The grooming of Shearer and the Milburn parallel

Turmoil on Tyneside: Supporters favour O'Neill to succeed Robson with their talismanic striker a close second

On Thursday lunchtime an orange traffic cone was sitting in the bay formerly occupied by the manager's BMW at St James' Park. Freddy Shepherd was not just the man who shot Bambi, then. He was also the man who took away Bobby Robson's parking space.

On Thursday lunchtime an orange traffic cone was sitting in the bay formerly occupied by the manager's BMW at St James' Park. Freddy Shepherd was not just the man who shot Bambi, then. He was also the man who took away Bobby Robson's parking space.

Stepping into the club shop, opposite, it was as though nothing had changed. There was Sir Bobby, staring down from the video screen, that familiar half-anguished, half-wistful look on his deeply furrowed face, as he animatedly implored his players to raise their collective game. His former players, that is.

Prominently displayed behind the counter was a DVD, Just Call Me Bobby, Gary Lineker's documentary tribute to the great knight of the beautiful game. At the centre of the black-and-white commercial empire, nobody had summoned the heart to begin the clear-out.

And nobody among the vast Toon Army could summon the enthusiasm to dig their hands into their pockets. While the lunchtime shoppers were turning Northumberland Street into its customary elbowing battle-zone, the club shop at St James' was an oasis of calm. Sales assistants 4, Shoppers 0.

Back outside, a young boy approached the burly, shaven-headed car-park steward. "Mister, who's the new manager?" he implored. The steward shrugged his shoulders. "How would I know?" he replied. The boy was not impressed. "Ah, go on, mister," he said, "you must know something."

Two days earlier, Paul Gascoigne had been spotted outside the ground by someone back in Toon after a month abroad. "Aye, it was a bit of a shock when it was announced that Gazza was taking over," Mick Edmondson told the punter when he popped into The Back Page to find out "what the crack was", as they say in the parlours of Tyneside. With Newcastle United, you never quite know.

The Back Page is the place to be if you want to hear what the "crack" happens to be concerning The Toon. Just off Gallowgate, a sliced Titus Bramble clearance away from St James', it is ostensibly Newcastle's answer to Sportspages, the sports-book stores that can be found in London and Manchester. In reality, it is much more - a place where the football pulse of Newcastle can be reliably measured.

It is run by Edmondson and Mark Jensen, editor of The Mag, the long-running Newcastle United fanzine. "To me," Jensen said, addressing the big question of who might get the vacant car-park space up the road at St James', "the bottom line is that Alan Shearer has to be part of the solution. Right now, I think he's the one person who even has a chance of uniting the club as a whole - even if they bring in someone like Terry Venables to be a kind of mentor to him.

"I understand when people say there's no guarantee that he'd be a great manager just because he's a great player. But, on the other hand, we've had people like Bobby Robson, Kenny Dalglish and Ruud Gullit - they won a load of trophies at other clubs and they didn't manage to do it at Newcastle. So there's no sure-fire winner, as far as Newcastle are concerned. If you had Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger teaming up here you still wouldn't put money on them winning trophies."

Quite. On the wall behind Jensen hung a framed montage of programmes and a team photograph commemorating Newcastle United's most recent capture of a first-class trophy. That successful conquest in the European Fairs Cup dates back to 1969.

The most recent major domestic success dates back even further: to 7 May 1955, the afternoon Jackie Milburn set Newcastle on the way to a 3-1 win against Manchester City in the FA Cup final. It just so happened that Milburn's son, Jack, was in The Back Page on Thursday lunchtime. His excellent book about his late father, Jackie Milburn: A Man Of Two Halves (Mainstream, £7.99), is well stocked on the shelves. A former sales executive, he helps Jensen with the advertising side of The Mag.

"It's sad, what happened to Bobby Robson," Jack lamented. "But, knowing that lot up the road, we could well be jumping up and down in the next few days. That's just the way it is with Newcastle.

"Personally, I'd like Martin O'Neill as the next manager. I've got a lot of respect for the guy. I'd love to see him at the club. He's not a Geordie but he's Irish, the next best thing."

The results of a telephone poll printed in the Evening Chronicle that night revealed the Celtic manager to be the overwhelming choice of the Toon Army, with 34 per cent of the vote. Shearer was the next most popular, with 22 per cent, and even though the Newcastle captain subsequently ruled out any immediate interest in the manager's job he did not dismiss the possibility of being groomed in a new regime - after ending his pursuit of Milburn's club scoring record when the current season concludes.

Milburn himself tried the management game when he hung up his scoring boots. He resigned after 20 months of frustration at Ipswich - initially under the wing of an England manager.

"Aye," Jack Milburn reflected, "when my dad went to Ipswich he followed Alf Ramsey. Ramsey stayed on for a few months before joining England, and he was supposed to take my father under his wing. He actually barred him from team talks, and when my dad eventually left Ipswich that was the first and only time he ever went into print having a go at anybody. He said, 'Thanks for nothing, Alf'. If Alan Shearer was under Terry Venables, it would be a lot different."

Virtually on cue, as Jack popped into the office to make a phone call, someone popped through the front door of The Back Page to say that Venables was up at St James' Park. On local radio, they were saying Gordon Strachan was at the ground. There was no mention of Gazza. In the soap opera of St James', though, you never can tell for sure what might lie around the corner.

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