Offside, 27 April
Alan Shearer, the hero of modern football? Pass the sick bag.
Is it just me or did anyone else reach for the sick bag after all those saccharine eulogies to Alan Shearer?
Such was the melodramatic reaction to the knee injury in the 4-1 rout of Sunderland that hastened Shearer’s retirement you’d have been forgiven for thinking that the Newcastle striker had snuffed it. As if to underline the fact of Shearer’s national treasure status, prime minister Tony Blair led the chorus of gushing tributes. ‘I should say for the purposes of the record that I think he’s been a fantastic servant for Newcastle United and is a great player and a great man’, said the PM. The Guardian splashed a big picture of Shearer slotting home a penalty against Sunderland across the front page of its sports section, with a headline asking: ‘Was this Alan Shearer’s last ever goal?’ ‘Who cares?’ I thought. Newcastle weren’t going to win any silverware and Shearer was due to retire three games later anyway.
Shearer’s retirement provides the Geordies with yet another opportunity to get all moist-eyed and sentimental (as if they need any excuse to start blubbing) but why should the rest of mankind give a monkey’s about the end of his playing career? Yes, during the 1990s he was unquestionably England’s best striker. But injury has long since deprived Shearer of the pace that made him one of the most fearsome strikers in Europe.
I’ve always found there was something deeply irritating about Alan Shearer but I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on exactly why. Perhaps it’s his contrived ‘ordinariness’ epitomised by his declaration that he was just ‘a sheet metal worker’s son from Gosforth’ and his famous quip that he planned to celebrate winning the title with Blackburn by creosoting his garden fence. Or could it be that single-arm goal celebration? No extravagant cartwheels or ragamuffin dance routines – just a simple straight-arm salute (not in a Di Canio way, I should add) that seems to be a calculated statement of unflamboyance.
Or maybe it’s his über-blandness, which prompted Newcastle directors Freddie Shepherd and Douglas Hall to describe him as the ‘Mary Poppins of football’. As descriptions of Shearer go, my personal favourite is still Liam Gallagher’s. ‘Michael Owen and Alan Shearer? They’re fucking coppers, man’, said the Oasis frontman in an NME interview. ‘Alan Shearer is CID and Michael Owen looks like trainee CID.’
But actually, on reflection, it’s not so much Alan Shearer that I hate but the deification of Shearer. He is frequently described as an ‘old-fashioned centre forward’ who belongs to a bygone age. And certainly he’s not one to complain about being roughed up by defenders. This robustness is admirable but that’s not the main reason he’s lauded for being ‘old-fashioned’. Shearer has come to signify the opposite of the overpaid, bling-dripping modern footballer. He is praised for snubbing the chance to collect medals at Manchester United and opting instead, in true Boys Own fashion, to wear the black and white jersey of his hometown club. His loyal service to perennial underachievers Newcastle is held up as the antithesis of mercenary club-hopping.
Shearer claims that he has no regrets about opting for Newcastle. ‘My dream as a kid was to play for Newcastle United and to score goals at St James’ Park’, said Shearer. ‘It doesn’t matter that I didn’t win a trophy because I did it my way and I lived the dream.’ But while silverware wasn’t everything to Shearer, the annual ‘win a cup for Wor Alan’ campaign that attached itself to every Newcastle cup run really did start to grate. He had a chance to win silverware aplenty at United but turned it down. He made his choice, so I didn’t shed any tears when Shearer’s last chance of an FA Cup medal disappeared down the pan at Stamford Bridge in March.
Newcastle fans are perfectly entitled to worship at Shearer’s feet. But arguably, for the club’s sake, he should have hung his boots up a few seasons ago. As the old cliché goes, he still knew where the goal was. The problem was that he was so immobile he rarely got into goal-scoring positions from open play. It would have been fine if you could rotate substitutes like in American grid-iron. You could wheel him on for corners, free kicks and penalties and then take him off again. But in the modern professional game, a centre forward who isn’t mobile is a luxury that the top teams simply cannot afford.
But such was Shearer’s iconic status on Tyneside that he became effectively undroppable. It is no coincidence that both Ruud Gullit and Sir Bobby Robson found themselves out of a job shortly after relegating Shearer to the bench. Whatever Gullit’s shortcomings as a football manager he recognised many years ago that Shearer’s ‘bigger than the club’ status had become an obstacle to Newcastle’s progress. ‘He thinks about himself all the time. It’s always about his goals and not about the team’, said Gullit. ‘If we were going to succeed as a team I knew we had to change the way Alan Shearer played but he didn’t want to change.’ Gullit even had the nerve to tell Shearer to his face that he was ‘the most overrated player’ he had ever seen – a heresy akin to screaming ‘God is dead’ in the Sistine Chapel. Invariably it was Gullit who exited St James’ Park, not the Geordie idol.
Alan Shearer was a fantastic striker; the crucial word is ‘was’. For the past few years he has been little more than a glorified penalty-taking machine. Now that he’s finally retired, Newcastle can get on with the job of becoming a proper football team, rather than a vehicle for Alan Shearer’s goal-scoring records.
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