Alan Shearer yesterday warned that the hard work has only just started for Newcastle United now the club has reached the Champions' League. Newcastle's arduous season, which started in mid-July with Intertoto Cup football, reached its deserved zenith on Tuesday night as the Magpies secured the point which ends a five-year absence from Europe's premier club competition.
Shearer, United's irrepressible captain, again led by example by scoring both goals in a 2-2 draw at Ewood Park against his former club Blackburn to guarantee a return to the European stage. Shearer can now look forward to leading out Newcastle in the Champions' League for the first time after missing the entire 1997 European campaign with an ankle injury. However, the experienced Shearer knows the chairman Freddie Shepherd and his manager Bobby Robson face a tough summer to ensure Newcastle do not suffer an early exit from the competition.
The Tyneside club face a qualifying round tie in August, and if victorious, the very lucrative group stages follow, with the potential for Newcastle to pocket what will be at least a much-needed £8m pay day.
Robson is already planning to spend the cash on the two players he feels are needed to turn United into a squad to be reckoned with, one which will more than hold their own against the heavyweights of the European game. "Last night was really special and I couldn't have written a better script, scoring two goals to give us the point which means we're in the Champions' League next season," Shearer said. "We feel we belong there. Our fans deserve it because they were magnificent, and Bobby deserves it because two-and-a-half years ago this team was heading towards the Nationwide League.
"The transformation he has brought about has been amazing in that time. He has turned us round and done a fantastic job. But while we've worked ever so hard to get into the Champions' League, the really hard work starts now because we want to try and compete and catch up with the best – Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool.
"You only have to look at Liverpool and Arsenal to realise just how far we have to go – which is a long way – because as good as they are, they still weren't good enough to get to the semi-finals of the Champions League this season. But the good thing about our football club is that we are all going in the right direction, and I'm already looking forward to next season. I know Leeds reached the semi-finals last season, but we can't afford to look at what they did. We will just concentrate on ourselves because we know we have so much hard work ahead of us.
"Obviously we're still not there yet because we face a qualifying tie, but we've set ourselves up with a great chance. At least in securing this point, it allows us to spend a few quid and attract some good players, which we obviously need to give us a bigger and better squad, and then we will be okay."
Shearer will go into the Champions' League campaign on the back of his first summer off for more than a decade, which can only be good news for Newcastle in their attempt to reach the group stages. Despite the clamour for the England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson to persuade Shearer to come out of international retirement and lead his country into the World Cup finals, it is golf not goals which the 31-year-old is looking forward to this summer.
In re-iterating his defiance not to play for England again, despite his 21 goals in the Premiership this season, Shearer said: "My holidays are well and truly booked. I'm firmly behind the decision I made a couple of years back and I believe I'm playing well for Newcastle because of that decision. I'll be there in spirit and in thoughts, but not in person. I'm looking forward to a long summer break, which will be my first since I was 19 or 20, and to getting my golf handicap down."