Shearer fears dazzle of silver

'You don't win anything in the semis. I've lost count of the times I've had a tingling -a feeling about us winning something'
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The Independent Football

It was time for the players of PSV Eindhoven to say goodbye to St James' Park and the Uefa Cup. Mark van Bommel and Mateja Kezman still lingered on the steps outside the Milburn Stand, talking up their hopes of summer moves to the Premiership. The coach driver waiting to ferry them to Newcastle airport revved his engine, probably as much out of fear as plain impatience. Whoever it was who chose to book the Sunderland team bus - complete with the club crest on every window - showed little insight into the tribal sensitivities in the North-east.

It just so happens that the next Dutch club booked for a match-day appointment at the home of Newcastle United will be coached by a man who was once accused of making much the same mistake at St James'.

In truth, though, Ruud Gullit knew exactly what he was doing when he detailed Alan Shearer to bench duty against Sunderland on a rainy August night in 1999. He knew, when he put his signature to the teamsheet - with Paul Robinson at centre-forward, in place of the England captain - that he was signing his own resignation note. He also knew that Shearer would come banging on his door, demanding an explanation. "I told him to his face, 'You are the most overrated player I have ever seen'," Gullit related in a recent newspaper article. "He didn't reply."

He didn't need to. In the four years and eight months since then, Shearer's goals have done the talking for him. His ninth-minute header on Wednesday night was his 27th of the season. It was also his sixth in the Uefa Cup, putting him joint top of the scoring charts in the competition. Not bad for a 33-year-old who was rated over the top by his manager just 12 days past his 29th birthday.

Gullit will get an opportunity to make a reassessment in August. As fate would have it, his first task as the new coach of Feyenoord will be to take his club to a four-team pre-season tournament at Newcastle, where his abilities as a football manager proved to be so vastly overrated.

The dreadlocked Dutchman left Newcastle second bottom of the Premiership. Shearer's opener against PSV helped to put them into the semi-finals of the Uefa Cup, 2-1 winners on the night, 3-2 on aggregate.

The prospect is looming of Gullit's return to St James' coinciding with Shearer parading the first piece of first-class silverware on Tyneside since June 1969. It was in the month before Neil Armstrong took his small step for man, on to the Sea of Tranquility, that Newcastle took their last stride into major trophy-winning territory, emerging victorious from the two-legged final of the Fairs Cup - the forerunner of the Uefa Cup - against Ujpesti Dozsa.

It was such a long time ago that the achievement holds little first-hand meaning to their present captain. "I wasn't even born then," Shearer pointed out, having followed the departed PSV players on to the Milburn Stand steps.

"My Dad and my uncles still talk about it, but it's so long ago now. It's too long, to be honest, for a club of this size to have been without any silverware.

"Let's hope that in a month or so we can all be talking about something different, but you don't win anything for getting through to semi-finals. I've lost count of the number of times I've had a tingling - a little feeling about us winning something - so I'm just going to keep quiet this time and see what happens.

"We've had to step up a gear in every round and we'll have to do it again, because Marseille are a better side than any team we've faced up to now. That's not being disrespectful to anyone. That's fact. We're going to have to step it up and improve again, but I think we're capable of doing it."

The first leg brings Fabien Barthez, Steve Marlet and Co to Tyneside on Thursday. It is sure to be a frenzied occasion at St James', although the locals will be hoping it is not quite as wild as the night of the Fairs Cup semi-final in 1969, when Rangers fans went on the rampage - on the pitch and through the city - as their side sank to a 2-0 aggregate defeat. First, Newcastle have domestic matters to attend to, with a trip to Villa Park this afternoon in their quest for fourth place in the Premiership. It is the sudden promise of silverware, though, that is all the talk of the Toon - a state of affairs no Geordie appreciates more than Shearer himself.

"Alan is hellbent on winning something for Newcastle," his former team-mate John Beresford said. "He knows what it means to the Geordie people. He shows it with his heart and soul out on the pitch." He does indeed - with an enthusiasm that belies his years.

Asked how he felt with games coming "thick and fast" and with him "not getting any younger", Shearer replied, with a twinkle in both eyes: "You sound like the manager".

"Look," he continued, "I'd rather play games than train. I've got a year left. The more games the merrier."

It remains to be seen whether the draw for the pre-season tournament at St James' will present the Toon Army's totem with a game against Ruud Gullit's Feyenoord. As for Paul Robinson, the player Gullit preferred to Alan Shearer, he had a game against Newcastle on Thursday afternoon - against Newcastle's reserve team, that is, for Hartlepool's reserves.