by Richard D J J Bowdery
On 26 March 1988, seventeen year-old Alan Shearer made his professional footballing debut for Southampton at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea.
He was on the winning side as the game finished 1-0 to the Saints; a result which contributed to Chelsea‘s relegation to Division Two at the end of that season.
But for an oversight on the part of Newcastle United the young Shearer’s shirt may have had black stripes instead of red ones that afternoon.
He could also have avoided a round trip of over 580 miles that took in the south coast of England and East Lancashire.
As a 15 year-old schoolboy Shearer was given a trial by the St. James Park club and was asked to play in goal. Unsurprisingly, for someone with an eye for scoring rather than preventing goals, he failed to impress the coaches who were monitoring the game. As a mad Magpies fan it must have broken his heart to be turned away from the club he loved.
Shearer later recalled: “I came for a trial with a lot of other lads and there was a shortage or something, so everyone had to take a turn in goal. I was no different from anyone else, I had my 20 minutes just like everyone else, but I said to someone that I’d played in goal for Newcastle when I was on trial and I’ve never heard the last of it.”
To be fair to Newcastle United, they did rectify their mistake later in Alan Shearer’s career but it cost them a lot more than it might otherwise have done.
Despite this rejection the 15 year-old managed to get trials at other clubs including Southampton who signed him up on the spot.
Two weeks after coming on as a sub against Chelsea Shearer made his full debut at The Dell versus Arsenal – and scored a hat-trick in a 4-2 victory. At 17 years and 240 days Shearer became the youngest scorer of a hat-trick in top flight history, breaking a 30 year old record held by Jimmy Greaves.
During his time at the Dell he scored over 40 goals in 158 appearances. Other clubs were beginning to take notice of this young talent and it wasn’t long before a queue of admirers started to form, all eager for his signature.
England Come Calling
Included among these admirers was the late Dave Sexton, then England under-21 coach. In 1990 he brought Shearer into the squad. Shearer repaid Sexton’s faith in him by scoring 13 times in 11 appearances. This goals-to-appearances ratio brought him to the attention of another influential figure: the England manager, Graham Taylor.
Taylor gave him his senior debut against France, in February 1992. Shearer opened the scoring and Gary Lineker added a second as England ran out 2-0 winners.
Shearer’s performance on the international stage caused his stock to rise significantly on the domestic front which caused a lot of additional work for Ian Branfoot, his manager at Southampton.
With the increasing interest in his striker, Branfoot seemed to spend as much time on the telephone fielding calls from other managers looking to sign his Shearer as he did on the training field coaching his squad.
Eventually the inevitable happened and he was prised away from The Dell by Blackburn Rovers who parted with over £3 million in July 1992: helped in no small part by the financing of Blackburn’s benefactor, Jack Walker.
It was at Blackburn that Shearer was to win his only significant piece of domestic silverware: the Premiership trophy.
In that League winning 94/95 season he formed a deadly partnership with Chris Sutton – known as the SAS. Shearer’s 34 goals alongside Sutton’s 15, ensured Walker’s bankrolled Rovers top spot.
His last game for Blackburn came against Wimbledon in April 1996. He signed off with another brace of goals to go alongside 19 other braces and 9 hat-tricks.
In total he scored 130 goals in 171 appearances during his four seasons at the Lancashire club.
But now another team were keen to employ his prolific services and there was the small matter of a European championship with England, in England.
Euro ’96 & The Toon
The Euro 96 tournament was to be the highlight in Shearers international career. He finished the tournament as top-scorer with 5 goals. Unfortunately those goals weren’t enough to take England all the way to the Final.
Once again Germany stood in the way; although if Gascoigne’s legs had been an inch longer, England would have won on the golden-goal rule and avoided the penalty shoot-out. They weren’t and the host nation lost 6-5 on penalties; more than a shade of Italia ‘90.
By the end of his international career Shearer had played 63 times for England and scored 30 goals (almost one every two games).
Football didn’t truly come home in ‘96 but later that summer Shearer did, and so began his love affair with the Toon Army.
But if Kevin Keegan, Shearer’s boyhood hero, hadn’t been the gaffer at Newcastle, Shearer could have become a Red Devil.
Manchester United and Newcastle United had agreed a sale price with Blackburn Rovers. Extended talks between Shearer and Alex Ferguson led everyone to believe that Old Trafford was his club of choice and yet…
Legend has it that Keegan asked for and got one final opportunity to talk with Shearer. Whatever was said Shearer put pen to paper, with Keegan looking like the cat that got the cream.
Shearer was reported to have said, on signing for the Magpies in July 1996: “It was the challenge of returning home and wearing the famous black and white shirt which made up my mind.”
The fans who turned out to greet the club’s new signing confirmed that decision. On seeing the 20,000 Newcastle fans who witnessed his official unveiling as a United player he said: “I wouldn’t have got a reception like this anywhere else in the world.”
Newcastle had shelled out a whopping £15 million – a world transfer record to capture a proven goal machine.
In more than 400 appearances Shearer netted over 200 times: more than justifying his price tag.
Of course eleven years earlier he would have cost significantly less; but then hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Injury Brings the Curtain Down
In Shearer’s last season at United he broke Jackie Milburn’s record of 200 goals in a black and white shirt. The record had stood for 49 years and cemented Shearer’s place among the pantheon of Newcastle greats.
At the same time Shearer had a dual role as player/coach. It was a role he had hoped to continue in for at least another season, but a tear to the medial collateral ligament in his left knee, during the League game against Sunderland in April 2006, put paid to that aspiration and effectively ended his playing career.
Although he was never to pull on that famous number 9 shirt in anger ever again, he still went out on a high that afternoon, scoring and seeing his side beat their historical enemy 4-1.
Apart from a stint as Newcastle boss towards the end of the 2008/09 season, Shearer didn’t transfer his footballing prowess to the dugout.
Instead he developed a media career as a football pundit. Today he is a regular on Match of the Day, giving viewers the benefit of his experience, gained in over 18 years as a professional footballer.
Although the Toon Army are still able to watch their hero on television, the one image that will lodge long in their memory is of Shearer wheeling away, arm aloft, as he celebrates yet another successful strike on goal.
To relive some of those deadly strikes by the Premier League’s deadliest finisher, click on the photo opposite.