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Aug 14, 2009

Shearer: God on the Tyne

He may currently be exiled from the Premier League, his contributions now coming from the comfort of a TV studio, yet Alan Shearer is remembered as the greatest goalscorer in its history.

Still in limbo as a king-in-waiting at Newcastle United, as his beloved club seek new owners who will surely ask the local hero back to St James' Park, Shearer cuts a disgruntled dash these days. His familiar beaming smile, coupled with a single raised arm, have not been seen in combination for some time, with his last playing appearance coming back in April 2006. His eight games in charge of the Magpies as manager provided little opportunity for jollity.

Yet from the very first weekend of the "whole new ball game" of the Premier League, until injury struck in a fateful Tyne-Tees derby to bring forward his retirement date, there were few more familiar sights than Shearer peeling away in celebration. After all, it occurred 261 times in 15 seasons, a record that may never be broken. Second-placed and now-retired Andy Cole lags far behind on 187.

He is, of course, most closely associated with Newcastle but it was at Blackburn Rovers that he was at his devastating goal-plundering best. In three straight seasons - 1993-94, 1994-95 and 1995-96 - he scored more than thirty goals. The middle of those saw him inspire Rovers to their first - and likely last - league title of the modern era. That was to remain his sole medal in English football, an awful return for a player of such standing.

A native Geordie, and famously the son of a sheet-metal worker, the young Shearer joined the footballing production line of Wallsend Boys Club where fellow graduates include Steve Bruce, Michael Carrick and Peter Beardsley. Yet, in typically single-minded fashion, he chose to sign youth forms for south-coast club Southampton even when Newcastle showed interest in him.

It was the correct decision. Then, as now, Newcastle were a club in constant flux, while the Saints had a successful youth programme. Shearer followed the Wallace brothers and Matthew Le Tissier into the first-team and, at just 17, announced himself in spectacular style by smashing in a hat-trick on his very first senior appearance. A George Graham-era Arsenal were the victims and though he would have to wait a while to become a regular, by the summer of 1992 and having made a scoring debut for England against France earlier that year, he was the most in-demand player in the English game.

Manchester United had always looked the likeliest of destinations until newly-promoted Blackburn, managed by Kenny Dalglish and bank-rolled by steel magnate Jack Walker, stepped in to pay a record £3.3m fee for him. At Southampton, Shearer's goal record (43 in 158 games) had been unremarkable yet he exploded at Rovers, scoring two goals in a 3-3 draw at Crystal Palace on the opening day of the new league. Rovers then looked headed for glory until Shearer suffered a cruciate knee injury against Leeds in December to derail their hopes of winning the first Premier League title.

Season 1993-94 saw Shearer play a full season and lash in 31 goals as Rovers almost reeled in runaway Manchester United to finish second. The next season saw him operate in tandem with Chris Sutton in a partnership nicknamed "the SAS" by the tabloids. As Blackburn lifted their first title since 1914, he was named PFA Player of the Year. Even after Dalglish walked away that summer and Rovers set into decline, Shearer still grabbed 31 goals in 35 appearances in 1995-96.

Euro '96 saw him top-score at the tournament where he became even hotter property. Again, Manchester United were favourites to sign him, though Shearer, still close to his old boss, is said to have favoured Liverpool before Newcastle beat all-comers, including Barcelona and Juventus, and paid £15m to return him home.

Whatever the reasons behind his choice, Shearer soon became part of the fabric of Tyneside, top-scoring during a troubled 1996-97 in which Kevin Keegan walked away from the club to shock Tyneside. Shearer's new boss was familiar, Dalglish, but the pair could not repeat their Blackburn success. When injury struck again in a pre-season game at Everton in July 1997, Newcastle were robbed of their totem for long months of the season.

His early years had been marked by a thrilling acceleration, matched by the power to hold off opponents and a venomous shot that cracked in many a long-range strike. The knee and ankle injuries robbed him of that pace but Shearer, an intelligent player, worked on different facets to continue as a top striker. He built his legs up to tree-trunk proportions and became a far better header of the ball, yet there was a troubled mid-period to his career. He was almost a different player and it took time for him to get used to his new physiology. After Dalglish departed Tyneside, in came Ruud Gullit for 12 months of quarrels with his leading star. Shearer won the argument when Gullit left the striker on the bench in an early-season derby with Sunderland and the Wearsiders blew away the Dutchman's team. Gullit soon walked away.

At this point, Shearer bore the demeanour of a man out of love with football but the club's next appointment, Bobby Robson, restored his passion. When Robson died earlier this month, Shearer credited his fellow north-easterner with the saving of his career. After Euro 2000 he took the decision to quit the international game and concentrate on playing for Newcastle.

Robson paired him with Craig Bellamy, a player who would do much of the running to create space for the older man's still-deadly finishing, and while the pair shared no love for each other they were the attacking force behind Premier League finishes of 4th, 3rd and 5th before, at the start of 2004-05, Robson was unforgivably sacked before August had ended. Thereafter, he suffered indifferent relations with subsequent bosses Graeme Souness and Glenn Roeder before deciding to quit at the end of 2005-06. He didn't quite make it, as, after scoring and celebrating in the usual way at the Stadium of Light, he soon suffered that show-stopping knee injury in a collision with Julio Arca.

Even in his dotage, he remained the club's most popular player and his loyalty to the area was appreciated. His public persona, guarded and cautious, often led to significant proportions of the rest of the population not warming to him, yet it is clear that this has always masked a mischievous sense of humour.

Whatever feelings on Shearer the man are, few could argue about his goalscoring achievements. His scoring of 206 goals for Newcastle made him the club's all-time record holder. In Premier League terms he is out on his own and will likely always remain so.

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