Football: Dangerous liaison in the making

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The Independent Online
Well, will they, or won't they, hit it off? As we await the answer, starting at the Riverside today, their liaison has become reminiscent of two Lonely Hearts' announcements. You know the kind of thing...

I'm Alan: I'm 28, a millionaire, well-travelled, but at heart I'm a home-loving boy. Enjoy McDonald's, and my own space. GSOH, but don't always show it. WLTM someone from the Newcastle area who may be a little withdrawn, but must be unselfish and enjoy a less dominating role than may be used to, for mutually satisfying relationship.

I'm Duncan: I'm from Stirling and possess deceptive power from a slender physique. At only 26, I still have many goals in life, but my critics claim I score too few of them. I'm a pigeon-fancier, and also pigeon-holed as a human davit. I like to use my head, but have been known to lose it, although I'm now reformed. Enjoy spending my days by the river, particularly the Clyde, the Mersey and now the Tyne. I'm particularly affectionate and was once particularly fond of the Glasgow kiss. WLTM someone to complement my aerial prowess.

The problem is, this isn't just boy meets girl to which Ruud Gullit is playing cupid, with the possible conclusion merely heartbreak. It is a pounds 23m conundrum, which will come under minute scrutiny, and which could either culminate in a regalvanised Newcastle, or a seriously disenchanted Alan Shearer.

It largely depends on whether Shearer's goal supply line turns into a gusher or is ruptured by the acquisition of a player who remains an enigma; a striker cherished by the Goodison faithful he left behind, yet, as a goalscorer, he could hardly be regarded as prolific with a record of less than one every three games.

At first inspection, it appears to be as perverse a pairing as Sir Clive Sinclair announcing his engagement to a lap-dancer. But there are arguments to suggest that the duo will read off the same score and sing to a victory tune, composed by an increasingly disillusioned Toon Army. Evidently, the England captain, who has a fitness test before today's game at Middlesbrough after struggling to recover from a hamstring injury, has had no misgivings. Indeed, it is said that Shearer was Ferguson's principal advocate when the issue of a new forward was broached by Gullit.

Mike Newell, the partner with whom Shearer himself has always asserted he was at his most comfortable, contends: "They will know early on whether it's going to work. If it doesn't, there might be a problem later on. But Alan's always done well when he's had a big striker up front with him, whether it's Chris Sutton at Blackburn, or Teddy Sheringham for England. People have criticised Duncan Ferguson in the past for not scoring enough goals, but his aerial threat will take a lot of work off Alan's shoulders. I really would expect them to flourish together."

Newell, now at 33 with the Scottish Premier side Aberdeen, is confident that the pair will complement, not conflict. "Duncan's such a threat in the air that Alan will feed off him and pick up the pieces. On his day Ferguson's frightening. I've seen it in the Merseyside derbies. You know in the first five minutes whether he's up for the game. When he is, there's no centre-half in the country can live with him and I don't think he's reached his peak yet."

It is an interesting counter- opinion to those sceptics who suggest that, when it comes to consistent goalscoring, the Scot would be better employed on an allotment, supporting runner-beans rather than as a Premiership front-runner, and that the England captain is too particular in his demands of the man alongside who must supplement his insatiable appetite for goals.

Newell, who was at Blackburn with Shearer during years which included the championship-winning season of 1994-95, is an expert witness. In the Liverpudlian, Shearer found a foil with timing as perfect as Wise was to Morecambe. "He [Newell] was the ideal striking partner, so unselfish and willing to cover every blade of grass," says Shearer. "He worked his socks off for the team, and sometimes gave the impression that he'd rather lay on goals for me than score them himself."

Significantly, the man who cost Newcastle pounds 15m when he joined them from Blackburn in July 1992, adds: "He had to change his way of playing when I arrived. He was an out-and-out striker like me but Kenny [Dalglish] and Ray [Harford] asked him to play a bit deeper and he adjusted his game without complaint. He was a big reason for my success."

It is difficult to imagine Ferguson being quite so obliging, but Newell insists that will not be a problem. "I've always maintained it's easy to play with players as good as Alan. People used to say to him, 'Oh, Mike works hard, it must be good to play alongside him', but although it sounds strange Alan is under-rated in the sense that people don't realise how hard he works, particularly in those early years at Blackburn when he was at his peak, although that's not to say he's over the hill now.

"Alan's got the selfishness you need to be a top striker, and can score 25-30 goals a season, but he's a team man. He's not a Gary Lineker. He's quite capable of heading balls out of defence, if required, or whipping a good ball in from wide right as well as any winger, but he's happier working down the middle and people knocking in crosses."

The Blackburn vacancy provoked whispers that Shearer might consider a player-manager role sooner rather than later, but Newell, who used to room with Shearer and has remained one of his closest friends, says such claims are premature. "He's definitely very keen, but there's no rush for him. He can pick his time can't he? I think he wants to concentrate fully on his playing career for the next couple of years. He's desperate to win things.

"He wants to win championships and be involved in the European Champions' League. But he's got his head firmly fixed on his shoulders and in a few years he'll be an ideal candidate for a manager's job. He was always mature, wasn't he? He was always 23, going on 40, so he'll definitely be ready for it."

Newell also has ideas in that direction. "I might be with him. You never know. We speak most days. We get on very well together."

Shearer and Newell. Some strike force. Maybe some day, some management team?