Carry on Shearer: Given's plea to captain

Newcastle striker says he's not for turning, but his team-mates live in hope. Simon Turnbull reports
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The Independent Online

They have had the bulldozers in at St James' Park this past week, ripping up the substandard pitch in readiness for the laying of a new one. Away from the stripped playing surface, Graeme Souness has been on a similar mission, striving to rebuild his team from back to front.

They have had the bulldozers in at St James' Park this past week, ripping up the substandard pitch in readiness for the laying of a new one. Away from the stripped playing surface, Graeme Souness has been on a similar mission, striving to rebuild his team from back to front.

Having already succeeded in bolstering his hitherto porous defence, with the signings of Jean-Alain Boumsong and Cel-estine Babayaro, the Newcastle manager has been looking for reinforcements in other areas. In midfield, it seems Amdy Faye will be arriving from Portsmouth to provide a little strengthening. Up front, though, the search for a new Alan Shearer may yet lead all the way back to the door of the Newcastle captain.

Despite Shearer's insistence that he intends to hang up his scoring boots at the end of the season, Souness has pledged to keep pestering him to change his mind. Whether the Iron Laddie is for turning remains to be seen, but the pressure to bend his will is being applied from within the Newcastle dressing-room as well as from the manager's office.

As the last line of a frequently exposed defence, Shay Given's most pressing concern of late has been the form of those closer to the Newcastle goal. From his withdrawn perspective, though, the Republic of Ireland goalkeeper has fully appreciated the leadership Shearer has given his team from the front. He also happens to have an inkling that Shearer will still be wearing the Newcastle No 9 shirt next season.

"Half of me says he'll definitely retire, because I know how single-minded Alan is," Given said, before boarding the Newcastle team bus with Shearer on the way to Highbury for this afternoon's Premiership encounter with Arsenal. "People tried to change his mind when he made his decision about England, and he didn't go back on that. But half of me thinks he might stay on for another year, because if you'd seen him at the training ground when he was out injured for a couple of months he was like a bear with a sore head - he was so unhappy that he wasn't playing.

"That makes me think, 'Well, if he's going to be finished in another couple of months, then he's going to be a bear all the year round'. Alan is strong-minded, and you probably need to ask him the question, but I think that he might - might - continue playing.

"I think he should. He's only 34. He's got plenty of time to enjoy whatever plans he has. He could play on for another year, easily. And I'm sure the manager would love him to stay on."

Souness made that much clear when Shearer returned after a 12-match absence to score his 11th goal of the season, from the penalty spot, in Newcastle's 2-1 home win against Southampton eight days ago. It was the 400th goal of Shearer's professional career, his 249th in the Premiership, and his 184th as a Newcastle player. He still needs 16 more to match Jackie Milburn's club-record haul of 200 goals.

"With those two months out, he's obviously struggling to make the record this season," Given said. "That could sway him a little bit as well. I hope he does stay on, because just the stature of the man raises the team. He's an out-and-out leader. It gives all the players a lift to see him lead the team out, and just to be around the changing room."

It would be premature in the extreme to suggest that Boumsong and Babayaro have had a similarly galvanising effect on Newcastle, but after two matches as fledgling Magpies the French central defender and the Nigerian left-back have already brought some urgently required stability and assurance.

"It's always difficult for new players coming in," Given said, "but Boumsong and Babayaro have got to know the lads pretty quickly and they've been settling in very well. Babayaro has had a bit of a knock this week, so I don't know if he's going to be fit for Sunday, but Boumsong has been training all week. I thought he did really well against Southampton. He looked the part.

"He's been ordering people about, and the more his English comes on I'm sure the more of that he'll be doing. You need that kind of organising, especially in the centre of defence. The more leaders we have in that sort of position the better. He's been talking and leading, and that's perhaps what we needed.

"We've had a lot of criticism in defence, including myself, and rightly so, because we've conceded as many goals as West Bromwich Albion. It's not rocket science. We've been scoring goals, but the problem is we've been conceding too many and that's obviously why the manager has gone out and bought two defenders. Only time will tell if we've improved in that department."

Only time will tell, too, whether Newcastle are to be shorn of their goal-scoring Shearer at the end of the season. In the meantime, at least the sore bear's head has eased somewhat. "Yeah, he's been in a lot better mood since he came back last week," Given said. "He's having a laugh again now."

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