Football: Shearer ponders uncertain future

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The Independent Online
Southampton 2 Newcastle United 1

WHEN the final whistle went he shook hands with his markers then walked, towards the supporters who had once idolised but now abused him, to shake the hands that had denied him.

Having recognised Paul Jones' efforts in goal, Alan Shearer turned away from the baying Archers Road End, acknowledged the Newcastle fans to the side, then headed towards the tunnel. Moving with typically single-minded purpose he caught up with the stewards who guarded the match officials, glided between them as he does defenders, and found himself alongside the referee's assistant whose sharp-eyed observation had cost Newcastle Saturday's game. Shearer began to administer a few observations of his own but, before he could talk himself into trouble, Kenny Dalglish appeared to lead him gently away.

These are unhappy times for the England captain, despite the truth of last week's assertion that this could be his best season as Newcastle can win the FA Cup and England the global prize.

Such a double is possible, but no more so than the once unthinkable prospect of Newcastle being relegated. They may still be four points clear of the relegation zone, but the poverty of their form is only eclipsed by doomed Crystal Palace.

It seemed so different 10 weeks ago when Shearer returned to cheers of joy and relief against Bolton at St James' Park. Within minutes of coming on as a substitute he had set up Newcastle's first Premiership win for eight matches. Now, said pundits and fans alike, Newcastle, still in the top 10, would revive their challenge for Europe.

The messiah's magic has so far proved illusory. In eight League games since then Shearer has scored once, in a losing game, and Newcastle have won once, making it two wins in 17 with 11 points collected from the last 51. Events off the field have only added to the sense of siege and crisis.

Most damning of all is United's goal tally, just 28 in 30 League games, a figure only worsted by Palace. You would travel the length of the country to watch Kevin Keegan's Newcastle. It is an effort even to turn the television on to see the Dalglish version.

As Shearer walked off with Dalglish, what was he thinking? This was the man who persuaded him to lead then-unfashionable Blackburn's successful assault on the title and who said that Shearer was the type of man you would like your daughter to bring home. But could Shearer's loyalty include playing in the Nationwide League? No, not even for Newcastle.

When Dalglish succeeded Keegan, Shearer, whose decision to leave Rovers was partly prompted by Dalglish's withdrawal from management, would have been delighted. Now he must be wondering. While it must have been frustrating, as a striker, watching your goals at one end being undermined by mistakes at the other, it is far more galling not being given the opportunity to score in the first place.

Once Shearer led the line with Les Ferdinand in partnership, Peter Beardsley in midfield and David Ginola and Keith Gillespie on the wings. Full-backs eagerly joined the attack and Philippe Albert saw himself as an auxiliary forward. All were present in the 5-0 demolition of Manchester United.

Now Shearer battles away on his own. The hapless Jan-Dahl Tomasson and the wayward Gillespie provided fleeting moments of support but there was no one to share the bruises, meet the flick-ons and draw the markers. Others made occasional forays forward but never en masse, while there was barely a cross worthy of mention.

Ronaldo would struggle to score for this side and Newcastle only found the net because Jason Dodd gifted Rob Lee a goal with an inane back-pass. That said, the visitors did create a few chances, as might be expected against a defence that cost pounds 600,000 in total. There were four weak efforts from 20 yards or more, the most powerful by Shearer, and two inside the box, one from Shearer's nod-down which was wasted by Tomasson. The other was a snap-shot on the turn by Shearer, who reacted first to another mis- hit Gillespie shot. It brought a magnificent save from Jones which both managers felt turned the match.

At this point Southampton, despite the presence of Matt Le Tissier and a muscular twin-strike force, had created little themselves. David Hirst had skimmed the bar and Egil Ostenstad had a "goal", made by a delightful Le Tissier flick, disallowed for offside, but Shay Given had not made a save.

Unfortunately for Newcastle, he never did. While a fine shot-stopper, he is weak in the air and Southampton, always threatening from crosses, now gained two goals from melees following corners. In the first Stuart Pearce put into his own net, from the second the referee's assistant spotted Aaron Hughes handling Le Tissier's scoop on the line. Le Tissier promptly converted his 46th penalty in 47 attempts and Southampton gained a somewhat undeserved victory.

In six trips to The Dell since he left for Blackburn Shearer is yet to finish on the winning side. Le Tissier, incidentally, has scored in five of those matches and Shearer once.

Shearer, of course, has gone on to the greater success, it is he who will be in France this summer. Encouragingly for Glenn Hoddle there were signs, even in this barren performance, of his sharpness returning. The shot which Jones saved was one example but he also won everything in the air and looked hungry, if isolated and frustrated, throughout.

Including internationals and FA Cup ties, he has now made 14 appearances since his injury, three as substitute. If his goal return has not met expectations (five, but three against Stevenage and one against Tranmere) that, to judge from events in Berne and Southampton this week, has as much to do with the people around him as himself. The task, for Hoddle and Dalglish, is to ensure his massive talents are not wasted.

Goals: Lee (47) 0-1; Pearce og (69) 1-1; Le Tissier pen (86) 1-2.

Southampton (4-3-1-2): Jones; Dodd, Lundekvam, Dryden, Benali; Palmer, Oakley (Richardson, 70), Beresford; Le Tissier (Basham, 88); Hirst, Ostenstad. Substitutes not used: Johansen, Gibbens, Moss (gk).

Newcastle United (4-3-2-1): Given; Hughes, Peacock, Pearce, Pistone; Lee (Hamilton, 57), Dabizas, Barnes; Tomasson, Gillespie (Ketsbaia); Shearer. Substitutes not used: Albert, Rush, Srnicek (gk).

Referee: G Barber (Woking). Booked: Southampton: Palmer, Oakley, Lundekvam, Le Tissier. Newcastle: Pistone.

Man of the match: Jones.

Attendance: 15,251.

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