I love Alan Shearer. May as well lay my cards on the table in my opening sentence, eh? Shearer the player was a hero of mine. Fiercely competitive (sometimes overly, I confess), a brute of a centre forward who took more knocks in his professional career than most, and still went back for more each time. His aerial ability was unmatched by any bar perhaps Duncan Ferguson — who was not half the forward Shearer was — and when the ball was at his feet within 30 yards of goal, the keeper invariably would be worked. And that isn’t hazy recollections, that is fact.
People often prefix their assessments of him with the words “he never had the pace” before going on to list all that he did possess. Unfair in my opinion (whoever starts an analysis of Zinedine Zidane with “well he was thinning on top of course, but.”). Running in behind defences was not a strength of Shearer’s in his later years — understandable considering the injuries sustained at Blackburn in 1992, and at Newcastle in pre-season 1997, as well as the numerous groin problems he experienced — but neither was it a weakness.
At Newcastle he often partnered a pacy centre forward (Les Ferdinand, Craig Bellamy, later Michael Owen), and thus assumed the role of the focal point. It is debatable whether a side has ever concentrated so much of their play through one man in Premier League history than Newcastle did under Shearer. And it usually worked.
Yesterday evening’s late blockbuster of a news story came out of leftfield somewhat. OK, so rumblings had been heard in the North East about Joe Kinnear’s ability (or inability) to return to management this week, but still most assumed that the Number 2 of Number 2’s, Chris Hughton, would retain ownership of first team affairs — on grounds of familiarity and desperation more than anything else.
Kinnear has had a rough ride since arriving back in the Premier League in an equally surprising appointment back in Autumn, but few could criticise the effort and passion he brought to St James’ Park, nor the fact that he has been forced to walk away at this stage of the season. Shearer’s imminent appointment looks set to trigger the mass hysteria that is almost synonymous with Newcastle United over the years. Kevin Keegan experienced it as player and manager, Shearer saw the city grind to a standstill when he was unveiled as a player in 1996, and Michael Owen experienced something similar when he helicoptered his way into St James’ Park in 2005. Even Joey Barton’s signing has its own special day on Tyneside. OK, maybe not.
But back to Shearer, a lot has been said and written about Big Al since (and during) his playing days. Some cynics argue that by constantly repeating his desire to one day manage Newcastle, he has had a destabilising effect. Almost like a huge, black and white shirted Angel of the North hanging over the likes of Glenn Roeder, Keegan and Kinnear. Others point to the fact that on two occasions a Newcastle manager was dismissed from his job within days of naming their prize-striker on the bench. But surely even the harshest of critics would find it hard to question the motivation behind the decision to step in and take charge of a side who only a week or so ago, I believed to be doomed to relegation.
Let me tell you how I suspected Alan Shearer’s Newcastle managerial career to begin. Newcastle at rock bottom. Let’s say relegated. Down in the Championship. In comes Big Al. The fans love it, there are even whispers that “going down might be a blessing in disguise”. Shearer comes in, surveys the scene and says both publicly and privately “right, we’re in a terrible mess here Mr Ashley, I’m gonna need some serious funds to sort this out”.
Ashley, buoyed by the fans’ enthusiasm, dips into his pocket. Newcastle attract a couple of decent players, maybe hold onto a couple of players they might have expected to lose (even Owen, why not?), and start the season well. Playing with confidence, fans enjoying themselves, Shearer the messiah. That’s something close to what I suspected.
The reality of course is that Mr Shearer has laid his reputation firmly on the line, probably before it was necessary. Newcastle have only 8 games remaining between now and the season’s end, with Chelsea, Liverpool & Aston Villa featuring in those fixtures, and have won only one of their last fourteen matches — against bottom club West Brom. In short, this is not a club showing many positive signs of being capable of beating relegation. And let’s be honest here: Shearer has his work cut out for him.
No doubt ex-players and managers will be having their clichéd say as we speak. Shearer will be assumed capable of being able to “get the place buzzing”, “demand commitment from the players” and “take no nonsense”. All of these may well be true, but there is more to avoiding relegation at the moment. Shearer will have to get players confident, he will need to address defensive issues that have been in place since he left the city for Southampton as a teenager, he will need to find a way to get the side creating and scoring enough goals to stay up. This is not the ideal baptism for any manager, let alone one who has spent much of the past three years working on his golf tan and polishing his own clichés as a pundit.
Of course I wish Shearer well, and I suspect that atmosphere alone at St James’ might just bring about a couple of home wins between now and the end of the season, but anyone who thinks Alan Shearer’s passion for Newcastle is overplayed, should take a look at what he is walking into today, and then think again. And as for Shearer himself, perhaps the first thing he should be doing is dusting off those Umbro Speciali’s for one last eight game hurrah.