Football: Keegan tempted by early Shearer return

Newcastle United 1 West Ham United 1

After all the drama of the coming home, the sequel of the coming back is nigh. Alan Shearer's coming back all right. The pounds 15m question is: when ?

Three o'clock this Saturday, at Stamford Bridge, is the officially appointed time. Tinkering with the schedule, however, will be the temptation on Kevin Keegan's mind as the Magpies take flight at Newcastle airport this morning.

Shearer, the Newcastle manager confirmed at the weekend, is "very close" to being ready to return following the groin operation he underwent after the Premiership leaders thumped Manchester United 5-0 at St James' Park four weeks ago. He may be even closer, given the cheekbone fracture Les Ferdinand suffered at St James' Park on Saturday.

Ferdinand's enforced absence from striking duties will start with the opening leg of Newcastle's Uefa Cup third round tie with Metz tomorrow night. On the short flight across the Channel this morning the dilemma preying on Keegan's mind will be whether to face the French test without both of his England centre-forwards or to bring forward Shearer's comeback date.

Keegan, of course, has been this way before. He announced his managerial entrance on the European stage by playing Peter Beardsley two weeks ahead of schedule in Newcastle's 5-0 win in Antwerp two years ago.

Shearer, even prior to his playing partner's unfortunate break, had been asked to travel with Keegan's squad, but purely with the intention of stepping up his training. Being forced to play Steve Watson as a target man for the closing 14 minutes against West Ham will have given Keegan another reason to consider a change of mind.

Not that Watson, Newcastle's home-grown jack-of-all-positions (goalkeeper is the only first-team role he has yet to play) did a bad job. Indeed, only Ludek Miklosko's bar stopped him snatching all three points with a late header. But Keegan's last European campaign came to an end the night he was obliged to play the England Under-21 right-back of the time as a stand-in centre forward for Andy Cole in Bilbao.

It was ironic on Saturday that the Newcastle manager, having spent more than pounds 30m on strikers, had none on the bench. Paul Kitson, however, has been declared fit to travel to Metz, and Keegan will have at least one fit international forward in Faustino Asprilla.

The Colombian loose cannon, who shot down Ferencvaros in the last round, endured one of his damp-powder days on Saturday. So, for that matter, did Beardsley - until he fired the 83rd minute goal, the 200th in his League career, that denied West Ham victory.

The manner in which the Hammers clipped Newcastle's wing-backs for Keith Rowland to claim the first goal of his career did not escape Keegan's attention. The head Magpie will have much on his mind when he takes to the skies today.

Goals: Rowland (23) 0-1; Beardsley (83) 1-1.

Newcastle United (3-5-2): Srnicek; Peacock, Albert, Elliott (Beresford, 80); Gillespie (Watson, 76), Batty, Lee, Beardsley, Ginola; Ferdinand (Clark, 44), Asprilla. Substitutes not used: Barton, Hislop (gk).

West Ham United (5-3-2): Miklosko; Breacker, Potts, Bilic, Dicks, Rowland; Bishop, Moncur, Hughes; Dowie, Raducioiu (Futre, 64) Substitutes not used: Bowen, Brown, Lampard, Shilton (gk). Referee: P Danson (Leicester).

Bookings: West Ham: Rowland, Moncur, Bilic, Dicks.

Man of the match: Miklosko.

Attendance: 36,552.