Football: Toon Army shirts are still on Shearer

As critics cast doubt on lasting value of nation's talisman, the home front state case for the defence

THERE WAS standing room only in The Queen Vic, and precious little of that. "How man, what the hell are you playing at?" someone in the throng demanded as one ambitious soul attempted to make his way from the door to the bar. "I'm trying to get a drink," came the reply. "This is a pub, you know."

Not that you would have noticed. Every other back was turned on the bar and the two temporarily unemployed barwomen. "What's the score, anyway?" the new arrival asked. "Nowts apiece," he was informed. "Bloody hell!" he exclaimed. "I thought they'd be 4-0 down by now."

It was a backs to the bar job in The Queen Vic, in the north-western corner of the shopping empire Sir John Hall built on an old slag heap at Gateshead - the MetroCentre. But in the Stadio Olimpico in the heart of the empire the Romans built it was no backs to the wall exercise for Bobby Robson's boys on Thursday night.

"Get in!" was the collective cry as the half-time whistle sounded and the barracks- confined members of the Toon Army turned away from the giant screen, with military parade-ground precision, and proceeded to besiege the bar. The feared Roman slaughter had failed to materialise. Newcastle United were half-way to a famous moral victory against AS Roma - Totti, Delvecchio, Cafu, Aldair and Co.

"Fucking brilliant!" Dave from Dunston said, licking the fresh-pint froth on his moustache. "That Bobby Lee! What a star ! And Gullit, the twat, wouldn't even give him a number."

Dave happened to have a number on the back of his black and white shirt - a big black 9, plus the name "SHEARER". "Those Watford fans giving Shearer that stick," he said. "A disgrace. I mean... Watford! Just look at him there tonight, man. Nay support. He's up there on his own. But he's battled for everything, chased everything, and stuck in. The man's class, man."

The wider world might be screaming that Alan Shearer has been shorn of his class, but not the world within Tyneside. "Service," Dave said. "That's all he needs. I mean he got none against Scotland, did he ? And the rest of the team were shite."

The England captain did get one big chance served on a plate at Wembley. Like the half-decent opening that came his way in the second half on Thursday, he failed to make the most of it. But the Queen Vic crowd didn't deride him for it. "Shee-raa! Shee-raa!" they chanted. And it was the same at the final whistle as Newcastle's totemic team leader left the field, bare- chested, saluting the 1,000 Geordies who had made the trip to Rome.

"It was never a penalty," the shaven-headed young man in front of us said. "But we'll stuff the bastards over here." That much remains to be seen - and open to considerable doubt. Leeds United were rather pleased to gain the same result, a 1-0 defeat, in the first leg of their Uefa Cup second-round tie against Roma last year. They were rather flattered, however, by the goalless outcome of the one-sided second leg at Elland Road.

If one thing is beyond doubt, though, it is that Shearer will be showered with hero-worship when Roma play the return leg on Tyneside on 9 December. It will be the same this afternoon, when Tottenham and David Ginola come to the Toon. Daveed has done some daft things in his time, such as diving at the feet of Kenny Dalglish when the new Newcastle boss took part in his first six-a-side match in training, and hitching a ride on the Shearer- bashing bandwagon four days before returning to Tyneside was a not a very clever move.

"Shearer is now playing on his name," Ginola told the Oxford Union on Wednesday night. And the name of his former team-mate is sure to be ringing in his ears this afternoon - in between the deafening abuse directed towards the vertically challenged Frenchman.

You might find the odd mildly disloyal Toon Army member who will shout "Shee-raa" and then, in similar fashion to the likely lads behind the counter in the McDonald's ad, quietly whisper: "Well, he's not quite the same as he was before that ankle injury." But, make no mistake about it, the Gallowgate mob would readily string up anyone who openly dared to doubt the man who has assumed Kevin Keegan's messiah mantle on Tyneside.

It was the present England coach, of course, who paraded Shearer like a pounds 15m trophy at St James' Park on the eve of the 1996-97 season. The Geordie sheet-metal worker's son was not, it soon transpired, the ultimate cornerstone in the Newcastle United empire Keegan and Sir John Hall built between them. For one thing, they missed the supporting foundations Shearer himself required and, three-and-a-half years down the line, the trophy cabinet at St James' remains conspicuously bare.

Shearer, it has to be said, is not as sharp as he was before he ripped his ankle ligaments at Goodison Park in July 1997. But, as those who follow Newcastle United will tell you, he has been back to something approaching his best in the new Robson regime. His form has, admittedly, dipped in recent weeks. But it has done so in the absence of Kieron Dyer.

Shearer, significantly, has looked a different player with Dyer in the Newcastle team. It has surely been no coincidence. After three and half years of inadequate support - Tomasson, Guiv'arch, Ketsbaia, Maric - Shearer finally has a colleague who can clearly bring out the best in him. He also has a boss who believes in him.

Bobby Robson is no bad judge of a player and it should not be dismissed lightly that the veteran manager visibly sparkles with admiration when talking about his captain. Shearer's detractors, for instance, would have dismissed his Thursday-night shift as another indifferent day at the office. Not Robson. "The fellow was superb," he said. "He battered away all night, without much support or protection. It was the perfect performance of a traditional English centre-forward."

And Robson has been around long enough to appreciate traditional English centre-forward play. "I was an Alan Shearer fan long before I had the pleasure of working with him," he said earlier this month, "and my admiration for the man grows daily. In the words of the song, he's simply the best."

There are more than a few people around the country who would dispute that. But, at 29, and with 12 Premiership goals to his name in a struggling side this season, the man for whom Kevin Keegan paid pounds 15m is not past his sell-by date yet.

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