The Barmby alternative

The debate over who should be Alan Shearer's partner in the England attack is rather like discussing the merits of a golf caddie. Most of the assistance is mere hard work, but the occasional inspired intervention can make all the difference.

The best options follow the lines of a current car advertisement: who will it be - Ferdinand or Barmby? Appropriately, the car happens to be Italian, and the real question facing Glenn Hoddle is who would he most want paired with Shearer when England attempt to drive through Italy's defence later in the World Cup qualifying preamble? Thoughts that the Italians are in such disarray that the challenge may not be as hard as the draw seemed to suggest are wishful. When they visit Wembley next February Italy will still have conceded only one goal in the group and England's best hope could be that pressure will again erode Italian desire.

Shearer is playing as if he will never again experience a fallow period in his international career, and the England coach will have been relieved to hear his striker discounting fears that he may soon have to have another groin operation.

There is a moderately strong case for retaining Les Ferdinand, partly because this utilises a regular partnership that exists at Newcastle, but also because he has the physical presence that intimidates. Kevin Keegan talks about Shearer and Ferdinand being the most "frightening" twin strike force in Europe, which is probably true but only because few leading European teams employ such a tactic.

The problem against Poland was that for much of the game Ferdinand seemed to dither, certainly not using his "frightening" strength and not knowing whether to make himself available for goalscoring chances or simply set up Shearer, which he did so well for the second goal. The feeling is that he is one of those sturdy, effective club players who may never blossom at international level. It was a feeling that Hoddle did nothing to dispel when he said afterwards that he was pleased with the partnership because it combated the Poles' physical presence. In other words, against different opponents he is likely to opt for a more subtle player. In the event, his decision was wrong but cost nothing simply because the Poles were not as defensive as expected and Shearer assumed so much responsibility.

Since the use of two such strong strikers does not often succeed at international level and since England had got used to Terry Venables's preference for a "split striker" system, the best alternative to Ferdinand remains Nick Barmby, who is much more of a terrier, always searching out gaps in the thickest of defensive hedges. Apart from the physical aspect, there was no sound reason to drop him. After all, he played well enough with Shearer against Moldova. Occasionally he has established the sort of productive relationship that was formed between Gary Lineker and Peter Beardsley. He also takes his goalscoring chances without the self-doubt which was so evident at Wembley when Ferdinand had three late opportunities.

The probability must be that Hoddle will revert to regarding Ferdinand as cover for Shearer, but he points out that there is no such thing as an automatic striking partnership that can be relied upon whatever the defensive tactics of the opposition. "Each one is different because each partner to Alan Shearer is different and defences are not the same. Ferdinand, Barmby and Sheringham offer you different things." He also has the option of offering Matthew Le Tissier an international lifeline to revive a link that worked well at Southampton. Or he could recall Paul Merson who he believes has not had sufficient opportunities to play in a central attacking role. And when one of the main tormentors of Holland in Euro 96, Teddy Sheringham, regains full fitness, selection could almost be a problem.

After all, a centre-forward can lose his goalscoring touch just as quickly as it can return. Or an injury can leave one of his partners to take on the main goalscoring responsibility. Just ask Alan Shearer.

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