James Lawton: Shearer needs no grand finale before riding into sunset

'Shearer kept saying "if I get the crosses, I'll score". I believed him'
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The likelihood that Alan Shearer the player will leave football as he arrived, which was by a side door at Southampton after rejection by his beloved Newcastle United, does nothing to lighten the meaning of his departure.

He has always been one of those characters who, while not saying much, makes a crowded room feel empty when he leaves it. You can call it what you like, gravitas, a rough, largely unspoken integrity, the overriding sense of someone who knows who and where he is, but it comes down to the same thing: Shearer, even as a teenager of serious intent, has always been a man in what is so often made to seem like a game for boys.

Managerial material? It's a no-brainer - just for as long as he might be able to suffer so many of the egos and so much of the ignorance of those who command the heights of the game from boardrooms and council chambers.

One of his greatest admirers - and a vital backer at a critical point in his career - is certainly not pained by the lack of any final fanfare. Indeed, the former England coach Terry Venables deems it strangely appropriate.

"The question of timing doesn't really come into it," he was saying this week, "because when I think of Shearer's career it puts me in mind of those old days when you would go into a cinema when a film was already running; you might pick it up halfway through and then leave the second show when you reached the bit where you came in. That never bothered you if the film was a good one.

"It's the same with Shearer; you could pick up the movie at any time and you would know you had something worth seeing. That's been true right to the end."

The Venables eulogy carries a special weight. On the issue of Shearer, the England coach was steadfastly not for moving despite a tide of media pressure before the European Championship of 1996. The heavy and relentless advice to him was that he should jettison the 25-year-old striker who had gone 11 England games without a goal.

"I knew what I was investing in," recalls Venables. "He made a tremendous impact on me right from the start. I remember leaving a game on a Saturday after being told this 17-year-old had scored a hat-trick on his debut for Southampton against Arsenal. Now you just didn't score hat-tricks against that Arsenal defence, and I thought about it all the way home. You had to know this was one strong kid."

When Shearer went into his scoring desert for England - despite a flood of goals for Premiership-winning Blackburn Rovers - Venables was required to keep his nerve. "He kept saying to me, 'if I get the crosses I'll score'. I believed him, though it wasn't quite a simple matter of saying that a natural striker never forgets how to score goals.

"The technique is always there, but sometimes the mentality of a scorer, which is so much of the story, can slip away, the confidence can erode. But I never sensed that Shearer had stopped believing in himself. His scoring mentality hadn't been touched."

There were, however, certain complications. They were named Les Ferdinand and Robbie Fowler. Ferdinand couldn't stop scoring for Newcastle and was voted the 1996 Player of the Year by the Professional Footballers' Association. For Liverpool, Robbie Fowler was proving a natural-born striker. "One of the keys for me was the fact that I wanted the main striker to work with Teddy Sheringham," added Venables. "and while I did think Fowler-Sheringham had great possibilities, Shearer was always the man."

Shearer was the top scorer and won the Golden Boot with five goals, two of them coming in the brilliant demolition of the Netherlands, a result that promised England's first major tournament success in 30 years until Gareth Southgate missed the decisive penalty in the semi-final shoot-out with the eventual champions, Germany.

Venables went into a crowded room to present the Golden Boot to Shearer, but as he was doing so he heard the news that his close friend Bobby Keetch had died suddenly. "Someone else took over the ceremonials, and I'll never forget that night ... We had all been carried so high, then put down, and then, by way of perspective, a man I loved very much was suddenly gone."

Shearer, for all his relentless ambition, has always conveyed a similar sense of a wider world. He was in Turkey before a vital European Championship qualifier when there was talk of England players striking in protest at the suspension of Rio Ferdinand after he had failed to take a drug test. His contempt and disbelief bounced off the walls of a seafront restaurant.

Freddy "Mr Newcastle" Shepherd derided Shearer as "Mary Poppins", which is just another reason to marvel at the chairman's survival as a serious figure, at least on Tyneside.

When Shearer returned home to Newcastle, and shunned Manchester United, for a second time, many said it was at best a quixotic decision. Others said it was perverse. The bottom line of it was no doubt something else, a statement that here was a man who took the world, and its values, as he saw it rather than how it was presented at any one time.

He pined for the glory which would have come by the shelf-full at Old Trafford, but for it to be ultimately meaningful it had to come in the colours of Newcastle United. Perhaps, in the end, it was enough to surpass the scoring record of Newcastle's other football god, Jackie Milburn. When he hit that 200-goal milestone it was something to be placed with the 30 goals he scored in 63 games for England - a mark that placed him alongside Tom Finney and Nat Lofthouse, the Lion of Vienna. Here was perfect symmetry.

No doubt Shearer falls this side of the angels. He has been unscrupulous on the field and, some say, self-obsessed, but then so have been most of the great players, especially if they occupy that lonely terrain in front of goal.

He has never been slow to exert the weight of his prestige, not least when it was commonly held that he had delivered an ultimatum to the FA before the 1998 World Cup finals. The belief was that Shearer had told the FA that if they took disciplinary action against him following his kicking of the Leicester player Neil Lennon they could forget about his services in France. That's one of the things about Shearer; he lets you know that if you want to take the best you better live with the rest.

Some groaned at what they considered his anodyne comments, yet Shearer has always known quite what he wanted to say: a trait that is often blessed relief when he provides some of today's television football analysis.

Perhaps he defined himself best when he moved to Blackburn Rovers for what seemed to many the staggering fee of £3.6m. He was asked about the pressure of such a price tag and he looked bemused. "What pressure?" he asked. "I didn't decide I am worth that much. Someone else did that. What I do is go out and play to the best of my ability. No one can do more that."

Say that quickly and it may seem like nothing. But then do what Venables did this week. Run the Shearer film back and forwards as much as you like and see if you can find a break. You won't. You will just see Alan Shearer's version of a John Wayne movie. It is, of course, about a man doing what a man must do and then just saddling up and riding out to the sunset.

FA bureaucracy sets England on road to ruin paved with inexperience

It's anyone's guess how many more might have joined the 95 per cent in a BBC poll who were against the appointment of Steve McClaren as England coach if they had known his Middlesbrough team were going to lose their Uefa Cup first-leg tie in Romania.

But then why probe the details of what has now become the sorriest farce? According to one calculation, members of the FA's selection committee have separate favourites in Martin O'Neill, Sam Allardyce, Alan Curbishley and Luiz Felipe Scolari. McClaren is said to be the compromise option.

Of the five FA men who have been conducting the interviews only one of them has practical field-level experience of professional and international football. This is Trevor Brooking, who apparently favours his old West Ham team-mate Curbishley.

We have to return to the basic point. In any other walk of life would such a vital decision rest with such a majority? The result is that the fate of the national team is now deadlocked. If the current committee did the honourable thing and fired themselves there is no guarantee that a panel of experienced football men, who might just have an idea of what they were looking for, would automatically reach sweet agreement. However, there is a very good chance they would have taken the opportunity to speak to the outstanding candidate, Guus Hiddink, who has now been appointed by Russia.

Then, the whole woebegone process might just have escaped its current condition of pitiable ruin.

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