Shearer puts silverware ahead of fourth place

As Sir Bobby Robson took his seat in the press room at St James' Park, the rolling roar outside came rushing through the plate-glass while supporters began banging on the windows. Those who imagined the Uefa Cup is a "cup for losers" had their response.

What puts Newcastle apart from the other challengers for the fourth and final Champions' League spot is that they would swap it for a trophy. At Anfield, the cups Gérard Houllier has delivered are greeted on the Kop like Christmas gift vouchers; all very nice but not what they really wanted. Aston Villa won the League Cup in 1996 and most on the Holte End over 35 years of age can remember where they were when Bayern Munich were overcome in the 1982 European Cup final.

On Tyneside you would have to be in your mid-50s to have legally bought a drink in 1969 to toast Bobby Moncur's lifting of the Fairs' Cup - the forerunner of the Uefa Cup. The Likely Lads were still in black and white, then - and nobody was wondering what had happened to them.

Robson has been in football too long to start enthusing about cup finals until they are reached. Before Newcastle began their League Cup campaign, he showed his team a film of Jackie Milburn parading the FA Cup on Tyneside in 1955 and asked his players to remember what trophies meant to this region. Newcastle promptly lost 2-1 to West Bromwich Albion. On Wednesday night, after what had been an impressive and convincing victory over his former club, PSV Eindhoven, he would not look further than the semi-final with Marseilles.

However, his captain, Alan Shearer, caught the mood of the evening. When Shearer returned to the Tyne in the summer of 1996, he was to be the catalyst that would transform Kevin Keegan's side from being everybody's favourite second club to being the first team in England. After defeats in two FA Cup finals and one semi-final, Shearer has won nothing except the undying affection of St James' Park and, with a little over a year remaining until his retirement, he would like something concrete to show for all those goals.

"It is important that we keep concentrated on both fronts, the Uefa Cup and finishing fourth," said the Newcastle captain. "Both are extremely important to this club but, if you gave me a choice, I know which one I would go for.

"If it came down to one or the other, you can't beat silverware. We would love to win a trophy at Newcastle for Newcastle. It would mean so much to the people here. It has been a long time, a long wait and it would be a massive achievement. It means a lot to all of us. I have been here a long time and and I desperately want to win something."

There are two hurdles remaining; both of them daunting. Either Valencia or Villarreal, the unheralded conquerors of Celtic, await in the final at Gothenburg's Ullevi Stadium while, on Thursday, Marseilles come to St James' for the first leg of the semi-final.

Many on the Gallowgate End would consider that Newcastle have escaped lightly. They might, after all, have been faced with the might and history of Internazionale, although, curiously, Robson would have preferred the men from Milan. The Uefa Cup does not excite too much attention at San Siro, although it does in Marseilles' cavernous Velodrome, where Liverpool perished last month.

Both Newcastle's chief scout, Charlie Woods, and PSV's coach, Guus Hiddink, thought the French would be formidable opponents with Hiddink identifying Marseilles' pace as the most obvious threat. "They have a hostile public, there could be 65,000 there and we will be playing in a cauldron," Robson said. "Charlie liked Marseilles very much; he thought they should have beaten Inter 4-0 in the first leg and was quite happy for Inter to go through."

As they discovered at Highbury, the English fixture list can be as draining as any injury list. Newcastle do not quite face Arsenal's programme of four games in eight days but it is not far off. On Sunday, they travel to Aston Villa. Thursday sees them face Marseilles and three days later they take on Chelsea.

It is as well that Newcastle are performing as effectively as at any time in what has often been a disjointed campaign. "I am not making too many changes, I'm using the same 12 or 13 players now," Robson remarked. "I keep thinking to myself: 'Does Alan need a rest now, does Gary Speed need a rest? My feeling is that they don't."

Robson will, however, take comfort from the thought that Newcastle's programme is nothing like the blizzard of fixtures which surrounded Ipswich's Uefa Cup semi-final with Cologne in 1981. Then, Robson's side were going for a championship and a European trophy, with the latter regarded as perhaps a consolation prize. On Tyneside, it would not be now.

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