IT’S AROUND 4.20PM ON 14 MAY 1995. The sunlight is beaming across the packed terraces at a gloriously electric Anfield on a fine summer’s day as 22 players drift this way and that across the bright green turf. The crowd, of just over 40,000, is humming in anticipation as the sound of leather on leather fuses seamlessly with the shouts and emotion of the away supporters nestled in pockets here and there across the arena. Radios buzz with commentary from an important game a few dozen miles to the south-east as fists are clenched and breaths bated.
It’s the final day of the 1994/95 Premiership title race, and it’s come right down to the wire as Blackburn Rovers are taking on Liverpool away from home, while Manchester United simultaneously do battle with West Ham at the Boleyn Ground. The ramifications of every possible result have been allowed to simmer overnight, and with the boiling climax approaching, Rovers and Red Devils supporters are just over an hour away from tasting either sweet jubilation or bitter dejection – it doesn’t get much tenser than this.
Alan Shearer has 33 top-flight goals to his name, and with a maiden Premier League crown on the line he looks in a real mood to get the job done, a condition he has cultivated tirelessly for the previous nine months.
So, when he finds himself in possession not far from goal, he pings a neat pass out to Stuart Ripley and makes a darting run toward the 18-yard box, galloping onto the pacey return ball from his team-mate, before rifling a low shot into the bottom left corner of the net, past David James in typically cool fashion. The season might be winding down but it’s business as usual for the rising star.
The rest is history – a 2-1 defeat, despite Shearer’s clinical finish, is enough to give Jack Walker his dream championship win after a £60 million investment, and although the businessman’s cash injection is often what’s focused on as the reason for their fairytale triumph over the course of that historic 42-game campaign, it was heart, hard work and sheer class that ultimately proved the driving forces – Shearer’s golden touch in front of goal as a reliable and consistent marksman, an undeniably important factor that the blue and white half of Lancashire have sorely missed in recent times.
Pictures of him, draped in 1990s elegance, a silver and gold crown taken from the top of the trophy perched atop his head, celebrating on the pitch that day remain cherished by Rovers fans – it’s a moment they will never forget, perhaps largely because it’s one they might never relive.
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Unsurprisingly, Shearer was the top scorer that season – and the next, and the next after that – beginning his period of domination which still continues to this day, and one which also saw him reach elite status at international level as he won the Golden Boot award with England at Euro 96. Because, while he might be long retired and only on our weekend highlights show these days as a pundit, the shadow he casts over the English top flight remains as long and as daunting as it has ever done.
At Blackburn he is forever an icon, a figure whose goalscoring exploits remain the best ever seen by a Rovers player in the Premier League era. Simon Garner is the club’s all-time top scorer with 192 strikes in all competition, but ‘Big Al’ came pretty close to that with 130 – 112 of which came in the league.
Quite simply, he is someone who they look to as the prime example of not only how to score goals regularly and against some of the biggest teams around, but one who forged a marvellous partnership with Chris Sutton – in the original ‘SAS’. However, it was Shearer who was the leading man, the one who heard the net swoosh most after one of his efforts on goal, the one who benefited immeasurably from that title-winning season by putting himself in the shop window.
Although some would have loved to have seen what Rovers could have achieved had that squad been held together, even more still wonder what heights Shearer could have reached had he not transferred to Newcastle United, but to another United instead.
The British press went into overdrive with stories and rumours connecting the English striker with a move to Manchester United. While Newcastle were also in contention to sign, Sir Alex Ferguson’s outfit were the firm favourites to secure his signature so it was something of a surprise to see Shearer unveiled as a Magpies man in the summer of 1996.
There is next to no doubt that he would have picked up a handful more league winner’s medals, and maybe even had the chance to lift the Champions League trophy, had he joined the north-west club, but would he have become the league’s record goalscorer with so many more cup and continental fixtures to play in? Would he have stayed on the right side of Fergie? Might he have picked up a few extra injuries with so much more potential minutes to trudge through? Would he even have fit into the red half of Manchester’s style of play?
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The various outcomes of that fantasy transfer are endlessly entertaining to ponder but equally impossible to decipher. So many different results could have emerged had he teamed up with them, but the reality of it is that he opted to plump for his hometown, his heart and happiness. If Newcastle are the Magpies, Shearer was the shiniest of plunders.
Much like modern-day Blackburn, the Newcastle of today would dearly love to have someone of Shearer’s class and clinical nature in their starting line-up every week, but there is something greedy, almost disrespectful, about wishing for another version of him to turn up and save the day. After all, he was his own player, a truly unique one, a one-off record-former – and breaker – whose legacy rests on the fact he did what no-one else did and who rejected more money and the chance of European domination so that he could give something back to the place he loves so much. Sure, another saviour is what they want but the memory of Shearer is something immense that they already have. Wishing for a replica Shearer is like trying to cook Christmas dinner on July 25 – it’s just daft.
With Newcastle, he scored 206 goals in 404 games, placing him top on their all-time scoring list ahead of Jackie Milburn, Hughie Gallacher and Peter Beardsley, an accolade he might just feel prouder of than any other he holds.
He is worshipped like a god on Tyneside, so it’s little wonder there was recently a statue of him erected outside St James’ Park. Despite all his fame and glory, he remained a humble star in his playing days, even his celebration was one of almost apologetic acceptance of his brilliance: his hand raised up in the air, head hunched low with a broad smile stretched across it, as if trying to deflect the euphoria which came his way from the crowds in the elevated stands.
Despite being a trendsetter, he wasn’t in step with the glitz and flashiness that came with the game as it evolved. Having grown up and developed as a player and a man when the rebranded top tier was still in its infancy, the rise of statistics, colour, money and pressure that mounted immeasurably around the turn of the millennium would surely have been changes that could have thrown him off his historic course, but ever the determined performer he kept his coordinates set to 260. As impossible as it might sound, that’s the number of goals he scored throughout his own personal Premier League journey.
It took him a mere 212 games to reach 150 goals – the quickest anyone has ever reached that milestone in Premier League history.
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To those on the outside of British football looking in, it might seem odd that a player who never led his boyhood club to any silverware might still hold such an unshakable cachet with the fans. In terms of doing enough to put something in the trophy cabinet, he only came as close as finishing second in the league with the Magpies as well as helping them to two finals which they lost. Indeed, he and the club have often been ridiculed for that gaping hole in his career – and yet it is obvious just how jealous so many of his detractors really are.
Counter-arguments of winning the hearts of the fans and cementing his own personal records have never done enough to quash the trash talk bent on cutting down his achievements, but it is almost irrefutable that beyond the immature trolling and mocking tone of some of the jibes directed his way, there is a truth to the simplicity that his career was much better spent slumming it with the Geordies than it could have been with Barcelona, AC Milan or even Arsenal.
It allowed him to be the footballer he was always supposed to be – he was the archetypal goalscorer. He finished team moves, booted free-kicks past flailing custodians, placed dead-balls into top corners, thwacked penalties home, nicked crosses in with his head, and nearly always found a way to shake the net and best the ‘keeper because that was his forte. Those were his medals.
The one that stands out most among his sea of goals is the volley he blasted home against Everton back in 2002. The way he blends power with accuracy and swerve to make the ball fly through the air and over the ‘keeper’s outstretched arm is a thing of beauty in its simplicity.
Every goal he scored and every point he helped his team win with a brazenly dispatched effort – even when the back-line was leaking goals – was his way of giving something back. It’s easy to believe that he wasted the best part of his career on Tyneside, but it’s even more meaningful to think against the grain: that his decade with Newcastle was where he was supposed to be, and it’s all the more remarkable considering he could have been elsewhere, cashing in tenfold on his skill. There was a heroism to it.
Not one of his league peers across his time as an active player – Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Ian Wright, Andy Cole – managed to score as freely as he did or lasted as long as he did. More indicative of his brilliance, still, is the fact none of those who have followed on from him have managed to get anywhere near his silly tally of league strikes.
By Trevor Murray. Follow @TrevorM90