“It was everything I hoped it would be and a lot more,” reflected Alan Shearer, looking back on his career and, most specifically, his time at Newcastle. “It was always my dream. It was my team,” he continued. “People always get criticised for not being loyal in today’s football. Well, I went back home and stayed there for ten years, and I had the time of my life. I played for my club, the club I supported. And that is every boy’s dream.”
Shearer would become the all-time leading goalscorer for his boyhood club, and is still the leading Premier League goalscorer, despite beginning his career before the game-changing big league was created.
Having slipped through the net of the Newcastle youth system as a boy, Shearer joined Southampton as a teenager on the recommendation of scout Jack Hixon. Once he got his chance in the Saints first team as a raw, gangly teenager he had an instant impact, scoring a hat-trick on his full debut against Arsenal, at just 17 years old, though he was still eased into the squad relatively gently from thereon.
Come the advent of the Premier League in 1992, Shearer had become a Southampton regular and had been called up to the England team. He hit the headlines by making what was a big-money move at the time to the nouveau riche Blackburn for £3.6m, turning down Manchester United for the first time and becoming the most expensive player in British football. Rovers were in the midst of a revolution, with the money of Jack Walker to bolster the squad and the managerial nous of Kenny Dalglish guiding them, they had assembled a squad to take on the best in the country.
An injury-hit first season with Blackburn still saw Shearer scoring 16 goals in the 21 games in which he did feature, with a memorable brace on his debut in a thrilling 3-3 draw with Crystal Palace. But it was over the next two seasons that Shearer’s goalscoring prowess would take Blackburn to new heights. He scored 31 times in 40 games in the 1993/94 season as Blackburn finished runners-up. It was the arrival of Chris Sutton for the 1994/95 season that proved the final, decisive link in a devastating attack that would push Blackburn to the title.
The partnership between Shearer and Sutton, the ‘SAS’ as they became known, was formidable. Complementing each other perfectly, they helped Blackburn score 80 goals that season, firing Rovers to the title which they secured by the narrowest of margins ahead of Manchester United. Shearer’s astonishing contribution saw him claim the PFA Player of the Year award, to add to the Football Writers’ award he’d won the year before.
Retaining the title proved far trickier, however, with Blackburn slipping to seventh the following year, as well as struggling in Europe, exiting the Champions League at the group stage with something of a whimper. Shearer, though, was just as clinical, ending the season as the Premier League’s top scorer again with a remarkable 31 goals in 35 games.
His international form hadn’t quite lived up to this level, Shearer failing to score in twelve games leading up to Euro 96. Once the tournament came around though, Shearer’s reputation stepped up another level as he scored five times to win the golden boot and take England to within a whisker of the final.
Shearer’s stock was now at such a level that he was regarded as one of the world’s best. Indeed, he would end the year coming third in the FIFA World Player of the Year awards and was undoubtedly the highest-rated striker at that time. As such he was a target for big clubs across Europe but primarily it was Manchester United; seeking to add an even more lethal attacking edge to their title-winning squad, who were leading the chase.
Indeed, Shearer had agreed with Alex Ferguson that he would join the Red Devils, but a couple of factors contrived to change that. Firstly, the Blackburn owner, Walker, was reluctant to sell to his main rival, to the extent that he actively discouraged Shearer from moving there, and United chairman Martin Edwards would later claim the agreed move was blocked by Walker. Secondly, there was the sentimental pull of another team that also saw him as having the potential to fire them to the next level.
When the news broke in late July 1996, it reverberated around the world. Shearer had signed for his beloved hometown club, Newcastle, for a world record transfer fee of £15m. He was also signing for his boyhood hero, Kevin Keegan, the manager of what was an entertaining and swashbuckling, if ultimately flawed, team. The young Shearer had watched Keegan from the terraces in his spell as a player on Tyneside in the early 1980s; it can’t be underestimated just how much of a factor Keegan was in taking Shearer home.
As much as his lengthy spell at Newcastle brought him a record-breaking haul of goals, things didn’t go as Shearer, or the club, would have hoped. Having initially formed a deadly and exciting strike partnership with Les Ferdinand, best exemplified in the electric 5-0 victory over Manchester United in late 1996, by the start of 1997 the picture was changing.
Boardroom scheming over an impending public share issue left Keegan manoeuvred into a position where he felt unable to continue. His departure, and replacement by Shearer’s old Blackburn boss Dalglish, initially saw Newcastle still riding high, ending the 1996/97 season as runners-up once more. But things would soon turn sour.
Ferdinand left for Tottenham at the start of the next season, followed the very next day by Shearer suffering the first of a number of serious injuries that would impact both his playing style going forward – and his goals tally. Both he and his team struggled, and despite reaching two FA Cup finals, under Dalglish and then Ruud Gullit, there would be no trophy.
The relationship between Gullit and Shearer was always a strained one; Gullit claiming Shearer was a hugely overrated player, and at the start of the 1999/2000 season it broke utterly. A cataclysmic derby defeat to Sunderland amidst a tumultuous downpour, where Shearer was left on the bench as Gullit sought to assert his authority, was the final straw.
But with the arrival of Bobby Robson as manager soon after, Shearer found a new lease of life. Under the tutelage of a man who had tried to sign him for Barcelona a couple of years earlier, Shearer adapted his playing style to mitigate the effects of the injuries that had ravaged his body. He was less explosive, less dynamic, but as lethal as ever. The goals kept on coming, as Newcastle climbed the table again to return to the Champions League by finishing fourth; a feat they would repeat in finishing third the following season.
As his career wound down, the goals weren’t as frequent as before, but his tally kept on steadily rising. His final strike came in an emphatic 4-1 win away at local rivals Sunderland, in a match that also saw him suffer a tear to his knee ligament in an innocuous collision. Occurring just three games before the end of the season in which he was due to retire, it effectively brought forward the unfortunate end to a most magnificent career.
In all, Shearer scored a still unsurpassed 260 Premier League goals, plus 23 more in the old First Division for Southampton. In his pre-injury pomp, during the mid-90s, he was the leading striker of his generation, and yet he still carved a highly effective role once the injuries had begun to take their toll. He may not have won the trophies and medals that some lesser players can boast but his impact was profound, and he fulfilled his personal dreams of representing the club he loved with such distinction.
By Aidan Williams @yad_williams