James Lawton: Et tu, Alan? Shearer's coy prevarication starts to colour a black-and-white issue
Tuesday 22 January 2008
Having just about exhausted all potential for self-parody, the affairs of Newcastle United now offer up one last question, though maybe it needs to be said straight away that even this one is getting a little threadbare. However, all those millions who caught Alan Shearer's performance on Match of the Day at the weekend are bound to ask it.
They have to wonder whether Shearer, long respected as one of the best pros ever to represent his old club and his country, is seriously concerned about the immediate future of the Newcastle he professes to love so dearly – or is he simply playing along, milking, pretty cloyingly on the most recent evidence, its potential for self-enhancement.
Right now Shearer is a key actor without a part except, for all we know, the one of dubiously positioned cheerleader of Newcastle's lunge back to Kevin Keegan.
He is up for all kinds of badinage with his television mates Gary Lineker and Alan Hansen when they jokily quiz him about where he stands and he is plainly good for any number of testimonials as to the bold spirit of his old and possibly new boss.
Kev, Shearer declares, his eyes crinkling with amusement, will bring sure-fire excitement to St James' Park and he certainly won't worry about conceding goals. As this would, at any stage in the history of the game, constitute a charge of outright football illiteracy, another question springs to mind: is Shearer currently Keegan's Boswell – or his Brutus?
How pleased would he have been as a hard-grafting striker attempting to do the most difficult thing in football, namely score a goal against a defence which someone had taken the trouble to organise, to see each moment of triumph sluiced away down the porous terrain behind him?
Such passing issues have so far not been covered by a Shearer soundbite. But then what has? Even Lineker bridled under his disingenuous declaration that so far he hadn't really thought about the possibility of linking up with Keegan as his No 2, perhaps as an enforcer of professional standards or at the very least someone anxious to acquire a little on-the-job training.
According to Keegan, the man Shearer has, sort of, endorsed, working around the place, or somewhere in football, before the moment of coronation is far from essential. In one of the more outlandish statements emanating from the North-east in the last few days, Keegan told us: "Alan Shearer is going to manage the club one day, that's for sure. It's the same as when I left here as a player, I knew I would be back as a manger if I wanted. That's what I told Alan when I spoke to him ages ago. I said, 'Don't worry, Alan, go and play golf, play with the kids, I was in Marbella for six or seven years, do what you want, it will come back to you'."
This, of course, says most about Newcastle's criteria for selecting a manager. You might say there are enough examples of great players who became great managers without doing what most great managers have done. OK, let's name them. Kenny Dalglish won titles at Liverpool and Blackburn, but then his mentors had included Jock Stein and Bob Paisley, and at Anfield Dalglish inhaled success without serious interruption. Shearer cannot claim this. He won one Premiership title under Dalglish at Blackburn. His only other honours were personal and those that come to an outstanding professional ready to declare his talent, and commitment, in even the most unpromising circumstances.
Let's briefly trace the post-war history of English football and find those managers who had the greatest success while adhering to Keegan's theory of accumulated strength through relaxation.
Right, let's move on. You do not dip into football management whenever you choose. You learn it, you suffer it.
You do as Brian Clough did in Hartlepool and Bill Shankly in places like Carlisle and Workington, Grimsby and Huddersfield. You want it so much the taste of it is always in your mouth. You cannot wait to get involved. Sir Alex Ferguson did it for East Stirlingshire and St Mirren before launching himself to Manchester United with a body of work at Aberdeen which would have stood comfortably and impressively on its own.
Yes, times, and opportunities, change. Who could argue with the wisdom of a Lineker or a Hansen in eschewing the agonies of management? Lineker was candid about his lack of ambition in this area. He saw the likes of Ferguson railing against the heavens on some tumultuous touchline and decided it was not for him.
The point is, though, he did decide. He was not coy about his ambitions. Shearer can say that it is a free country which bestows the right to retain your options. But sometimes a situation can come along which requires you to make a stance and decide who and what you are. For some time Shearer has been the lion of Newcastle, the man who sooner or later would rally to the cause. Like so much of the aura of the club, it may be so much romantic claptrap, but this is perhaps the time for him to declare it as such and get on with his life precisely as he chooses.
For the moment one thing is certain. Sitting on the fence may be good for career calculations, but it is no place for a hero.
No sound of silence for Munich a damning indictment
There is, it has to be said, a certain amount of bleak wisdom in the Football Association's decision to refrain from a minute's silence when England play Switzerland at Wembley on the 50th anniversary of the Munich tragedy.
The idea of such a tribute to the great team of Manchester United which perished in the aircrash – along with three key members of the national team in Duncan Edwards, Roger Byrne and Tommy Taylor – being defaced by even a hint of disrespect is, after all unthinkable. However, it would perhaps not have been the position here but for attendance at Anfield on the day when an ambulance bearing the Manchester United player Alan Smith, who had broken his leg, was obstructed by a bunch of louts.
In itself that was appalling enough, but it was something that happened an hour or two before which brought the ultimate despair.
A group of Liverpool fans was standing in silence before the candlelit memorial to those who lost their lives in Hillsborough when a group of United fans, heavily flanked by police, walked by. Almost to a man, and a woman, those around the memorial turned and yelled various obscenities before lapsing into the chant of "Munich scum".
The reward for expressing shock at this incident was to be lectured on one's ignorance of the subtext of the tribal passion which goes into football support in the 21st century. What had been seen and heard was not a Doomsday statement but a healthy example of vital communal rivalry and pride.
Some subtext. Where else could it have been written but in hell?
Belichick's total control creates robots, not true Patriots
Now, we are being told from America, it is official. Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots is the greatest gridiron football coach of all time after leading his all-winning team to a place in the Super Bowl.
Belichick is a wonder of organisation and motivation, even when his team are misfiring as badly as they apparently were against the San Diego Chargers at the weekend. Belichick, the cool head on the touchline, earned the ultimate tribute. He got the job done. However, it is hard to buy the idea that he is greatest coach of all time when stumbling against one of the less glorious lines in the Belichick CV. It concerns a $500,000 (£250,000) fine for illegal videotaping during a game with the New York Jets.
Illegal videotaping... what the hell is that? You may well ask. It is filming the coded hand signals of the opposition coaching staff. It is intelligence-gathering which the authorities, rightly you have to believe, consider to go beyond legitimate game-planning.
There can, surely, be only two serious reactions. One is that Belichick is not the greatest coach but the most desperately depressing control freak American football has ever seen. The other is that any sport which is so utterly programmed by its coaches simply lacks the true essence of great sport, which is, of course, brilliant spontaneity and character under pressure.
Belichick's star quarterback is Tom Brady. He's a fine player but mightn't he just as well be a robotic refugee from Dr Who?
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