To England: a goalscorer

Quarter-final: Spain v England at Wembley Stadium. Kick-off: 3pm today; For nearly two years Alan Shearer could not find the net for his country, while England have often looked international mediocrities. Now all that has changed. Glenn Moore charts a remarkable transfomation
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If Paul Gascoigne sometimes appears to be the boy who never grew up England's other match-winner, Alan Shearer, conveys the impression of a man who was never a boy.

He was, obviously, and there is a photograph of him, aged about five, wearing a Newcastle shirt, to prove it. Without it one might wonder. While Gazza goes from one front-page headline to another Shearer keeps resolutely to the back pages. A devoted family man he is more likely to be at home preparing his baby's bottle than in a night-club downing one. Wealthy and famous he may be. Wild and ostentatious he is not.

When you see him play football it is sometimes hard to believe he is only 25. When you hear him being interviewed it is impossible. His interviews are a byword for blandness in the game, every phrase carefully picked to avoid offence or hyperbole. Yesterday he produced such gems as, "At the end of the day all we can do is give 100 per cent". His equilbrium was briefly disturbed when an Italian journalist mischievously asked if he would welcome the abolition of bullfighting. He quickly recovered. "I'm here to talk about football," he said.

In private he is, say past and present team-mates, something of a joker - both one-liners and mild pranks - but in public he is 25 going on 45.

Is this a problem? No, the very opposite. Shearer's level-headedness is one of the main reasons he goes into today's Euro96 quarter-final with Spain as the tournament's top scorer. It is also why England can believe that, barring injuries, Shearer will be their centre-forward into the next millennium. The caveat is important. A goalscorer's fitness is as vital as it is vulnerable. The threat of the surgeon's scapel lies behind every tackle. Shearer knows this only too well. Serious injury is one of the forces which helped shape him.

The others are his parents, and his talent. He was born to a football- mad sheet metal worker in Gosforth. By the time he was three he had his first pair of boots, at eight he was already playing competitive football with boys two years older. He moved onto the legendary Wallsend Boys Club (other alumni: Peter Beardsley, Steve Bruce) where he was spotted by Jack Hixon, Southampton's veteran North-east scout. Hixon asked his father if the boy would like to go to Southampton for a trial. "Ask him yourself," was the reply. "He's old enough to make up his own mind."

The trials were successful and when he left school at 15 a "gut feeling" persuaded Shearer to move 350 miles south to The Dell. His childhood was over. "I felt it was the best move to build my career and my character," he recalled. "It toughens you up. There were plenty of times when I was homesick, but to be a footballer at that age, and train with men, you have to act like a man."

His talent was obvious but raw. Beside the precocious Matt Le Tissier he looked so clumsy Chris Nicholl, the manager, said he "could not trap a bag of cement". Instead of withering under the criticism he negated it, working to maximise his talent.

At 17 he made his debut, against Arsenal. His first goal came after five minutes, his third after 49. He was an instant hero. Temptation beckoned. He was young, he was far from home. Many a promising player has lost their focus at this point, but Shearer was fortunate. He had a blind date with a local girl called Lainya. It led to marriage and, by the time Shearer was 22, parenthood.

This heavy responsibility was only partially eased by his rising status. A then-record pounds 3.3m transfer to Blackburn Rovers made him wealthy but it brought another set of responsibilities, those of living up to the fee. He responded with 22 goals in his first 26 games but was then given a savage reminder of the frailty of his success. On Boxing Day 1992 he ruptured his cruciate knee ligament. He did not start a match for nine months, long hours of which were spent alone in the gym or hopping up the Ewood Park terracing, regaining his fitness.

He came back as if he had never been away, his goals leading Rovers to second, then first in the Premiership. Meanwhile, he had taken over from Gary Lineker as England's centre-forward.

And then came "The Drought".

After scoring twice against the United States on September 7 1994, he stopped scoring for England. Two Christmases and one Christmas tree formation passed, but while he continued scoring like a metronome for Blackburn he failed to find the net in 12 starts for his country.

He also struggled in Europe. In eight games in the Uefa Cup and then the Champions' League he managed just one goal. Maybe, went the whisper, he can only score against the open door defences of the Premiership, maybe the Continentals, with their sweepers and markers, their tricks and technique, are too good for him. The cry went up - for Andy Cole, for Ian Wright, for Les Ferdinand, for Stan Collymore, for Robbie Fowler.

Terry Venables, though, never joined the doubters, and neither did the man himself. Every month the players and media would gather at Bisham Abbey, every month Shearer would be asked the same questions: "Does it worry you? Can you put your finger on the reason?" Every month came the same reply. "No, it doesn't. It's just one of those things. As long as the team are scoring I don't mind."

Eventually even Shearer's guard did slip a little, but his attitude greatly impressed Venables."He did not let it worry him," the England coach said yesterday. "He never snatched at chances, or began shooting from silly angles. He just kept working, knowing that the goals would come."

Finally, after more than 1,000 minutes without a goal, came the strike against Switzerland. When he next faced the press he teased: "You'll have to ask me some different questions this week. I hope you've been working on them."

One of yesterday's questions concerned the difference between domestic and international football. "The main one," Shearer said, "is that you don't get so many chances. When they come along you have to take them."

He has done that with four goals from six attempts. Their hallmark has been Shearer's coolness, even the penalty. Was he nervous? "At the end of the day a penalty is a chance and that's what forwards live on."

The chances arrive differently too. At Blackburn he receives the ball into channels or from crosses to his head. At international level he operates far more with his back to goal and the ball into feet. His ability to adjust illustrates his capacity to learn. He has learned from Kenny Dalglish how to use his backside to hold off defenders, he has learned from Venables the art of creating space. He is prodigiously strong, increasingly mobile, and possesses a powerful shot in both feet.

"He's a great all-round player and if you give him a chance he scores it," said Teddy Sheringham. "If I had to pick a team from the tournament so far he would be my striker."

The big tournaments are where players are judged. If Shearer had scored in every England game for two years but dried up this month he would be regarded as a failure. Instead he is now ranked with the best in the world.

Will this change him? Unlikely. He still speaks to Jack Hixon, the man who discovered him, every week. In many ways Shearer is a throwback to those sepia-tinged days when every team was said have a centre-forward like him: brave, honest and modest. Outside Melchester Rovers few did, though Shearer has been compared to Nat Lofthouse of Bolton.

He certainly carries himself like the heroes of old - Lofthouse, Tom Finney, Sir Stanley Matthews. His avoidance of scandal is partly natural - he is simply not that type - and partly deliberate. He has always believed he has a responsibility to himself, his club and the profession. "He takes a pride in his personal behaviour," Hixon said.

His goals this past fortnight have raised his profile even further, fuelling speculation that he will leave Blackburn. It has long seemed likely he will go to Italy and he is interested enough to have Italian lessons. At present it appears he would rather not uproot his family. He has often said that he would like to play for Newcastle and, as a boy he idolised Kevin Keegan.

The most likely move is a shorter one, to Manchester United. Talks are continuing after their audacious pounds 10m-plus bid for him last month and the word from Old Trafford is that the deal would be settled already if it were not for Shearer's wage demands. He has always been a tough negotiator, even as a 17-year-old with Southampton, but in football's current cash- rich environment he is entitled to claim that it is more a case of knowing his own worth than being greedy. At the moment that worth is considerable indeed.