Aston Villa v Newcastle United: Alan Shearer faces up to biggest challenge of his career

22 May 2009 09:09
Aston Villa v Newcastle UnitedKick-off: Sun May 24, 4.00pm, Villa Park, BirminghamTV: Sky Sports 1, Sky Sports HD1Radio: BBC Radio Five Live

Fans on phone-ins, columnists, vicars rewriting hymns for congregations to sing "Onward Geordie soldiers'' and even Will Shearer telling dad which players to pick. Shearer senior thought he had heard everything until a training-ground visitor remarked on Friday that "it's only a game''. Newcastle's manager almost dissolved in disbelief.

 Related ArticlesVilla v Newcastle: PreviewRelegation can be Newcastle's reality checkNorth East clubs united in fearWho will be relegated?Predictor: How will your team finish?Sport on televisionOnly a game! It's an obsession around here. Newcastle and football go together like black and white stripes, Blaydon and Races, Ant and Dec. St James' Park dominates the skyline and the day's agenda. And the talk is of relegation, of a city hit by the recession fearing another blow to its pride and livelihood. Only a game!

Shearer shook his head, knowing that if the team he has responsibility for fail to better Hull City's result against Manchester United on Sunday a pall of gloom will spread across the Tyne, jobs will go at St James', the value of the club will halve and they could be playing Scunthorpe United rather than Manchester United next season. Only a game!

"Do I see it as the biggest game of my career?'' mused Shearer, looking back on playing days that saw him compete in a successful title campaign with Blackburn Rovers, and in World Cup quarter-finals and European Championship semi-finals with England. Bigger than those full-house dramas, a nation watching transfixed? "Absolutely.''

Managing his beloved Toon has "definitely'' proved addictive for Shearer, who will sit down with the club's owner, Mike Ashley, on Monday to discuss the future, whether that be in the Championship or Premier League. Most observers expect Shearer to continue.

The job has completely absorbed him, although Shearer laughed when asked what his wife, Lainya, thought of "all this lunacy''. He replied: "I have not seen her! I walk in and my kids look at this strange man. 'Where's Dad gone?' I'm gone when they go to school and they are in bed when I come back so I rarely see them.

"My wife would not ask if I am enjoying it or not, but she has been fine.'' Shearer does see Will at matches, giving him a special wave before kick-off. On the rare occasion their paths cross at home, Will "just tells me what team to pick – I might be better off listening to him, judging by results.''

Clearly, Shearer has been seized by management. Even when he nipped out for nine holes of golf with his assistant, Iain Dowie, on Thursday, Shearer admitted he "was still talking about tactics going round the course'', adding with familiar smile: "That was just to put him off his swing.'' Shearer won. "I hope that's a good omen. I'm totally convinced we will stay up.''

Newcastle United mean everything to Shearer. He left town at an early age, building his career in the south, as many do, but the call of this unique city was always strong. The humour, the passion for the team, called him home.

That is why he rejected the footballing and financial riches on offer from Manchester United to sign for Newcastle, the snub to Alex Ferguson lending an extra twist to Sunday's denouement.

There is a fervour to this place, memorably captured in Ferguson's famous depiction of a Newcastle Chronicle seller shouting out the latest front-page headlines, "World Exclusive! Andy Cole goes shopping! Pictures and full reports pages one to 10, editorial comment page 11. World War Three breaks out, page 12.''

A few days after accepting Ashley's plea to manage the team for the remaining eight games of the season, Shearer was talking to Dowie, an outsider stunned by the depth of the local hunger for the Toon, by how Geordies view the black and white stripes not as a shirt but as a second skin. "Now I know why you turned Man United down,'' Dowie remarked to Shearer.

Only a club? "Only after coming up here, listening to the people, looking at the people, seeing what it means to them, did Iain fully appreciate what size this club is,'' Shearer said. "I know what this football club is, what it means to the people. You know what it means to me. That is why I came back.'' As player, as manager.

For all his travails, for all his record of one win in seven, Shearer is the ideal man to lead Newcastle forward, even if it is via the immense reality check and mass clear-out of a spell in the Championship. From academy to first-team dressing-room, the whole place needs rebuilding.

Newcastle's training ground, a low-key establishment compared to Melwood, Carrington, London Colney, Cobham and Bodymoor Heath, lies between some famous breeding grounds for footballing talent, Wallsend Boys Club to the south and Cramlington Juniors to the north. Why did Newcastle let Michael Carrick slip through the net – and Shearer himself?

"That side of things has to change,'' agreed Shearer. "You have to get the best boys from the boys' clubs and get them into this football club. It's too big not to.''

Shearer winced at the thought of how good a Geordie all-time XI would be with players like Paul Gascoigne, Chris Waddle, Jackie Milburn, Peter Beardsley, Bobby Robson and the Charltons. Even adopted local heroes, like James Milner, were sold and he could send them down tomorrow.

"There have been mistakes made,'' sighed Shearer. "James has gone on and had a very good season with Aston Villa. That tells its own story, doesn't it?'' If only Newcastle had kept all their stars. "You do not have to remind me about that,'' replied Shearer. "I have looked at it and looked at it and thought why?

"Hopefully it will be rectified in the future with Newcastle United as a Premier League football club.'' Tomorrow will dictate that, and a Sunderland supporter, his team probably safe, has rewritten 'Blaydon Races' for the occasion:

"They all went down to Villa Park

Twas the 24th of May

Hoping God would smile on them

Upon the Sabbath day

Proud as punch in stripey shirts

Cream of the Geordie nation

Ganning along to Birmingham

To see the relegation.

Oh me lads, you should've seen them crying

Watching the shambles on the pitch

Premier dreams a'dying

All the lads and lasses there

All had gloomy faces

Ganning doon to the Championship

With aal of Shearer's aces.''

And that's the polite part. It goes on, cruelly so. Shearer knows that many are laughing at Newcastle. It seems as if Ashley's board has written the 'How Not To' manual on running a football club, reducing any sympathy.

"You can look at all the opinion pieces and listen to people wherever they are from, they are entitled to say what they want," Shearer said. "But the worst three teams over 38 games will go down and no one can complain about that.''

Relegation would be a harrowing and expensive experience. "Huge, huge. We all know the implications. I know, the players know, people around the city know what it means for this football club to be in the Premier League. Massive.

"You are talking about the staff who you don't know at this football club – tea ladies – who could lose their jobs.''

Shearer needs Michael Owen to prove his fitness today and for his back-line, the Maginot Line of football, to hold firm. Shearer's team talk will be simple. "We're all aware of the stakes. I won't have to motivate the players for this game. We've got one last throw of the dice.'' Only a game?


Source: Telegraph