Venables has faith in Ferdinand

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The Independent Online

Football Correspondent

The irony was not lost on Les Ferdinand. Having been largely ignored by Terry Venables when he was scoring without pause for Newcastle, he has been chosen as soon as the goals have dried up.

Surely some mistake? No, once Alan Shearer was ruled out with a groin injury Venables had little choice. To pass over Ferdinand, after one start in nine squad appearances, and play his new recruit Robbie Fowler would have been a snub too far. He would have lost the player for good.

Ferdinand will play at centre-forward for England against Bulgaria at Wembley tonight. Although he partnered Shearer in the last international, it is the first time he has filled the No 9 shirt for Venables.

Teddy Sheringham returns to support him while Steve McManaman and, after a year's absence, Paul Ince, are recalled. The other change from December's 1-1 draw with Portugal is Gareth Southgate, who makes his first international start in place of the injured Tony Adams. David Platt has been left out - Stuart Pearce is tonight's captain.

Venables, who rarely confirms substitutes before match-day, said Fowler would be on the bench. He will be an impatient spectator. "When you come on as sub, it is nice to score to prove you should have been on from the start," Fowler said.

Ferdinand said he had "started to think the fact I was not scoring goals for Newcastle might affect my England prospects." With one goal in five games for Newcastle, he may find being away from the title race relaxes him enough to rediscover his goal touch. "It might be nice to get away from it. It is a very intense situation," he added.

It will certainly be a relief to be partnered by Sheringham, rather than the unpredictable Faustino Asprilla. "You can't blame it all on him," Ferdinand said, "but he does play in a different way. He has a wealth of talent but is difficult to read, you never know what he is going to do next. That he does not speak the language does not help."

Paul Ince would sympathise. Yesterday he said communication problems had hindered his start in Italy. They still cause problems: his latest sending-off, for Internazionale on Sunday, came after he disputed a yellow card wrongly given for "diving". His subsequent failure to leave the field for three minutes could result in a long ban, making a good performance tonight all the more important.

Ince, who last played in the abandoned game in Dublin, said: "It has been a long year. Although I am a strong character I wondered, at the back of my mind, if I was going to get back in. It was getting close to the summer, he had a settled squad, I was not sure what was going to happen. I had to start playing well at Inter, and I have. The difference was the arrival of Roy Hodgson as manager. If he had not come I would not be at Inter now. He has got the whole team working.

"I knew I was good enough. it was a case of adjusting to Italian life. It is never easy, whatever job you do, to live in a new country." Ince said he nearly returned to England in the autumn but Massimo Moratti, the president who went out on a limb to buy him, persuaded him to remain for the season.

Morratti's persuasive powers may be tested again on Friday, when Ince tells him if he will stay for two more years, or exercise his escape clause. His wife, Claire, and son, Thomas, have not settled as well as the player. "Things like Sunday's sending-off do not help," Ince said, "but it is not just a football decision."

Ince partners Paul Gascoigne for the first time since Venables' opening match two years ago. "If we can gel we have a chance to build up a partnership," Ince said. If they do it could be the beginning of the end for David Platt, who took his omission with typical equanimity. While his experience means he will not be discarded, he may not regain his former prominence.

Venables emphasised that Ince and Gascoigne would have to be disciplined in midfield as Bulgaria are excellent on the counter-attack. This may tax Gascoigne, who is inclined to chase the ball, but failure to do so would expose a central defence with less than five hours' international experience between them.

"Bulgaria are as potent an attacking force as there will be in the tournament," Venables added. "They were underestimated in the World Cup and still are, yet they have added players since then and are outstanding individually."

A draw, Venables' fourth in five matches, would be a decent result. Even so, a win would not go amiss, if only to make up for having to watch England in grey. They debut their new away strip. Described as indigo blue, it looks more like battleship grey. One hopes there will be more colour in the performance.