The coach parked outside St James' Park on Friday morning – ready to take Bobby Robson and his players on their way to London – appeared to be in good working order. It was just as well. Whenever Newcastle United make the trip to the capital the wheels seem to fall off their wagon.
Not since 29 November 1997 have they won a match in London. They beat Crystal Palace 2-1 at Selhurst Park that day with goals by Temuri Ketsbaia and Jon Dahl Tomasson. On 25 occasions since then Newcastle have returned to the capital, and on each occasion they have failed to win. Against West Ham at Upton Park this afternoon it might just be different.
For one thing, the Toon Army roll into town on a bandwagon that has gained impressive momentum. In 11 matches since the premature start of their season, Newcastle have yet to lose; the knockout blow they suffered against Troyes in the InterToto Cup came courtesy of the away-goals rule. They have also struck a rich vein of attacking form that earnt them a 4-1 win at Middlesbrough a fortnight ago and a 4-3 victory against Manchester United at St James' Park last week. And then, of course, they have their talismanic captain back in the driving seat.
Last month Bobby Robson declared it was approaching "make-or-break time" for Alan Shearer. In no time at all, it seems, Shearer has made it – back from the brink of possible retirement. "Yeah, his career was slightly at risk," Robson said on Friday morning. "He might have been looking at a year and a half out and at 31 you might not get over that. It's been very fortuitous for us that he's come good."
It has indeed. In two starts in the Premiership since returning to action after knee surgery Shearer has scored three goals – just two short of the total he managed while struggling to overcome the injury last season. He has also been the galvanising force behind the new-look Newcastle, not just as a focal point for the supply line Laurent Robert has opened on the left and for Craig Bellamy's tireless support play through the middle, but also as an inspirational team leader.
As his manager outlined on Friday, Shearer's influence against Manchester United went much deeper than the deflected goal that secured victory – and the symbolic defiance that led to Roy Keane's dismissal in injury time. "Just look at the first goal," Robson said. "OK, it was a great strike by Laurent Robert, but it was typical Alan, the way he held the ball up against Laurent Blanc and said, 'You ain't going to get it'. And Blanc knocks him over and, thanks very much, we'll take the free-kick. That's Shearer. Other players would have lost the ball. Not Alan.
"He's obviously getting back to form. That second goal he scored at Middles-brough, and the one he scored against Manchester United... he told me he couldn't hit those shots last season. He couldn't strike the ball with that venom. He didn't have the leg for it, but now he's got two good knees again. He's getting back to what he was in my first season here, when he scored 30 goals."
Shearer himself attributes his instant rediscovery of form to the strengthened body of the team around him – in particular to the new attacking dimension Robert has brought to the hitherto negative black-and-whites. "We were far too predictable in the last few seasons," the former England captain said. "We found it very hard if we had Nolberto Solano missing. Now we have good options down both flanks and it's looking good for us. Everyone knows I like to play with a right-sided and left-sided winger."
Not since his Blackburn days with Stuart Ripley and Jason Wilcox, though, has Shearer enjoyed such a balanced width of service. And not since Les Ferdinand's days at St James' Park has he struck up such a promising striking partnership as the one he is forging with Bellamy. Thus far, at least, the pace and perpetual mobility of the £6 million signing from Coventry has provided a perfect complement to Shearer's more conventional centre-forward play as a ball-holding target man.
"Craig has been fantastic since he came here," Shearer said. "He does so much running off the ball. He covers every blade of grass and he has great pace. We knew if we got him the ball against Laurent Blanc last Saturday he would cause Manchester United some problems."
Not that Shearer is making noises about the new Newcastle causing Manchester United serious problems in the race for the Premiership title. "We're not getting carried away," he said. "Manchester United will still win the League."
Still, if the Magpies manage to steal a win in London today it will be reason enough to creosote the fence in celebration.Reuse content