Gifts of a god on the Tyne

Simon Turnbull meets Albert Stubbins, one of the men who helped create a legend; Alan Shearer will find striking similarities with a past hero as he seeks to shoulder imposing inheritance
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The Independent Online
It is half a century since the fight for the goalscoring services of Albert Stubbins broke the football transfer record. It was settled by the toss of a coin, the promise of a weekly column in the Liverpool Echo, and a transfer fee that was frowned upon in 1946.

"When you think of it now," Stubbins mused over coffee and biscuits in the living-room of his Tyneside home, "what could you get for pounds 13,000?"

Alan Shearer for three days, it was suggested. And the man who was once the most sought-after player in English football laughed at the devaluation 50 years of spiralling transfers has placed on him. It was not a scornful laugh. At 77, Stubbins is no embittered ex-pro. "Someone did say to me yesterday that I would have been a millionaire if I'd been playing today," he said.

"But the way I look at it is I enjoyed playing when I did. You know, the average wage on Tyneside when I was at Newcastle was pounds 3 5s and I got pounds 8 basic, pounds 10 if we won. You could afford to run a car and go to the continent on holiday, which I did. So it was a comfortable lifestyle."

It was made all the more comfortable by Stubbins's record-breaking move from Newcastle to Liverpool, the transfer that was decided by the toss of a coin. Heads meant he would speak to Liverpool before Everton, and their promise to deliver a slot in Merseyside's evening paper secured his instant agreement. It was not that the coveted centre-forward was mercenarily chasing the extra cash; he had learnt shorthand as a teenager and was thinking purely of his career prospects beyond football.

It is difficult to see Alan Shearer one day covering council meetings and court cases on North Tyneside, as Stubbins did for the Shields Weekly News in the Sixties. Yet the latest recruit to what Lee Clark has dubbed the millionaires' club at St James' Park is treading in the studmarks of the Tyneside pensioner. Like Stubbins 50 years before him, Shearer now carries the record transfer tag. He is also the new bearer of the black and white No 9 shirt.

It is an understatement to say they love their centre-forwards in Newcastle. As the latest one knows only too well, Newcastle United's No 9 carries not just the dreams of all Tyneside but a grand tradition too. Those who have worn the shirt well have become legendary figures of Geordie pride, even if like the Scot Hughie Gallacher, the Welshman Wyn Davies and the cockney Malcolm Macdonald they hailed from elsewhere.

Only two of the all-time greats have, like Alan Shearer, been Geordie boys. The late Jackie Milburn, hero of Newcastle's hat-trick of FA Cup wins in the Fifties, was the second. Albert Stubbins was the first. His flame-haired head and his size 11 boots plundered 232 goals for Newcastle between 1938 and 1946. No man has scored more for the black and whites. Stubbins, born in Wallsend, was the top scorer in war-time football and a hero on Tyneside. It was on Merseyside, though, that he became a legend.

His goal clinched the 1946-47 First Division title in the last-match decider at Molineux, the only championship Liverpool won between 1923 and 1946. And he played in the Liverpool side beaten 2-0 by Arsenal in the 1950 FA Cup final.

Such was his renown on the Mersey beat that when the Beatles picked the 63 faces which can be found on the cover of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band they placed Stubbins's in between Lewis Carroll's and Marlene Dietrich's. Paul McCartney sent him the album with a telegram which read: "Well done Albert for all those glorious years of football. Long may you bob and weave."

The bobbing and weaving these days is confined to gardening duties at the bungalow he shares with his wife, Anne, in Wideopen, a village one mile north of Alan Shearer's family home in Gosforth. But Stubbins is the same sprightly, ever- smiling soul who tormented many a First Division defence and whose countenance adorns tee-shirts worn by the Albert Stubbins Crazy Crew, an appreciation society set up by the sons and grandsons of Koppites who adored him. Last year, one member of the crew travelled from Liverpool to record a video message from the great man for his daughter's wedding reception. "My son, Eric, says they'd never have started a fan club if they had seen me play," Stubbins quipped, as sharp in retirement as he was in his playing days.

Stubbins, who watches most of his football on television these days, is an unashamed fan of Shearer. "All round, it is difficult to find a fault in his game," he said. "He's a good finisher. He's good at holding the line together. He's a worker. He can take care of himself. And his temperament is ideal. In many ways he reminds me of the old- fashioned type of centre- forward but it's difficult to compare him with the Newcastle No 9s of the past because he does everything. Jackie Milburn was very fast. I could get along. And both Jackie and I could shoot. But Alan has a different style to Jackie or myself, or Hughie Gallacher or Malcolm Macdonald for that matter. He does all of the jobs right. I think he's a one-off. He's an Alan Shearer.

"It's wonderful that he's coming here because last season was such a disappointment in the end for Newcastle and the whole city's waiting for him, myself included. I'm really looking forward to the next eight months. Of course the transfer figure is immense - I can understand those who say heart surgeons are worth that kind of money, not people who kick footballs - but television has transformed the whole game financially. And if Newcastle get into the European Cup the millions will be repaid."

Thus one record-holder welcomed another. Albert Stubbins's pounds 13,000 transfer may have been eclipsed long ago but his distinctive face adorns four and a quarter million album covers from John O'Groats to Land's End. And that, according to the latest count, makes him part of another British record.

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