look after us, and then to end up as a footballer, it's hard to believe sometimes.'

Although Earnshaw's mother had played for a women's football team in Africa, and he had watched her play, it was not until he arrived in Caerphilly that he started regularly kicking a football himself. At 16, he was taken on as part of a YTS scheme by Cardiff, but the regime at the time thought he might be too small to make it and loaned him to Morton, a club just outside Glasgow.

It was on the banks of the Clyde, aged 17, and living in a flat above a pub in, would you believe, a not overly salubrious part of town, that his resolve to make it as a footballer was tested more fully than it ever has been since. Until now, perhaps. Still, he played four times for the humble Scottish club, scored twice, and heard the supporters chanting his name. His belief in himself was reaffirmed; his belief in the Almighty had never wavered. But Earnshaw is dismissive when I ask him whether he later prayed for divine guidance when offered the opportunity of leaving his beloved Cardiff City. "Everything I do in life is down to me," he says firmly. "I knew that for my international career I needed Premiership football."

There are some in the Principality who have blamed Wales' disappointing start in the World Cup campaign on Hughes's refusal to countenance Earnshaw as part of his first-choice attack. The coach has used him as a so-called impact substitute, not that there was much chance for him to make an impact in the three minutes he was given to break the 1-1 deadlock against Azerbaijan. He nearly did, though, and his strike-rate of seven goals in 13 internationals is impressive when one considers that he has started in fewer than half of those matches.

All the same, there seems little doubt that Hughes will start with John Hartson and Craig Bellamy, fitness permitting, against England. "It is as if Mark still isn't quite convinced that "Earnie" has what it takes," an insider at the Football Association of Wales tells me. So what does Earnshaw think when various Welsh football writers criticise Hughes for not showing more faith in him? Does it give him any satisfaction? "That's nothing to do with me," he says. "Obviously I'm a footballer and I want to play, it's as simple as that, but I've nothing bad to say about Mark Hughes."

On the contrary, he declares himself gutted that Hughes is leaving to devote himself full-time to Blackburn Rovers. "I was a little bit surprised when I read it in the paper, to be honest. But he's been linked with lots of Premiership clubs and good luck to him, it's his future. It's a massive loss for us, though. Nobody wanted him to go. Everyone has got so much respect for him, and for the team he has behind him - Eddie Niedzwiecki and Mark Bowen. Most of the coaching is done by those other guys, but he's helped me a lot, talking about positional play, about how deep I have to drop, where to be when we're attacking, that kind of stuff."

How much of that can be taught, I wonder, and how much is sheer instinct? "It's not just instinct. To get goals you have to be very clever. You have to be that much sharper than the defender. And so you have to keep thinking about where you are, reading where the ball is going to drop. I think I'm good at that. And of course it helps when there are good players around you, like John Hartson. Everyone looks at him as a big centre-forward, good in the air, but he has great feet, and that's where he scores a lot of goals. I pick up little things from watching him, from watching everyone. I'm learning all the time." Whether or not he gets the chance to put his learning to the test in what is being billed as Wales' biggest game for a generation, how does Earnshaw see the 90 minutes unfolding in Manchester?

"Very physical, very competitive," he says. "Like a Premiership game, really, which was what the Northern Ireland game felt like. But we can't worry about how good they might be, we just have to concentrate on thinking how good we are. And we are good, there's no doubt about that."