Zamora has last laugh as England's leading man

The Fulham forward has been the butt of terrace humour but he never doubted his own ability

The selection of a forward with the meagre strike-rate of just 28 goals in 194 Premier League games might in normal circumstances be met with derision by a sceptical public. But when the job in question involves replacing the goal-shy Emile Heskey, who could muster only seven goals in his 62 appearances for England, then Fulham's Bobby Zamora looks positively over-qualified.

Zamora is expected to tonight make his England debut at the age of 29, partnering Wayne Rooney in attack. It has been a long wait for Zamora, who grew up playing alongside England internationals John Terry, Ledley King and Paul Konchesky at the famous Senrab boys' club in East London but had until last weekend been overlooked by a string of national team managers.

Fabio Capello's call, or rather a text message, has come late, but Zamora admitted yesterday it could have been much too late but for a twist of fate a year ago.

Last August the Fulham striker was approached by Leo Beenhakker, the coach of Trinidad & Tobago, about representing the country of his father's birth, and Zamora agreed, despite having turned down the Caribbean country's advances four years earlier. "At the time it looked like my only option to play international football, but that door closed and this one opened," he said. "I had injuries – Achilles and back – which kept me out."

Those injuries were the same as the ones which wrecked Zamora's chances of being at the World Cup. He was a late contender but had to tell Fabio Capello he would not be fit for South Africa, a decision which with the benefit of hindsight looks to have been a wise one.

Zamora said: "It was the toughest decision I've ever made. But that's life, that's football. You pick up the knocks and if you can't play, you can't play. I'd only have let myself down."

Zamora's first cap for England will complete his reincarnation from joke footballer to leading international. Supporters up and down the country used to sing "When you're sat in row Z, and the ball hits your head, that's Zamora" as the striker, who had been a prolific scorer with Brighton & Hove Albion in the lower divisions, struggled for goals during spells at Tottenham and West Ham United. However his performances for Fulham last season, when he led the line with skill and bravery, won over the sceptics, and more importantly Capello.

Zamora never doubted his ability. "I grew up playing with John Terry, Ledley King, Paul Konchesky and a lot of other good players," Zamora said. "They have all gone on to play for England and, in my eyes, there was no major difference between us. I never thought I was never going to get there, but it's just one of those things. If you don't get picked, you don't get picked. Now that an opportunity has come along I want to grab it with both hands."

Zamora has tried to model his game on Teddy Sheringham, a former West Ham team-mate but he also paid tribute to another colleague, his strike partner at Fulham Zoltan Gera, who will be in the opposition ranks tonight. "Zoltan does the defending [for me at Fulham], which is absolutely brilliant. Cheers, Zolly," said Zamora.

Zamora may have waited a long time for his chance, but even an England debut would not trump the events of last week, when he became a father for the first time, to twin girls Gisele and Siena. "It's been a crazy week," he admitted.

The Senrab boys

When Bobby Zamora lines up alongside John Terry for England today it will be the first time they have played together since they were in the same Sunday league boys' team more than a decade ago, alongside Ledley King and Jlloyd Samuel.

Zamora is the latest international to emerge from Senrab, a club based at Wanstead Flats, on the fringes of Essex. For a small club run by volunteers they have a remarkable record of having produced more than 100 professional players including leading England internationals such as Terry, Ray Wilkins and Sol Campbell, despite owning no facilities of their own.

The club's amazing success has been attributed to its insistence that boys are coached to play good football. Secretary Tony Carroll said: "The coaching has always focused on playing the right way. We have produced around 150 professionals and several top coaches have gone on to bigger things, like Alan Curbishley, Chris Hughton, Dario Gradi and Ray Lewington.

"We have another fine young group coming through. Now we have boys whose dads used to play for Senrab and they want their sons to do the same."

Mark Fleming

Fed up with the Three Lions? Watch these games instead

Norway v France

(Game live on bet365.com and 118bet.com's websites, 8.15pm)

Some of tonight's internationals may seem rather pointless but France's game against Norway in Oslo has definite significance across the Channel. Les Bleus performed even worse than England at the World Cup but new manager Laurent Blanc's decision not to pick a single member of the squad that went to South Africa has given France a chance to hit the ground running, and a number of young players the opportunity to prove themselves.

Thirteen of the 22 players in his squad have yet to win a cap but Blanc is not prepared to accept second best tonight in Norway. "We have to show that we learn fast," Blanc said. "I didn't have the time I would have needed but that is no excuse. We need a result."

Republic of Ireland v Argentina

(Sky Sports 1, bet365, 7.45pm)

Another familiar face from the World Cup will be missing in Dublin, where Argentina take on Ireland. Diego Maradona is no longer the Argentina manager but things should still be entertaining if the interim coach, Sergio Batista, is to be believed. "I think it is good to copy Spain's system," Batista said. "I like Barcelona's game and it's what I want more than anything else for Argentine football. But the main priority will be to play as a team."

Mexico v Spain

(9pm)

The world champions themselves, Spain, are in Mexico for a match to commemorate the hosts' 200 years of independence from the Spanish. Celtic's new Mexican defender Efrain Juarez is unconcerned. "They're coming with the best they've got. We have to try to beat the world champions, imagine," Juarez said. "Why not think and dream that we can beat the world champions and dent their crown?"

Ukraine v Netherlands

(Bet365, 118bet, Ladbrokes, 7pm)

The World Cup runners-up, the Netherlands, travel to face Ukraine. Like France, much of their World Cup squad is missing: the coach, Bert van Marwijk, has retained only the back-up goalkeeper Michel Vorm for the match in Donetsk.

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