Shearer falls short of record

Newcastle captain reborn but Woodgate waits and wonders
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The Independent Football

There was a time when Jonathan Woodgate and Alan Shearer were colleagues, not adversaries. It was a time when Woodgate performed national – rather than community – service.

A new bridge, however, has been built for the Tyne to flow under since the Leeds centre-half and the Newcastle centre-forward played in the England team that fought an uninspiring 1-1 draw against Bulgaria in the Balgarska Army Stadium in Sofia in June 1999.

Woodgate has been to Hull Crown Court and back, and now, with his 22nd birthday approaching, is hoping to rebuild his career with country as well as club. Shearer has been obliged to serve bench duty by his club, has retired himself from action for his country and, with his 32nd birthday on the horizon, has emerged from the third career-threatening injury of his professional life in the rudest of goalscoring health.

Not that the Newcastle captain hit the target at St James' Park yesterday. The goal that would have equalled the longest scoring run of his career failed to materialise as he battled for scraps of possession in a combustible tussle for pole position in the Premiership. The blank will not have bothered him too much.

Asked on Friday how much he craved a seventh goal in seven games, Shearer maintained: "I would still rather see us win 1-0 with Craig Bellamy getting the goal." As it happened, Newcastle won 3-1, with goals from Michael Duberry (his first for the club but at the wrong end), Kieron Dyer and Bellamy. And Shearer's team climbed back to the top of the table.

In truth, the Toon Army's totem did not see much of the ball. His one notable touch came midway through the first half, when he slipped free from Dominic Matteo and headed Nolberto Solano's left-wing free-kick against the far post – with Graham Barber signalling for an offence against the home side. Woodgate deserved a share of credit for Shearer's relative anonymity, though he and Duberry played as left and right centre-backs while Shearer and Bellamy chopped and changed positions and chased the play.

Watching from the stands, the sun-tanned Sven Goran Eriksson saw little to fuel the Shearer-back-for-England debate that has sparked in his holidaying absence from the country. Not that the former England captain will have been bothered about that either.

One major reason for his recent renaissance, Shearer staunchly contends, is the burden of national expectation he left behind in Belgium after collecting his 63rd cap against Romania in Charleroi the summer after last.

"I'm a lot more relaxed now than when I played for England," he confided last month. "When you've had that pressure, it's nice to get it off your back. I really look forward to England games now – watching them."

So the man who led England into their last two championships will be happy to be in Sky Sports' pitch-side studio when Sven's men open their World Cup finals campaign against Sweden in Saitama on 2 June. Whether Woodgate will be watching from his Nunthorpe home, happily or otherwise, is harder to predict, though given the prevailing national mood against footballing men who have behaved badly there must be an element of doubt.

Eriksson, apparently, intends to consider the international prospects of Woodgate, Lee Bowyer and John Terry when he meets senior Football Association figures this week. For the time being, Woodgate remains a one-cap wonder – a one-cap wonder with 100 hours of community service to complete, let alone a football-playing reputation to restore. All he can do is keep his head down and keep playing as impressively as he has done since his return to the Leeds team at Bolton on Boxing Day.

He was assured from start to finish yesterday. It was Duberry, his former pal, who was the weak link in the Leeds defence. The one-time English Schools triple-jump champion was on the hop from the moment he headed past Nigel Martyn into his own goal, two minutes before the break. He was given a torrid time by the blisteringly quick Bellamy in the second half.

Woodgate, however, did suffer one lapse. He was confronted by Mr Barber after a push on Dyer – and brought to book, for the first time in the Premiership this season.

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