James Lawton: Shearer still the gunfighter shooting from the hip

Newcastle striker's unrelenting intensity of purpose remains a glory of national game as England coach pays the price for indiscretion
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The Independent Online

Glenn Hoddle's suggestion to Sven Goran Eriksson that he should consider taking Alan Shearer to the World Cup finals is not as barmy as it sounds. There are two reasons for saying this. One is the lingering novelty of attaching such a comment to a public utterance from the man who said his biggest mistake as England coach was not to take a faith healer to France four years ago. The other is that at the age of 31 Shearer remains a glory of the national game.

In the unlikely event of it coming, Shearer would no doubt turn down any invitation from Eriksson. Two years ago he carefully assessed the pressures on his game and his life and, with considerable dignity, withdrew from the international stage. In his penultimate game for England his nous and determination had brought a Euro 2000 victory over Germany. He reckoned he could leave the big stage with his head up and with a reasonable chance of running out the string for a few years in front of his own people. Aided by the legs of Craig Bellamy and Kieron Dyer, he has turned his decision away from any hint of retreat.

His 200th Premiership goal at the weekend was no mere arthritic, statistical nudge in an already daunting story of 12 years of superb proficiency at the sharpest end of the game.

It was fresh confirmation of a professional instinct that burns as strongly now as it did all those years ago when he arrived at Southampton from Newcastle with an intensity of purpose that among today's rising generation of heroes has its most striking parallel in the reigning European Footballer of the Year, Michael Owen.

Perhaps it is thus more than a coincidence that the gravest charge against Shearer by his critics, one or two of whom became positively morbid in their complaints around the time the striker made his exit from international football, sometimes echoes in the direction of Owen. It is of being a mouther of platitudes, of always saying the right thing at the right time. But then one critic's bland is another's single-minded preoccupation with what is most important, which is performance produced on a relentlessly consistent basis.

So when Shearer declared, on his signing for Blackburn Rovers at a record £3.6m as a 22-year-old: "What pressure? I didn't pay out the money, I merely play the best I can," was he tossing out a cliché – or drawing the practical parameters of his football existence? His record strongly suggests the latter. At the time, he added: "I don't see any pressure. Kenny Dalglish has paid out the money and made the judgement on my ability. All I've ever done since I was a kid back in Newcastle was play the best I could. I'll always do that, whether I'm valued at three million quid or three bob. I think, if you have that approach, you'll cut down the pressure on yourself. You shouldn't forget I get paid for doing something I love. I don't – and I really don't think I ever will."

When two Newcastle directors were caught on tape while talking into their champagne cups in a Marbella girlie bar, not the least of their miscalculations was a character assessment of Shearer. He was depicted as Mary Poppins. Zealous in pursuit of his own goals, perhaps, a touch ruthless, no doubt, but Mary Poppins? In competitive terms, Bloody Mary, who burned her opponents, was probably a better comparison. At least Neil Lennon might have said so when he was playing for Leicester City. Lennon lunged at Shearer, and the riposte was, well, brutal. The great debate, you may recall, concerned the possibility of the Football Association studying the video horror and bringing charges against their England captain. Graham Kelly, the former chief executive of the FA, later revealed that Shearer had issued the bracing ultimatum: "Lay charges against me and count me out as captain of the World Cup team."

But then Shearer has been as hard on himself as any opponent. Niall Quinn, who like Shearer fought back from a career-threatening knee injury, recalled: "A key factor was a call from Alan Shearer. He said it was going to be very hard, but if I wanted it enough I would do it. I looked at Shearer, back on the top of the game, and I never forgot that."

As a kid at Southampton, Shearer impressed on Lawrie McMenemy extraordinary levels of ambition and determination. "He was somebody who seemed to grasp right at the start that the game was always going to be a battle if you wanted to succeed, and he was going to win the battle. The image of a gunfighter struck me very strongly. Someone might make a harsh tackle on the training field, give him a jab, but he didn't spring back impetuously. You just saw his eyes narrow and you thought: 'Oh, dear, he's stored that one away.' You could bet your life retribution would not be far away."

Twice Shearer showed an independent streak, almost to the point of the perverse, when he turned down Manchester United in favour of first Blackburn, then Newcastle. But there was perhaps a certain consistency in his refusal to merge his identity with that of the most celebrated team in the land. Certainly there was a powerful clue to his thinking this last weekend when, after reaching that milestone against Charlton, he said: "I can't tell you how delighted I was when it hit the back of the net. I wouldn't get a reception like that anywhere in the country and I'll never forget it. I'm also delighted it went in in front of my people at the Gallowgate End. I come from a working-class background, and a hard one at that, which was the reason I came back home. I wanted to play in front of people I know. I know what they are, what they want and what they expect."

As we were saying, bland is in the eye of the beholder. For some of us Shearer has always been about as bland as a shipyard worker bracing himself against the wind off the North sea, or a coal-veined miner stepping into the cage. He remains a superstar with roots, one who has always played his football as if it is as important as real life. It is why the Gallowgate End cheered so hard. They were not celebrating a statistic but a triumph for the toughest and the best of themselves.

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