The ultimate lingering negative image of Newcastle in black and white last season was of an agonised Alan Shearer throwing up his hands in sheer frustration on FA Cup final day. The only support he enjoyed that afternoon was from the ranks of the Toon Army massed at the Tunnel End. Not that it was anything new to the England captain. He spent the final four months of last season, after recovering from ankle ligament damage, foraging in increasing isolation for his club.
Try as they did, Jon Dahl Tomasson, Andreas Andersson, Temuri Ketsbaia and John Barnes were simply not up to the task of partnering Newcastle's striking pounds 15m asset. Thus, as the World Cup was about to kick off, Newcastle turned to Stephane Guivarc'h. His pounds 3.5m transfer from Auxerre was rushed through for fear that the asking price would be doubled if he emerged as a shooting star of France 98. Newcastle need not have worried.
Though Guivarc'h ended the tournament with a winners' medal around his neck he did not have a World Cup goal to carry with him to Newcastle. In six games as the main striker for the victorious hosts, the 27-year- old failed to strike once - posing the obvious question of whether Shearer will continue to be shorn of adequate attacking support in the season which starts for him, for Guivarc'h and for Newcastle, with a home game against Charlton Athletic next Saturday.
Only time will tell, of course, but for the time being Kenny Dalglish is defending his acquisition. "When was the last time we had a World Cup winner at this club?" the Newcastle manager retorted when Guivarc'h's ability was questioned at the club's first pre-season press conference. "And when did we last have a striker score 60 league goals in two seasons?"
The answer to the former is 1992, though Osvaldo Ardiles, like Jack Charlton before him, was a World Cup winner who managed rather than played for Newcastle United. The answer to the latter is 1927, when Hughie Gallacher shot Newcastle to their most recent top-division title, though it might be pointed out that Dalglish is not the first manager of the Magpies to buy someone who plundered more than 60 league goals in the preceding two seasons. It is only two years since Kevin Keegan put the black and white bank on Alan Shearer.
The big risk Shearer envisaged, as he made his pounds 15m return to Tyneside, was one of overcrowding in attack. Keegan told him he wanted to play him alongside Les Ferdinand, Faustino Asprilla, Peter Beardsley and David Ginola in an attacking quintet. It is rather different for Shearer, and for Newcastle, now. Ferdinand, Asprilla, Beardsley and Ginola have all gone - and Tomasson too. It is now up to Guivarc'h to prove himself as a suitable foil for Shearer. He knows it too.
"We are similar players, but one of us will have to play off the other, " he said last week before his debut in a friendly in Ireland ended through injury after 11 minutes (perhaps Shearer benefited from the freedom, going on to score a hat-trick). "He is the man in possession, so it will have to be me creating chances for him." There are those, however, who foresee a clash of styles. Guy Roux, Guivarc'h's coach at Auxerre, told him to sign for Deportivo La Coruna instead. "I think he's made a very bad choice," Roux said. "Stephane has been very badly advised. When your name is Guivarc'h you don't go to a club where Alan Shearer plays."
Shearer has struggles of his own to resolve in the season ahead. He has not been his dynamic best since his fateful pre-season slip in the Umbro tournament at Goodison Park last summer. In 17 Premiership appearances in 1998, two as a substitute, he has scored just twice. He has also been a troubled figure, not least on the April night his right boot came into contact with the head of Leicester City's Neil Lennon at Filbert Street.
And his form for England in France this summer was not as striking as that of the young man who is threatening to supplant him as the nation's number one front man. As his 28th birthday beckons, just four days hence, Shearer is seeking to restore his previously unquestioned reputation.
He is also seeking to forge the kind of harmonious playing partnership he has not always enjoyed in his career. In his early days at Southampton he did not relish a system geared towards the strengths of Matthew Le Tissier and Rod Wallace. And at Blackburn, while he was at his most prolific alongside Chris Sutton, he preferred to attack in tandem with the more amenable Mike Newell. Even in his successful first season at Newcastle, when he and Les Ferdinand plundered 49 goals between them, he was not comfortable with their working relationship. "It was not a natural combination," he said.
It was not so much unnatural as uncomplimentary towards Shearer's favoured modus oper-andi as a main striker with room to manoeuvre, a target man with a partner in slightly detached support. He has been happiest for club when the faithful Newell filled the more deep-lying striking role at Blackburn and for country when Teddy Sheringham has done the same. He does not like his particular style to be cramped, though on the night England's World Cup challenge ground to a halt there were clear signs that his working style was the one doing the cramping, at the expense of Michael Owen's.
St Etienne, however, is in the past. It is the immediate future at St James' Park that concerns Alan Shearer now - a future with a French World Cup winner as his closest work-mate. Once upon a time it was Shearer and Sutton: the SAS. Now it is Shearer and Guivarc'h. SAG does have a certain ring to it, though not, it has to be said, a resoundingly uplifting one for the Magpies of St James'.Reuse content