Football: Shearer the man with the golden fleece: Owen Slot on the pressures and problems which are part of the deal if you become the most expensive footballer in Britain

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The Independent Online
WHILE Ian Branfoot played the salesman, while transfer speculation went into pre-season turbo and even after Jack Walker's chequebook had given wholesome proof of its extraordinarily elastic nature, Alan Shearer, the young man who could have caught quite a reasonable tan under the unerring media spotlight, has remained sure of one thing: that the pressure would not get to him.

It is others, he says, that have made him a pounds 3.6m man and, in the same shake of the hands, the most expensive player in British domestic football. He has said it time and time again, the evaluation was not his own, the fee and the 'most expensive player' tag will not be a millstone round his neck.

No signs of any millstones yet: all we have seen is a free spirit, the pearl in Blackburn Rovers' crown, already with three goals to his name in two games - and he has not even started scoring from inside the box. But if the goals dry up - and, let's face it, they cannot go on like this - the price on his head will work strongly against him. People will be asking for the same head in return.

It happened to Dean Saunders. The man who Shearer displaced as the most expensive British signing had been at Anfield for just four months before there was talk of another move. And it certainly had not taken that long for certain sections of the media to close in for a hatchet-job dismissal. But after four months and just two League goals, a transfer to Forest was mooted, and from there on, the player's future rarely seemed settled. The expectation is quite simply enormous. Your manager expects, your club- mates expect, the supporters expect and the media expect a story, whether you hit or miss the goal.

On Tuesday night, still in the first half, Shearer went for goal; his shot landed in a sea of Arsenal supporters, and the chants went up: 'What a waste of money.' It had not taken long. Trevor Francis, the first million-pound transfer in British football, remembers the same thing on his debut for Nottingham Forest, at Ipswich. 'It's not easy trying to live up to being a million-pound player when the whole of the ground at Portman Road go into a chorus of 'What a waste of money'. It's not too pleasant.'

Francis remembers his biggest problem being the opposition supporters. 'The only other doubts I had were whether I'd get in the first team,' he says. Easy to joke now. An undoubted success at Forest, Francis still found it hard to settle: 'I was quite honoured to be the first pounds 1m footballer, but it's fair to say that being the first, there was a lot of pressure on me at the time. It wasn't made any easier playing with Brian Clough as the manager. He's a man who expects so much.'

A glut of pounds 1m transfers followed Francis ('I was quite pleased when one or two others beat my pounds 1m'), but the transfer market was going through one of its more preposterously inflated phases - only a month before Francis's pounds 1m move, the pounds 500,000 mark had been reached for the first time when West Bromwich Albion signed the Middlesbrough striker, David Mills.

Mills was by no means a record-breaking success story, injury conspiring against him in an uphill struggle to find a regular place in the first team. 'There's always pressure on big-money signings, and I think that affected him,' says Colin Addison, assistant manager at WBA at the time.

'I stress the importance of the individual,' Francis says. 'People can be helpful, people can say what they like, but it's really down to yourself. My character was always favouring me, but there are players who go in and obviously can't handle it. There are certain individuals who'll have no problem, but there are others who are going to have a bit of a suspect character; it's up to managers then to decide whether it's worth investing.'

Ron Atkinson, the manager who signed Mills for WBA, may have made a poor investment there, but, moving to Old Trafford two years later, he broke the transfer record again with an undoubtedly successful purchase, Bryan Robson for pounds 1.5m. Eight years later, United broke the record again when Gary Pallister arrived from Middlesbrough. A centre-back, Pallister did not have the burden of having to score goals and create statistics, yet he found his station within the British game an uneasy resting place.

'My first few games didn't go too well, and in no time there was talk in the papers, almost every day, about 'Pallister, the pounds 2.3m flop'. The trouble with being so expensive is that you're an easy target. The pressure piled on; I used to get away from it by going back home as much as possible. I suppose I was hiding from it.'

Pallister recalls Robson reassuring him and exchanging stories about the problems of being the transfer fee record-holder. 'He said that he didn't settle in that easily, that it takes a bit of time.'

It does not appear to have taken Shearer long. But the much-admired character traits - level- headedness, self-assurance, equability - the sort of traits Francis believes a player needs if he is to cope, are certain to be tested in time. And that is before the international merry-go-round starts again, and with it, the pressure of having to be the next Gary Lineker.