World Cup countdown: Shearer the strong and chance man

'Football is an aggressive game. Sometimes you make bad tackles. I don't see why the rules should change'; Ian Ridley hears England's captain answer doubts about his muscular approach
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The Independent Online
ALAN SHEARER turned up at Newcastle airport on his way to join the England squad only to find that there was no service. No wings on the plane, apparently. Instead he drove down the A66 (as in: "get your kicks on...") before then finding the A1 closed and having to take the Humber Bridge. Well, he thought he might get across there.

It is the sort of gag routine that Gazza might indulge in to liven up those long summer evenings over the next six weeks but, really, Shearer's season has been no laughing matter. The serious ligament injury and broken ankle that kept him out for six months was followed by a grim struggle for goals in a dour Newcastle United team and that kick at Neil Lennon, which a hastily convened FA committee deemed to be accidental. "A strange season," says Shearer,with typical understatement.

So how is England's captain on the verge of a World Cup? Looking forward to being among such creative players? "I'm not going to turn round and say I am delighted to be here because I know I am going to get chances and it's a relief to get away from Newcastle," he says. "I'm not going to say that. It's always nice to turn up with England and always nice to play with quality players. That's not to say I don't have them at Newcastle."

Shearer's defensive posture, even if theoretically out of keeping with a striker, is understandable. Many of us - if not most - thought the kick at Lennon deliberate until the FA, we are told, found from somewhere a piece of film, that has not since been released, to contradict the evidence of our eyes. Shearer sees headlines and pitfalls in every question.

"That comes with being me," he says. "I try to do things right but I have never professed to be a saint. I always say I give as good as I get but in the Neil Lennon incident, the top men on the committee cleared me. I was found innocent as I always stressed I would be.

"I don't feel aggrieved if people want to write bad things about me," he insists. "They have to now and then. I understand that. I'm big enough and strong enough to take it, and have been for 10 years, it's part and parcel of being me. What I don't like is people, photographers, outside my front door so I can't take my little girls out in the garden and play with them."

He would probably have more fun playing with them than he appeared to have in the FA Cup final last weekend. "No one is more disappointed not to have the chances than myself and Kenny Dalglish," says Shearer. "But he can only play with the players that he has got available. People say 'why didn't he play with any wingers in the Cup final?' It was because he didn't have any to play.

"We were in a hard situation at Newcastle this season. We had to fight and scrap and earn everything we got. Because we were at the wrong end of the table, sometimes we had to sacrifice being pretty and playing nice football towards the end of the season to get a point out of the game, because a point could make that difference. I didn't score as many goals as I would like but I didn't have the number of chances I would like to have had. Sometimes you have got to put the club first before yourself."

During the final, Shearer was cautioned for a late tackle on Tony Adams, yet another example of his recent frustration. "I said sorry to Tony as soon as the foul was committed and we haven't mentioned it since," he says. The referee Paul Durkin, who was working with England last week, has. He has pointed that it could well warrant a red card at the World Cup in which he will also officiate, giving rise to concerns about Shearer's muscular approach. Not, though, on Shearer's part.

"Every single person in the World Cup has to be wary and aware of what the ref considers a yellow card and a red card," he says. "I think we are fortunate that we don't play for a week at the start of the tournament, so that we can assess and judge how strict they are going to be.

"But if you ask me if I am going to change my style, well I have been playing this way for the last 10 years so I am not going to change drastically. If I have to change a little then I'll have to, but we will judge that when it comes along."

The England coach, Glenn Hoddle, believes that Shearer is a clever enough player to adapt his approach, having long experience of the difference between what is acceptable for club and country. "You know for a fact that referees are not very lenient at international level," Shearer says. "They never have been and never will be. They abide by the rules they are given.

"But look at my international record - one yellow card in 38 games. If people are suggesting that they are worried about me in the World Cup then I would say look at that record. In club football I've only had 22 yellows in over 400 games. That's not a bad record either.

"I have always given as good as I have got and I have never hidden that. As a centre- forward you have to do that. Certain things have been highlighted and, yes, you have to look after yourself and, yes, you have to be clever at times. I don't think that's changed from 10 years ago when I started out."

Shearer may actually be the only striker who does not welcome the new guidelines about tackles from behind earning a red card, despite having suffered serious injury. "Football is an aggressive game," he says. "Sometimes you are going to have bad tackles against you. Sometimes you make bad tackles yourself. That's only human. I don't see why the rules should be changed in football. It's a marvellous game as it is. We all understand you can get hurt. It's a physical game. You get kicked."

Last month Shearer seemed to shrug off lingering doubts about his fitness and mobility following the injury with an emphatically taken goal driven home from long range in the 3-0 win over Portugal. And just as the Adams tackle may have been also to get something out of his system, so you hope that his current somewhat beleaguered bearing is part of a process of divesting himself of the cares of his season past before getting up for the World Cup.

He certainly loosens up when the talk turns away from the past to the future and the tournament, recounting with a smile how he listened to his father relaying to him down a phone line second-half news of England's crucial qualifying game in Rome last October while he was in Barbados recuperating after having the plaster removed from his leg. "He's a better sheet-metal worker," says Shearer of dad's commentating skills.

"We have got a great chance. I really do believe that with the players we have got in our squad," Shearer adds of the finals. "We are definitely in that elite band of seven or eight sides going over there thinking with our ability, with our confidence, that we have a good chance of winning the World Cup.

"At the quarter-final, semi- final stages you spin a coin and you do need some luck. That's how tight and tough it's going to be." And perhaps by then we will be talking about service, wings, kicks and crosses in their proper footballing context.