They were queuing outside his bar from first thing this morning. Black & White shirted, eager to yell their approval into the nearest camera, Newcastle United’s supporters lined the streets outside St James’ Park for one reason and one reason only. All together now: Sheeea-rerrr! Sheeea-rerrr!
And on his first day as manager (the interim interim manager), the Geordie legend did little to disappoint. Arriving earlier today at Newcastle’s Benton training ground, Shearer was all smiles, style and confidence. And that was just his short walk from the car. By the time the former England captain had completed his first press conference, it was hard not to be swept into the swirling sea of Geordie optimism.
Shearer was all smiles and quips. He began his press conference with a not-so-subtle dig at his newly appointed assistant Iain Dowie’s, how do you say, aesthetic shortcomings (“I felt it was important to bring in Iain for a fresh look, not so much a pretty one”). Immediately the press were at ease.
Shearer earned a reputation (perhaps unfairly) as a player for being a poker-face and cliché kind of guy, and certainly his spell as an analyst with the BBC has done little to assuage these claims. But speak to anyone with a more intimate knowledge of him (Tim Flowers, Rob Lee, Neil Ruddock…actually, forget Ruddock), and they will rave about his sense of humour, love of banter and calm persona. Shearer is not one to panic, and the assembled media certainly held no fears for him.
Of course these days press conferences offer little by way of insight — unless it is Craig Bellamy or Joe Kinnear holding court of course — and Shearer’s responses to some pretty light questioning could have come from the mouths of just about any manager in the Premier League. He was unwavering in his belief that Newcastle were capable of avoiding the drop, insistent that his appointment was “for eight games and eight games only”, and adamant that club captain Michael Owen “will start on Saturday if he is fit”.
He praised the players for their attitude and application in training earlier in the day, suggesting that this week’s developments on Tyneside had brought “smiles to the players’ faces”. Whilst this may or may not be the case, there was an aura of controlled confidence and fierce determination about Shearer’s answers and demeanour that one suspects is highly likely to transmit to the players.
Shearer’s support of Owen was predictable — he was known to have played a key role in Owen’s signing for Newcastle in 2005 — and he was unflinching when confirming that the former Liverpool man will spearhead the Magpies’ attack at home to Chelsea on Saturday. Hardly surprising, Shearer of all people knows the benefits of a confident Michael Owen having been present in the opposing ranks on numerous occasions as Owen dismantled Newcastle time and time again for Liverpool, as well as playing alongside him for club and country.
A lot has been made of Shearer choosing to take command of Newcastle at this point, with cynics being overly cynical and romantics being overly romantic. Whatever the financial incentives offered (Shearer himself claimed the biggest bonus to be earned was the bonus of avoiding relegation), it is hard to be overly critical of the decision to take over.
Newcastle lay in dire straits at this time and Chris Hughton, for all his merits, has been unable to arrest the slide into the bottom three. The call arrived for Shearer on Saturday, and it took him a little under 48 hours to answer it. He was keen to move as much of the focus away from himself and onto the players throughout the press conference, a contrast to the Jose Mourinho-school of taking pressure off the players. Shearer may be bullish, but he knows that without his commitment, belief and dedication being shared by his staff, it can be rendered pointless.
Alongside him sat Dowie, less dapper of course, but just as relaxed. The former Oldham, Crystal Palace, Charlton & QPR manager described his relationship with Shearer as “excellent” and confirmed that he is very much there to take command of training and coaching duties, branding himself a “tracksuit manager”. Shearer was confident that his former Southampton colleague’s experience in relegation battles will prove helpful (although Dowie lost his only Premier League battle as manager with Palace on the final day of the 2004/05 season), whilst Dowie insisted that his role would not extend to a major say in team selection (“we will have a discussion of course but ultimately it is Al who will pick the team”). It might only have been a press conference, but the vibes emitted from the pair were almost exclusively positive.
On Dennis Wise, Shearer said little. “The decision (for Wise to be removed from his position as Executive Director) had been made regardless of whether I came or not”, was the extent of his analysis in that direction. Shearer stuck to his comments earlier in the season about Wise’s role playing a destabilising role at the club, without taking the chance to either smooth things over, or twist the knife.
So to business, and Newcastle host Chelsea (“it doesn’t get much harder” said Shearer) at St James’ on Saturday, with their new manager dismissing claims that the club should concentrate on the following week’s clash with Stoke at the Britannia by demanding a result against Guus Hiddink’s men. He isn’t wrong, defeat to Chelsea would not only give Stoke (winnable game at West Brom), Blackburn (winnable game at home to Tottenham), and others the chance to pull clear, but also lower the number of remaining games to a paltry seven. Just seven chances to haul themselves out.
St James’ is set to be a cauldron on Saturday, so don’t expect to see an empty seat on this occasion. And if Shearer’s players can respond to his own mindset this weekend, Chelsea may just have their work cut out.