Predator feels no pressure

THE MONDAY INTERVIEW; Alan Shearer, prolific in the Premiership but barren for England, tells Ian Stafford that victory matters, not scoring goals
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The Independent Online
It was entirely in keeping with Alan Shearer's season that he bagged another hat-trick last week at Spurs, but somehow it did not seem to matter that much. For him, the many positive aspects of another campaign have gone largely unnoticed.

Instead, interest centred around the unfortunate facts that Blackburn Rovers blew such a hideous gasket at the start of the season that they lost all chance of defending their title, while Shearer himself - by common consent the best striker in the domestic game - has failed to shine in either the European Champions' League or for England.

He will, of course, be continually reminded of the latter in the next two days, as England prepare for Wednesday's tricky international against Bulgaria at Wembley, but Shearer would like it to be known that he is not losing any sleep over the pressures of football.

"When I was a kid in Newcastle, kicking a ball against a wall, all I dreamed about was playing for Newcastle United and then England," he said, clearly trying to place a few footballing matters into perspective.

"I now find myself representing my country and I'd play at right-back if need be just for the honour of fulfilling my dreams for England. Believe me, nobody knows more than me that my scoring record for England does not match with the rate of goals I score at club level, but I'm not going to start complaining about systems or team strategy, because I genuinely feel so lucky just to be playing at such a level."

Heartfelt sentiments they may be, but if Shearer does fail to score against Bulgaria, even if the team wins, will that, in all honesty, make him happy with the night's work? After all, just five goals in 20 appearances is not a patch on his strike-rate for Blackburn.

"I promise you that my first thought is for the team. We've been getting decent results, so I've been happy. I'd be worried if I were missing loads of chances, but the truth is I'm not getting chances to either score or miss with. England play in a certain formation and, in terms of results, it's proving to be pretty effective."

Shearer is widely recognised to be one of football's nicer, better behaved men, a good replacement, if you like, for Gary Lineker. Surely, though, he must admit to a few selfish thoughts now and again.

"If the result has gone our way, I think `great'. If I score as well, then that's a big bonus. It is exactly the same at Blackburn. I may have scored a few goals, but the season has not gone the way we would have wanted, and I would definitely swap all my goals for team success."

That Blackburn have mounted an impressive, if belated, surge for a place in Europe after a disastrous European Cup campaign and an equally poor start to their defence of the Premiership title means that although Shearer heads the goalscorers' list again, the spotlight has fallen on Robbie Fowler of Liverpool, and Newcastle's Les Ferdinand, players who are eyeing domestic honours with some justification. There has even been the suggestion that Terry Venables will experiment with Teddy Sheringham and Fowler on Wednesday night, leaving Shearer in the cold.

Shearer, of course, knows this but he still appears relaxed about the threat posed by strikers hungry to take their chances with England in his stead. "I'm no mug and I know exactly who is snapping at my heels, but as long as I continue to contribute to England's positive results, I am not too concerned."

Nor does he appear unduly bothered by the pressures of expectation resting on a still young man's shoulders. The 25-year-old former British record signing finds the whole notion faintly comical.

"You know, it makes me laugh when either the media or the players talk about the pressures of playing in the Premiership. I look at the facts of my life: I'm doing what I've always wanted to do, I'm enjoying my life, and I'm being well-rewarded for it. I remember where I come from, and I'm the first to realise that pressure is being unemployed, with kids to feed and rents to pay."

These do not sound like the words of a household name who, according to some, had better start scoring goals for England and play for a club who should be winning cups. Shearer accepts the views of others, then admits to a moment in his life when his whole attitude changed. "It seemed like my worst nightmare at the time, but looking back, being seriously injured has proved to be a blessing," he admitted.

To remind you of the facts, Shearer joined Blackburn from Southampton at the start of the 1992 season for pounds 3.6m. He immediately went about justifying the huge transfer fee by rattling in 22 goals by Christmas. Then, on Boxing Day, he damaged his cruciate ligaments and was out for the rest of the season.

"I was lying on the physio's table day after day thinking: `Why me?' There were times when I wondered whether I'd ever play again or, if I did, whether I'd ever be as good again. It was beginning to feel like a dream. I'd made this fantastic move to Blackburn and scored all those goals and then suddenly I was out of the game, lying on a table, and staring the end in the face.

"It's taken me a little time to work it out for myself, but I can now see what good such an experience has done for me. Not only have I come back a stronger and better player, but I've also learned to enjoy what I've got.

"I'm still very hungry for major honours in the game, of course, but my main priority is to enjoy playing the game. That's why I really don't let football talk about me not scoring enough for England or Blackburn under-achieving bother me. It's still a lot better than lying on a physio's table for month after month. If, at the end of my career, I can look back and say, first and foremost, that I've enjoyed my time in the game, then that will matter more than any other aspect of playing football."

A fair point, and very refreshing to hear. But even he must have been bothered about Blackburn's shaky start to the season, following Kenny Dalglish's move "upstairs", and the promotion of Ray Harford to manager? All season Blackburn have denied that this change had anything to do with their abysmal form before Christmas, but now Shearer is prepared to accept the repercussions.

"We were all really confident going into the season, and expected to be challenging for all titles, home and abroad," he begins. "I certainly don't subscribe to the view that it's down to the difficulty of defending a title.

"But there were too many changes at the start of the season - players being injured, new faces arriving, Kenny's decision to become director of football - and, in hindsight, it clearly affected the team. I certainly didn't expect the managerial turnabout to cause such a reaction, but for a while it did."

So is that a thumbs-up for Kenny, or a thumbs-down for Ray Harford?

"I think it would be exactly the same if Newcastle lost Kevin Keegan. It's just the aura of the man. When Kenny tells you how to play, it's coming from a truly great name of the game, and you have to listen to him and respect the man.

"So although there didn't seem to be much difference, and we all knew Ray in any case, it took a little time for the team to get used to the new situation, especially as Derek Fazackerley had also come in as the team's new coach."

This explains in part Blackburn's desperate showing in the European Cup, but according to their centre-forward, there was more to it than that.

"Well, I can tell you that I found the whole experience extremely disappointing, particularly when you look at how hard we had worked to get into the Champions' League in the first place.

"We should have signed new players specifically for the European campaign, but instead we entered the competition playing with kids. At that level you can't afford to do that. As a result, we just didn't have a good enough squad, and it showed."

Lessons seem to be learned and, as Shearer says, on their present form, Blackburn must be the only club which does not want the season to end in eight games' time. Still, at least he has a chance to improve that England goalscoring record on Wednesday and, of course, in the European Championship finals in June. For Shearer, that is when he expects to be judged.

"Bulgaria will be tough, and it will be also important in terms of the continuing development of the squad, but the only thing that really matters is how [England] fare in Euro 96. That's when we'll be judged, both as a team, and as individuals.

"Home advantage has got to work in our favour, and on the basis that we're clearly difficult to beat at home, we've got to be in with a decent chance of winning the tournament. That's what I genuinely believe. There wouldn't be much point in entering it if any of the team thought otherwise."

Few seriously doubt that Shearer will not be spearheading the England attack come June. Even so, a goal would be welcome on Wednesday.

"Yes, it would be nice," Shearer agreed, "but a win would be even better. I'll always go for the latter option first, every time."