"Would you mind," he said, "telling me who those critics are? Because I simply can't agree with them. I believe that Alan's moral fibre is great enough to have enabled him to overcome an injury that would have prejudiced the future of any ordinary player. It's been a battle to get his edge back, but his moral edge has never deteriorated. I'm sure that within the fabric of his being, that's what he believes. And no one is a better judge of that than himself, because he's hypercritical of his own performance."
At 28, Alan Shearer should by rights be entering a striker's prime. But as he prepares to lead England out against Poland at Wembley today, there is a widespread fear that his performances will never again equal those that were bringing him an average of almost a goal a game in the Premier League when injury cut him down in the summer of 1997.
It was during an Umbro Trophy match against Chelsea that he tried to play a pass to Jon Dahl Tomasson, stretched for a ball that skidded away on the wet Goodison Park pitch, and caught his studs in the thick summer turf. He ruptured the ligaments on both sides of his left ankle, chipped a bone and displaced the joint in the process, and also fractured the fibula. He was out of action for 172 days, returning two months ahead of the doctors' schedule. And between January and June 1998 he worked and played himself back into sufficient form and fitness to lead his country into the World Cup finals.
It was then that the doubts were first voiced. His header from Graeme Le Saux's free-kick got England off to a good start in their first match, a 2-0 win over Tunisia, but his contributions to the defeat by Romania and the victory over Colombia were anonymous. His penalty levelled the scores early in the fateful second-round meeting with Argentina, but Beckham's dismissal forced him to drop into the right-back position, shoring up the rearguard before stepping up to convert the first penalty kick in the climactic shoot-out. But in a tournament he hoped to dominate, he had been overshadowed by Michael Owen, almost 10 years his junior.
Since then, despite the odd flicker, his form has showed few signs of genuine revival. Just 10 goals in 24 Premier League games do not represent the level of performance expected from a pounds 15m scoring machine - particularly when six of those goals came in three matches against relatively soft opposition as long ago as September. And against France at Wembley last month, he could get no change at all from the world champions' defence.
Reunited under England's colours with Kevin Keegan, who took him to St James' Park in 1996 as "a gift to the people of Newcastle", Shearer has trained this week with a definite light in his eye. "His enthusiasm rubs off on everyone," he said of Keegan yesterday. But encouraging words do not by themselves erase the memory of lacklustre displays, and there are those who feel that this season's sluggishness is a legacy of illness and injury going back several years. On Boxing Day 1992 he snapped the cruciate ligament in his right knee in a tackle with Chris Fairclough of Leeds United, costing him half the season. His annus mirabilis, 1994- 95, when he played in all Blackburn's 42 league matches, scored 34 goals, won the championship and was named the players' player of the year, came after his pre-season preparation had been wiped out by a viral infection. In 1996 and 1997 he required three separate operations to repair a series of groin injuries caused initially by the tremendous torque transferred by the turning effect of his unusually powerful thighs. And then came that dreadful moment in a meaningless match at Goodison Park.
Those who have worked closely with Shearer, starting with the effusive Jack Hixon and ending with Keegan, are struck by the player's psychological resilience. Typical of them is Dave Merrington, who was Southampton's youth manager when Shearer arrived at The Dell and now coaches Leeds United's Under-19 squad. Merrington scorns the notion that such a catalogue of injuries has eroded Shearer's powers. "Mentally, it won't bother him at all," Merrington said. "He's never let an injury get in the way of his single-mindedness. As time goes by, of course, injuries like that can have a certain effect. But if you're a good enough player, and you're mentally as strong as Alan is, you adjust."
One former England centre-forward who can empathise with Shearer's injury problems is Mark Hateley, who was 28, the age that Shearer is now, when he lost 18 months of his career while having carbon fibre knee ligaments inserted after an incident while playing for Monaco. Hateley remembers it as "pretty traumatic - but I always looked at the time I lost as time that would be added on to the end of my career. And in my view Alan isn't even in his prime yet. At 29, 30, 31 and 32 I was at my strongest and having my best years. When you're recovering from an injury, it might mean that you have to emphasise a different aspect of your game until all your powers come back - and that can make you an even better player. Whatever Alan may have lost, he's also become stronger."
Merrington, too, believes that the best may be yet to come. "Alan is coming into that golden time that very few players are able to enjoy, when they're at the top of the tree and they can be independent in their thinking," he said. "Players like that need to be able to express their ideas and opinions within the team. He's probably got a very good relationship with Kevin Keegan, who wants his team to express themselves off the pitch as well as on it. I'm sure he'll be bouncing ideas off Alan, and that Alan will respond."
Shearer was a ball-boy at St James' Park on the day Keegan played his last game for Newcastle. "When the match was over," he remembered this week, "a helicopter came down to whisk him off and I remember looking up and thinking: `I'll never see his like again.'"
Years later, in the foreword to Shearer's autobiography, Keegan described the man he had brought back to Newcastle as "the outstanding English player of his era by a mile". Keegan also remarked that Arthur Cox, his faithful lieutenant, had pointed out the similarities between the two of them. "He's just like you," Cox had said. "He's got a mind of his own, and it's a strong one."
Yet the true cost of that injury to the ankle and fibula can be gauged by the fact that since his recovery Shearer has no longer been viewed as a candidate for a big move to Italy or Spain, something that he once used to speak of as an enjoyable prospect for the later years of his career. Nowadays it is the Anelkas and Shevchenkos, much younger men, who are attracting the interest of the super-rich clubs of Milan, Turin, Barcelona and Madrid. A certain sensitivity to his current status was evident yesterday in his swift response when he was asked whether he looked forward to increasing his scoring rate for the national team. "I've scored consistently for the national XI anyway," he said with a level gaze at his questioner. "I've got a record of 12 goals in 18 games as captain." Poland, he said, are certain to deploy two man-markers and a sweeper to counter his new partnership with Andy Cole. "That's what they've always done in the past," he said, "but we've always managed to score against them."
He and Cole, he pointed out, had only played together twice, when Cole came on a substitute against France and in a testimonial. "We haven't discussed anything, but we've both been around, and we know each other's game. There are certainly goals there. Time will tell."
England's attacking players have spent a considerable amount of time this week practising crosses from both wings, and Shearer was eager to join the queue to praise David Beckham's service from the right. "He's the best crosser of the ball I've ever seen," he said. "He's not blessed with tremendous pace, but he shifts it a yard and whips it in. That's very difficult to deal with. It enables the strikers to gamble, because you know that eight times out of nine it's going to come in. I just hope and pray that someone's on the end of them. I hope it's me, but if it's someone else, great."
Better, perhaps, that it should be him. Facing a vital match under new management, a patched-up England need the leadership of an inspirational striker. Just over two years ago, Shearer wore the captain's armband at Wembley for the first time and scored the two goals that wrested back the initiative from today's opponents. "Alan is a manager's dream," Dave Merrington said yesterday. And it would not be too much of an exaggeration to suggest that the manager's dreams are in Shearer's hands.
SHEARER'S RECORD FOR CLUB AND COUNTRY
Season *League League *England England
apps goals apps goals
1998-99 (Newcastle) 25 10 4 2
1997-98 (Newcastle) 17 2 8 4
1996-97 (Newcastle) 31 25 7 6
1995-96 (Blackburn) 35 31 12 5
1994-95 (Blackburn) 42 34 6 2
1993-94 (Blackburn) 40 31 4 1
1992-93 (Blackburn) 21 16 3 1
1991-92 (Southampton) 41 13 3 1
1990-91 (Southampton) 36 4 - -
1989-90 (Southampton) 26 3 - -
1988-89 (Southampton) 10 0 - -
1987-88 (Southampton) 5 3 - -
Totals 329 172 47 22
* Includes substitute appearancesReuse content