Year of the comeback: No substitute for man of supreme reliability: Football

Alan Shearer: The nation expects

Look at the Premiership's list of goalscorers and for all the importing of foreign strikers, there remains what looks like a reassuring array of Englishmen. Take your pick from Andy Cole, Chris Sutton, Ian Wright, Robbie Fowler, Les Ferdinand, Teddy Sheringham, Paul Scholes and Stan Collymore; even 18-year-old Michael Owen.

The national team would seem spoilt for choice and indeed there are several countries who would give much to have such a group from which to pick for the summer's World Cup finals, not least a host nation in France who are struggling to score goals. The problem for England is that, Sheringham apart, doubts still exist about all at international level and none positively demands automatic selection.

Only Alan Shearer falls into that category and there are many reasons why the England coach Glenn Hoddle's hope for the new year is that the country's most formidable striker regains full fitness and form well in advance of June. England going into a major tournament without Shearer would be like visiting Disneyworld without a child in tow; still enjoyable but not deriving the full benefit.

During his 35 internationals, Shearer may once have endured 12 matches without a goal but never during that period did Terry Venables consider dropping him. His work on behalf of the team, the attention he attracted from opposing defences and consequently the chances he created for other players made him simply indispensable. Besides, once the dam was broken one sensed that a torrent would be set loose. Shearer was top scorer at Euro 96 with five goals and for the team winning the World Cup this year, that minimum will also surely be required of its main striker. For England, from whom else could it come?

Perhaps it is Shearer's miracle-working potential that prompted dismissed reports in midweek that he could be fit for today's FA Cup tie against Everton, though more likely it is an increasing frustration at Newcastle's recent inability to score goals that has him rushing back from the ligament damage and broken leg he sustained last July.

Shearer's injury history has made him aware of his body's limitations and capabilities and he insists he will not rush back. He is now running but not in full contact training and unless he is healing even more quickly than in the past, then February remains the expected start time. The evidence suggesting that he will soon be back to his best is strong. He missed, for example, the last five months of the 1992-93 season with a cruciate ligament injury but returned powerfully the next season. After six substitute appearances - one goal - he proceeded to score 10 goals in his first seven starts.

He also returned within 30 days of each of his groin and hernia operations when the prognosis was for double that. After the first came his scoring bout at Euro 96. In November that year he scored two in two games on his return and last March he also scored in his first game back.

Despite all that, England's match against Chile on 11 February may be too soon and Hoddle may anyway want to try another partner for Sheringham, who remains with Shearer the dream ticket as the evidence of their last pairing - against Poland last May - insists. Flavours of the month are notoriously unreliable but Cole is at present making a strong case for another trial, not only with his goals but also in the way he is blending with Sheringham at Manchester United, whose line-up also offers England the prospect of Scholes supporting them from midfield.

Sutton also deserves another chance - as Shearer's understudy rather than partner - as does Robbie Fowler, whom this correspondent believes to be the genuine article with his pace and eye for goal. The need is for him to take his club confidence to international level. Michael Owen has yet to approach that as a player but his temperament makes up for some deficiences. Hoddle's recent doubts over "his off-the-field situation" surely refer to him not succumbing to any malign Merseyside influence as he is potentially as well balanced a character as Shearer.

For the fading Ferdinand, Collymore and, most sadly, Wright, it may be a World Cup too late. Even if it is one too soon for Owen, his outrageous pace and upper body movement that throws even experienced defenders could make him England's young joker in the striking pack - as a substitute perhaps. That is, though, if there can be any substitute for Shearer.

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