Of all the sights available to sports watchers last weekend, live or on television, none was more startling in its suddenness than Alan Shearer's winning strike for Newcastle United against Chelsea at St James' Park. Taking a pass with his back to goal, Shearer then turned to send an unstoppable drive from 30 yards into the roof of Chelsea's net. Described by Claudio Ranieri as the sort of effort that defies the most ordered defensive attentions, it was Shearer's 28th goal of the season, a tally that might have seen him elected Footballer of the Year but for the electrifying contribution Thierry Henry has made to Arsenal's success in the Premiership.
Even in his 33rd year, Shearer continues to play with such muscular effectiveness that the idea of persuading a last international hurrah at this summer's European Championship inevitably gathers pace. Since it has not been publicly dismissed by Sven Goran Eriksson, and there are three weeks before the announcement of his squad, we are bound to hear more.
As events have proved, Shearer's decision to retire from international football after the Euro 2000 finals was a wise one. Relieved of the responsibility he bore as England's talismanic centre-forward, and lifted by Sir Bobby Robson's enthusiasm, Shearer's declining years in the game have been memorable. Adamant that his international career is a thing of the past he is unlikely to be tempted.
Whether it would work is another matter. Shearer is a throwback in the sense that he represents a style of play at centre-forward more familiar 30 years ago than it is today; more Nat Lofthouse than Henry. The bullying tactics that continue to serve Shearer well in the Premiership went against him in the 1998 World Cup finals. Referees proved less tolerant and defenders were not so easily lured into physical confrontation.
Then there is the fact that Shearer's partnership with the then teenage Michael Owen never really worked. Indeed, finding someone who can dovetail with Owen remains as much of a problem for Eriksson as it is for the Liverpool manager, Gérard Houllier, who has tried a number of permutations without coming up with anything permanent. Providing Owen with opportunities to exploit his predatory instincts is fine in theory but his all-round contribution is rarely significant. "Owen is not easy to play with," the television pundit Andy Townsend said last weekend.
The talk about Shearer set me thinking. Before England met Poland at Wembley in 1973 for a place in the following year's World Cup finals, Sir Alf Ramsey considered seriously the idea of recalling Geoff Hurst, the hero of 1966 who had dropped out of international football two seasons earlier. Hurst, by then with Stoke City, had impressed Ramsey in a match against Arsenal at Highbury.
"Hurst's movement off the ball was superior to that of any other attacker we had available and I was close to putting him in," I recall Ramsey saying. "In the end I decided that it wouldn't be fair to burden him with the responsibility." A 1-1 draw, notable for numerous wasted opportunities and one famous defensive blunder, put paid to England's chance of qualifying and cost Ramsey his job.
In any case, international comebacks, especially at a late career stage, are not a good idea. Pele knew this in 1974 when coming under pressure to turn out in a fifth World Cup for Brazil. In view of that unique possibility I travelled to meet Pele, who was playing out his last season for Santos. During the four or five days I spent there he was summoned to meet the president of Brazil who pleaded for him to turn out in the finals in West Germany. Pele was steadfast in his refusal. There was no accurate measure of what he might be able to achieve but he knew it was over. "At my age [he had just turned 34] it is asking too much," he said. He also knew he would be expected to carry a team that had slipped from the glorious standards of 1970.
During all this, I imagine readers have in their minds images of Shearer's relentless pursuit of goals, the anxiety he strikes into defenders with his aggression, powerful shooting and aerial prowess. When you consider his career-threatening injuries, his zest for the game is remarkable. Shearer makes few demands on the audience; it has never been necessary to probe for hidden qualities in his game or appreciate some subtle role in the tactical scheme of things; he remains, quite simply, a pugnacious attacker whose scoring could secure the Uefa Cup for Newcastle and fourth place in the Premiership.
Unlike Roy Keane, who has chosen contentiously to renew his international career, Shearer's decision to retire from the national team appears irreversible. As any member of the Toon Army will say, it was a step in the right direction.
- More about:
- Bobby Robson
- Chelsea F.c.
- Claudio Ranieri
- Michael Owen
- Newcastle United
- Premier League
- Sven-goran Eriksson
- Thierry Henry