Alan Shearer is a pillar of our footballing existence

Matt Stead

Who’s this then?
Alan Shearer is a 50-year-old, six-foot former striker from Gosforth in Newcastle. Just calling him a striker doesn’t really do him justice though; he was beyond prolific, making records that will likely never be beaten. There has never been a British goalscorer in the modern era his equal. In 11 of his 19 seasons as a player he scored over 20 club goals. In four campaigns he notched over 30 (three of which were consecutive).

He holds the records for:

Most Premier League goals – 260
Most Premier League goals in a season – 34
Most Premier League penalties – 56
Most Premier League goals scored from inside the box – 227
Most Premier League goals in a single match – 5
Fewest matches to score 100 Premier League goals – 124

He is also the top goalscorer in Newcastle United history with 206 and has scored the most European goals for them with 30.

His record of 260 Premier League goals stands some distance ahead of all comers. However, that is all too often the only statistic quoted about his career (Premier League exceptionalism at play, as ever). His career total of goals for club and country is a mighty 419 in 797 games.

Most players of such exceptional ability play much of their career at title-winning sides but Alan didn’t. His four years at Blackburn Rovers (130 goals in 171 games) and their title win are the only honours in the Shearer trophy cabinet. This makes his tally even more remarkable. It’s one thing to score plenty when you are playing with superb players and a successful team, but quite another to do so at Southampton (43 goals in 158 games) and in a frequently malfunctioning Newcastle United team (206 goals in 405 games) which, though it challenged for titles twice, was also prone to relegation worries.

Portrait of an icon: Alan Shearer

That he had the chance to join Juventus, Barcelona or Manchester United at a time when they were the dominant force in English football but turned them down to play for his boyhood club is the sort of decision that seems almost quaintly old-fashioned in today’s big-money-before-soul culture. Maybe it’s the Irish influence in the north east of England’s history and culture, but we’re prone to romance and sentimentality about our home lands, so that someone should make the choice to play for his boyhood local club above the glamour and riches of wealthier more southern suitors really f**king mattered to people. I cannot say that strongly enough. It really, really mattered.

He became King of Tyneside as a player, the beating Geordie heart of the club, totally synonymous with it in a way few players ever become. His raised arm goal-scoring salute remains a stirring and powerful iconography on Tyneside and even now, in silhouette, is an echo down the years of greater days.

Since that time, he has devoted himself to being one of the BBC’s top pundits and an absolute pillar of their football broadcasting. Interestingly, he’s never been one of those ex-players who worked on multiple channels. He’s always been a BBC dude. And as the years have gone by, he’s improved beyond recognition in the role. While we all have our heroes and villains when it comes to football punditry, there is a value to the role beyond pure analysis which largely goes unnoticed, possibly because it is largely subconscious: familiarity. Just being there.

We all need cultural cornerstones in our life. They give a sense of permanence and reliability, especially in a culture which seems forever in shallow tumult. And Alan is one of those pillars of life now. Sitting there, reliable, grinning, squinting a little and nodding.


Why the love?
There was something brilliantly ruthless about how Alan played the game that was impossible to not admire. There was nothing fancy about it, nothing flash, nothing Hollywood. He was just utterly focused on and totally brilliant at scoring goals, yet remained completely down to earth despite being one of the best strikers on the planet in his pomp. Who doesn’t love someone being apparently an ordinary guy with an exceptional talent?

And if you wanted someone to score a penalty to save your life, you’d pick him every single time. Not just because he’d want to save your life, but because it was another chance to notch one more strike for Big Al and he took the opportunity to score so seriously. He had a thirst for scoring goals which seemed unquenchable.

It is worth considering that he started playing in the ’80s when football was a very different game to what it became in the non-contact 21st century and therefore must have had to adapt his game accordingly.

He was a physical striker, largely because in the ’80s and the ’90s you had to be, but despite being six foot, he wasn’t the biggest beefcake in the butchers. This meant that in an era where defenders were pretty much allowed to use and abuse you like you were a glove puppet and still only get a yellow card, he had to learn how to be rock hard but really smart with it. And he certainly had the smartest elbows in the business, capable of levering himself away from the close attentions of the defence and protecting the ball with sheer strength.

But even this doesn’t really explain his amazing strike rate. Behind the technique, the concentration and the physicality lay an iron will and a take-no-bullshit attitude. Sheer grit is undervalued in modern football. The ability to just knuckle down and get the job done as the horizontal sleet lashes into your eyes on the back of galeforce north easterly whipping in off the coast: that is what makes the stuff of legend. It is what fans love.

Fanny merchants are all well and good. They have their role to play. But when it comes to stirring the blood, they don’t do the job the same way as a striker who will run through proverbial brick walls to get to the ball first and who will, with his first touch, batter the f**king thing so hard it almost bursts the net. And that was basically what Alan’s entire career was grounded on doing. That and ferocious power headers.

Those experiences go deep into fan DNA. They invest such excitement and sheer pleasure into us that they can’t help but warm our blood on the memories even on the coldest dark nights of the soul for decades afterwards.

You couldn’t intimidate Shearer, you couldn’t scare him, you couldn’t psyche him out, but he could sure as hell do all of those things to you. Two of the toughest and most volatile players of his generation, Neil Lennon and Roy Keane, can testify to that. Al sorted both of them out, nay bother.

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At Southampton he was quick but hadn’t filled out. By the time he went to Blackburn he was a man and together with Chris Sutton formed one of those partnerships which you dread as a fan of the opposition team because you knew that if one didn’t get you, the other would.

There’s a bronze statue of him outside St James’ Park which, in the great tradition of such things, looks nowt like him in any way at all. There’s no likeness in face or body shape. Even the shorts are too tight.

For a while St James’ Park named a bar after him but it was changed in 2013 from Shearer’s to Nine, which is not as good, not least because the current incumbent of that number is Joelinton. Presumably, they sell expensive but poor quality beer in tribute.

Alan, however, was third in 1996’s Ballon d’Or, has been made a CBE, and is an honorary Doctor of Civil Law of Northumbria and Newcastle Universities.

As he got older he had a wonderful grizzled gunfighter quality to him. In my mind’s eye, he is waiting to take a penalty on a Wednesday night in January at St James’ Park, hands on hips. He’s wet and mud-splattered. Utterly impassively, he looks at the keeper, then at the ball and takes a couple of steps back, the black northern rain pelting into his face. In slow-motion, he turns his head to his left to look at the referee, waiting for the whistle. The movement of his neck dislodges rivulets of water from his forehead, spilling off his cheekbones and nose into the black night, momentarily caught in the eternal brilliance of the floodlights, like diamonds falling to the earth. He narrows his eyes in concentration as he sees the referee put the whistle to his mouth. As it blows, for a moment Al looks like a Geordie Lee Van Cleef about to gun someone down. He strides up to the ball, hits it hard into the top right corner of the net and peels away, right arm raised to accept the adulation, his enemy now slain. Epic.

That happened a lot. And that’s why he will always be loved, especially on Tyneside but with all football fans of a certain generation. To say he was special is an understatement. To say he was phenomenal is more accurate. An icon, not just of Newcastle United, not just of football, but of something more to do with character, of grit and determination.


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What the people say
I’ve written a lot of these pieces about players but I don’t think I’ve ever been so moved by so many of the emotional contributions that flooded in about Big Al. He means so much to so many. Again, I think this is to do with the quality of the man as much as the quality of his football. There is something just downright f**king epic about him and how he played the game. A real working-class hero to be proud of. A man that didn’t sell his soul. A man that knew the value of love over gold. A man that seemed grounded, despite being so talented.

‘Something endearing about having the worst goal celebration of all time and having to use it so often.’

‘I once stood there staring in awe at him as he ate his post match meal on the team coach and he nodded and smiled at me and he made a 10 year old Blackburn fans life! He’s also still the best all round striker I’ve ever seen and wouldn’t look out of place in any era of the game. I still say to my brother when I see someone miss a chance: ‘Shearer would have scored that’.’

‘Great striker. I remember going to a pre-season friendly – Albion v Blackburn. Shearer had just signed for Blackburn. Wondered what all the fuss was about and then he scored two great goals. We still got the draw though (I think).’

‘Best England striker since Lineker, not sure there’s been anyone as good since. Might have won more honours were it not for his love for (the bumper contract signed with) the Toon. Then again, he won more than the likes of Giuseppe Signori, who was probably about as good as him.’

‘The second greatest centre forward to play for Blackburn after Mike Newell.’

‘Absolutely love his 5 Live co-commentary for the Barcelona 4-0.’

‘Up there with the very best. Ronaldo, Van Basten & Romario included.’

‘I’m a Manchester United fan and the excitement I felt when I thought he was coming to Manchester United was immense. I really thought we would be unstoppable in Europe with him upfront. Wasn’t meant to be and just a fantastic footballer and a joy to watch.’

‘I could write a book but as a player the fact he suffered an ACL, broken ankle and knee tendonitis and STILL is the league’s top scorer by some distance is simply incredible.’

‘In the modern game he would still command a world record transfer fee. The modern diving showmen may have tricks but big Al would still out score them. As an NUFC fan his loyalty and self sacrifice for our great club is unlikely to be replicated. LEGEND.’

‘A bloody machine. Foot like a traction engine but could do everything you want in a striker. Would be out of site in all goal scoring stats if not for injury, but still way ahead despite them.’

‘Without doubt the best English striker of the last 25 years, hard as nails and a true all action No 9.’

‘Lived on a pre-match diet of chicken and beans. Wonderful striker, fussy eater.’

‘Watched him shithouse our defence when we played the Toon at Old Trafford in the FA Cup Semi back 1999. He was clever, nasty when he needed to be (always with the sly elbows) and his positional awareness evolved as injuries took their toll. Very grateful I got to see him play.’

‘Always loved him as a player – but the game i thought he really played at a new level was the game against Argentina in the WC when Owen scored and DB was sent off – he was everywhere and really put in a shift. A proper serious player and a bloody good striker.’

‘I was in the absolute sweet spot for Shearer, for which I thank my parents for every day. When he moved to Rovers in 92 I was excited but I wasn’t prepared for quite *how*good he was. Scored every type of goal and did it constantly. Without those serious knee injuries I shudder to think of where his records would stand now. He was also the best crosser of a ball in the Rovers side amazingly. The fact that he won the PL with Rovers is incredible, I personally do find it a shame that he didn’t go on to win it all in terms of trophies because his ability deserved that. But I highly respect his decision and what he achieved in terms of his goal record with Newcastle continued to be incredible. He fully deserves his statue & his heroic reputation up there. Will never be replaced at Rovers or Newcastle.’

‘It’s especially telling that since he retired Newcastle have been relegated twice having been top flight for the previous 20 years. That he was at the managerial helm for one of them doesn’t tarnish anything, joe kinenar had done all the damage already.’

‘He was a world record transfer. Up there with batistuta and the real Ronaldo as the best striker in his era, and you never saw him in papers, or magazines. His job was scoring goals and winning games for Newcastle, and he was really bloody good at it for a long time.’

‘An other wordly centre forward. To have lost so much time to injury, and then play for a side who generally weren’t near the top, and to STILL score all those goals is simply insane. He could do it all as well, couldn’t he? Bangers tap ins, free kicks, headers; the lot.’

‘Being a Boro fan, I wasn’t a fan of Shearer during his Newcastle playing days. However, his goal scoring record speaks for itself. Fantastic. On the pitch he dished it out and he took it. I am a fan of his as a pundit on MOTD, very honest and fair even when he talks about Newcastle United.’

‘There are very few players who can get into the ‘Legend’ status. But he is surely one of them, whenever you pick your ‘best prem team of all time’ he will always be in the running for everyone. Always had (and has) time for fans and understood what it meant to be one.’

‘One of the best centre forwards, we have ever produced. His goal scoring exploits are amazing considering he played for average teams for large chunks of his career and the serious injuries that he suffered as well. A definite choice for my all time England XI.’


Five great moments
A brilliant and unstoppable 30-yard netbuster volley:

Another 30-yarder, maybe his best for Blackburn:

Is there anything better in football than a nuclear-powered diving header?

THAT game against the Netherlands. First-time strike. Bang:

What I love about this is how as a raging Roy approaches, our man just stands there expressionless, unimpressed but not giving an inch.


What now?
A Freeman of the City of Newcastle, which means he can graze his cattle on the town moor, I think, as well as being Deputy Lieutenant of Northumberland (which possibly puts him 189th in line for the throne; we could do worse for a monarch). In his retirement he has raised a huge amount of money for various charities including the NSPCC and the Bobby Robson Foundation.

Whilst a regular on MOTD every season and for tournaments, too, I do wish he’d do more radio work. At the moment he only crops up very occasionally and usually on big occasions. If you have not heard his work with Ian Dennis on Liverpool 4 Barcelona 0 it is the very essence of brilliant co-commentary broadcasting. Superb. I listen to this regularly, the way you do with any hit single.

Listen to the crowd. That is the life and soul of football. That is what it is ALL about. That is its reason to exist. That is why it all feels devoid of soul without it.

I once had the pleasure of doing a TV show with Alan and can confirm Ian Dennis’s words above. He was a canny lad, unassuming and funny too.

Doing TV and charity work, add in some golf and that should fill his future days nicely. So here’s to him. One of our greatest footballers and a joybringer like few others. Howay the lad.

John Nicholson