Matthew Monk


 
Matthew Monk is a school teacher from the UK who has the World Cup as one of his greatest passions. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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How England can win the World Cup



    For all intents and purposes the point this column is going to make is already redundant, and the plea I am going to make is never going to be listened to. But I am still going to make it anyway.

    Sven-Goran Eriksson must be a worried man. The squad he picked for the World Cup this week is looking very brittle and is unlikely to be the same 23 that meet Sweden. The demands of clubs desperate to qualify for the Champions League or finish high up the league has meant that even after Eriksson picked his squad several players had to risk injury. And so with less than twenty days left before the tournament starts, England have four players - all midfielders - who may not make the finals.

    David Beckham is the least injured and will almost certainly make the tournament, but the situation is not so clear-cut for Nicky Butt and especially for Steven Gerrard and Kieron Dyer. Butt has knee ligament damage and although he is hopeful of being able to play in Japan he is still touch and go. According to the latest reports he is fit enough to travel to Dubai for the pre-tournament training camp, but whether he is capable of playing against Cameroon or South Korea in England's last two friendlies or the opening match against Sweden is highly questionable. Until last weekend he would have been England's biggest worry - then Kieron Dyer was clattered to the ground in Newcastle's last Premiership game and was carried off the pitch with a knee splint attached to his leg.

    Even if the prognosis was more promising, his recent injury problems meant it was unlikely that Dyer could last a whole game in the Far East, let alone a full tournament. This is encouraging news for Danny Murphy - who was unlucky to miss out anyway - but now he is on his way to Japan there is no reserve player left to cover Butt, Gerrard and Beckham if things get worse.

    The press have already started clamouring for all sorts of players to be called up. The list is long and exhausting - Lampard, Sinclair, Anderton and McManaman topping it - but these players have never really made it for England, and certainly don't look like international quality. Bolder commentators have called for an extra striker to get a seat on the plane, and here the arguments start to look more convincing.

    Eriksson has selected five strikers - Owen, Heskey, Fowler, Sheringham and Vassell - but many people thought Andy Cole should have been selected. Cole was left out of the squad because he has a poor scoring record for England, and has often looked out of his depth and out of touch. Stronger claims may come from Cole's Blackburn striking partner, Matt Jansen. Eriksson reportedly selected him after seeing him score against Liverpool, but Tord Grip managed to convince him to take Martin Keown instead, primarily as a man-marker. It would therefore not be a huge jump to imagine Jansen getting the call if Butt breaks down and Murphy has already replaced Dyer. After all Keown used to play in midfield for Arsenal, and could perform there for England. So straightforward them? Well not quite.

    I think that England could do with another striker. Owen is the best forward in the world when he is on form; he is a deserved European Footballer of the Year. But what happens if he is injured against Sweden or does not even get that far: his hamstrings are legendary for their fragility. Are Emile Heskey or Robbie Fowler going to score five or six goals as a direct replacement for the boy wonder? Can either lead the line? If not, can Darius Vassell or Teddy Sheringham really be expected to play longer than twenty minute bursts before drifting out of games? And is untested Matt Jansen - zero England caps, zero England goals - the player to take as a backup?

    There will be another English striker sat at home this summer. This striker has just finished as the top English scorer in the Premiership, with 22 goals, just one short of Thierry Henry. And he had three extra 'goals' taken off him by an adjudication panel that said they were 'own goals' instead. This player once held the world transfer fee record, and is still the second most expensive English player ever. He is also one of his country's best ever goalscorers, with well over two hundred league goals and over thirty more for his country. He has fought back from two career-threatening injuries to fire his team into the Champions League again, and will not be 32 until August - a full four years younger than Teddy Sheringham. He played for his country with dignity 54 times, captained the team with pride on many occasions, and remains the most potent English goalscorer available after Michael Owen. His name is Alan Shearer and unfortunately he retired from international football after Euro 2000.

    Shearer is the best English striker of his generation and ranks highly in the pantheon of the greatest English forwards ever. Perhaps only Tom Finney, Tommy Lawton, Gary Lineker and Jimmy Greaves could claim to be abover Shearer in that list, while the likes of Kevin Keegan and Geoff Hurst would have to accept that Shearer was a better player than them. Even Owen would admit that Shearer would transform this England attack from simply having potential to being as good as anything likely to line up against them in Japan. And that is no bold statement. Shearer is still razor sharp and on the top of his form. He is as combative and powerful as ever, can torment any defender in England, and still exudes the type of authority and leadership he displayed from 1996 to 2000. Moreover he can still lead a line as well as any striker in the world, and is braver in front of goal than most can ever dream to be.

    If Sheringham at 36 or Vassell and Jansen can be considered worthy of pulling on an England shirt, then surely the sublime Shearer deserves to return. He would make a massive difference to this young squad, giving leadership and removing some of the pressure the injured Beckham and fragile Owen are going to be under. But would he come back?

    Shearer made his debut ten years ago against Michel Platini's French team that had been on a long unbeaten run in the build up to Euro 92. It was early in Graham Taylor's eventually disastrous reign as England manager, and Gary Lineker was still undisputed first choice in attack. However Peter Beardsley was starting to age, had been sold by Liverpool and was no longer considered a 'good choice' to partner Lineker. Many strikers were tried out - Alan Smith, David Hirst, David White - but none took his chance like Shearer did against France. Platini's team had been built up as successors to the legendary 1984 vintage, with Jean-Pierre Papin starring in an attacking unit bolstered by Basile Boli and Jocelyn Angolma in defence. The likes of David Ginola and Eric Cantona blustered around on the sidelines, and the wins came. France arrived at Wembley expecting victory, but were beaten comfortably by an England team without Lineker, for whom Shearer starred.

    Shearer was only 22, but seemed to have all the experience and temerity of a much older player. Euro 92 came too soon for him though, and although he made the squad he featured only briefly in Gary Lineker's supposed swansong. Once Lineker had retired to Japan, Shearer might have expected a long run in the team, but he was overlooked in favour of Ian Wright on more than one occasion, especially as the increasingly desperate Graham Taylor turned defensive once England's 1994 World Cup qualifying campaign lay in tatters.

    In fact it wasn't until Terry Venables took over as England manager just before the 1994 finals that Shearer became an automatic choice. Recovering from the shock of non-qualification, England had the luxury of hosting Euro 96, and therefore did not need to worry about qualifying. This gave Venables time to bed his team down, but a run of poor performances - all played at Wembley - settled few nervous English hearts. Indeed by the time Euro 96 came around England, and Shearer, had hardly looked like world-beaters at all for a very long time.

    So trust Shearer to turn his international career and England's whole international future around in the space of three weeks. The tournament was one big party for the English who, after a nervous opening draw against Switzerland, demolished Scotland and Holland in the space of four sweltering summer days. Shearer had only scored five times for England before the tournament, but now was on fire. He was everywhere - full of skill and power, frustrating and mesmerizing the opposing defenders in equal measure. Along with Paul Gascoigne, Shearer made the tournament his own, and once Spain were despatched on penalties in the quarter finals, England met Germany at Wembley in the semi-finals.

    Shearer opened the scoring, typically powering home a corner early in the first half. He seemed to be the ultimate striker on the verge of true greatness, and even though England would eventually succumb to the Germans - but only on penalties - the whole nation truly believed England could go on from this to finally start challenging for the World Cup again. Once the tournament was over Shearer joined Newcastle for a world record 16 million transfer fee - he epitomised the country's new found belief in itself that was reclaiming football as something to be proud in after the dark days of the 1980s. Qualification for France 98 was never doubted, even when Italy beat England at Wembley. Shearer was at the peak of his powers, firing in goals for Newcastle at home and for England across Europe. He seemed to inspire his teammates to rise above their limitations to still be in with a chance of automatic qualification in the autumn of 1997, and they duly managed it, negating the Italians in Rome to beat them at their own game and beat them to the World Cup.

    The problem Shearer had was that while he was world class, those around him were not. Outside of the injury wrecked Gascoigne and David Seaman, the English players were either ageing and not really that good - Paul Ince, Paul Merson, Les Ferdinand, Graeme Le Saux - or like Owen, Scholes and Beckham were barely out of their teens and had no experience of international football. With hindsight, that they qualified and committed themselves well was an achievement in itself. Led by Shearer, England reached the second round without much trouble, but because they had sloppily lost to Romania they had to play Argentina. This is yet another England match that has gone down into legend, and although everyone knows the result, the loss on penalties and Beckham's red card disguise England's performance, which was easily on par with the Argentinians. Incidentally - shooting off at a tangent for a minute - Beckham's petulant sending off and return four years later as captain bears a strong resemblance to one Diego Armando Maradona in 1982 and 1986. What price the same eventual result?

    Shearer was by then starting to suffer from the perpetual problem all English heroes have once they become successful. If they cannot keep on winning they get 'knocked' in the press. Stories about Shearer's temperament surfaced. He was too aggressive, and had all the referees in his pocket they said. He received unfair treatment and kept players he did not like out of the England team. He was 'Mary Poppins' they said - whatever that was supposed to mean. Worse, he had the audacity to turn down Manchester United - three times - a sure sign he lacked 'ambition'.

    At a similar time he picked up a serious knee injury that kept him out of action for the best part of a year, while England deteriorated tactically under the weak coaching of Glenn Hoddle and Kevin Keegan. Even after a rousing Euro 2000 playoff victory against Scotland, the signs that Shearer was enjoying life less were there for all to see. His club was grooming him for management and TV work came pouring in as Shearer got better in front of the camera. With all the sniping he was receiving from the press and Michael Owen taking his mantle as the English striker the opposition feared most, Shearer made a few decisions about his international future.

    Euro 2000 was a bad tournament for England. They lost to Portugal, unable to control Luis Figo. But against Germany in the next match the real Shearer came back for one last cameo appearance. It was a poor game, with both sides hindered by old players and even older coaching ideas, but no one in England cared much once Shearer powered in one of his trademark headers and sprinted off to celebrate with his famous one-arm raised above him. Even the horrible performance against Romania that eliminated England could hardly take the gloss of this one victory - although Shearer's announcement that he was retiring from international football managed to do just that almost straight away.

    Almost everyone thought he had retired too early. He was only 29, and surely in his footballing prime? Why go now, and not after the next World Cup? Shearer never explained too much about it, he just quietly got on with his job at Newcastle and became an analyst for Sky whenever England played. And by the time Sven-Goran Eriksson replaced Kevin Keegan, and Owen, Heskey, Scholes, Beckham and Gerrard had demolished Germany in Munich, few in England even considered him anymore.

    That is still the position today - and it is something that amazes me. Sure Shearer is 'happily retired' but would he - could he - say no if Eriksson made the call? It would be the most unexpected call-up in the history of English football, but it would win England the World Cup. With Shearer and Owen up front, and Beckham, Scholes and Gerrard picking off the passes behind, England would have the best attack in the whole tournament. They would beat Sweden, Nigeria and Argentina because although they would still concede goals, Shearer and Owen would score more than Heskey and Owen or Sheringham and Fowler. And with that extra impetus and confidence up front, England would beat France, Italy, Brazil or Portugal later on as well.

    But as I said right at the start, this is not going to happen - unless of course Sven-Gordon has been reading my mind and planning the greatest surprise in football history all along. England are going to place all their scoring hopes on Owen, and will dream that his striking partners or the midfield can chip in as well. To that end, it is more than likely that Trevor Sinclair - a wide midfielder - will be called up. Being an England fan I am sorry to say that I just can't see that being enough. It is just a massive shame that now England has a strong team, with a live chance of doing well, the man that led the attack through some harder times and is playing as well as ever, is going to be sat at home watching it all unfold on TV like me.

    So if Sven really wants to win the World Cup he knows what to do - and who to call.


 

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