The prospects of Newcastle United winning their first major trophy since 1969 - which have always seemed entwined with Alan Shearer's fitness and form - were placed in jeopardy yesterday when the England striker had an operation on his groin.
Another England player, David Seaman, also went into hospital last night for an exploratory knee operation. Seaman has already missed Arsenal's last three games and sat out England's World Cup defeat by Italy. Arsenal should have a better idea before the weekend how much longer their goalkeeper will be out of their Premiership title challenge.
The most optimistic estimate for Shearer's return is a month, by which time Newcastle's assault on the Premiership and the Uefa Cup could have been derailed. However, this is the third time Shearer has had an operation on the injury in eight months, suggesting a longer lay-off may be necessary for a proper cure.
Even if he emulates his extraordinarily quick recuperation of last autumn, he will miss both legs of the Uefa Cup quarter-final against Monaco and five League matches, including the potentially decisive away matches at Liverpool and Wimbledon.
The worry for England's coach, Glenn Hoddle, is that both Seaman and Shearer could be ruled out of England's friendly match against Mexico at Wembley on 29 March.
Graham Courtney, a Newcastle spokesman, said that Shearer had not been "the Alan Shearer Newcastle fans know and love. He's been struggling with the injury and now he's had an operation to rectify the problem. We look forward to having him back as quickly as possible."
Shearer, who cost Newcastle a world record pounds 15m when they bought him from Blackburn last summer, was out of action for just over a month after surgery in the wake of the 5-0 defeat of Manchester United on 20 October.
He missed England's 2-0 victory in Georgia in a World Cup qualifier and six Newcastle games, only two of which were won, before returning for the 1-1 draw at Chelsea on 23 November. Since then, Shearer has scored 15 goals in 18 games, taking his tally for the season to 23 and reviving Newcastle's title hopes in the process. That operation followed another last May, which at one time threatened his place in the England squad for the European Championship finals. He recovered to play a key role, but the surgery proved to be only a temporary success.
Certainly, the England coach suggested yesterday that all has not been well with his principal striker for some time when he admitted the latest operation had been inevitable. "I've been aware of the problem and there's no doubt that it needed to be dealt with," he said. "Alan has kept me informed of his plans over recent days and Kenny Dalglish, and I want him back as soon as possible."
Shearer played in the 1-0 win at Middlesbrough on Saturday which lifted Newcastle to third place, six points adrift of leaders Manchester United with a game in hand. He had a quiet game, however, and his failure to get a goal ended his hopes of scoring against all 19 Premiership opponents this season, a feat for which the bookmakers had offered odds of 500-1 at the start of the season.
Dalglish has Faustino Asprilla to come in and partner Les Ferdinand, but his attacking options have been reduced by the sale of Darren Huckerby to Coventry shortly before Kevin Keegan's departure and that of Paul Kitson to West Ham two weeks ago.
Seaman, who first felt pain in his knee when he slipped while getting to his feet after stretching out on the floor to watch television, played in Arsenal's FA Cup defeat by Leeds three weeks ago despite the pain. It has hardly receded since then and Arsenal today took the decision to send him for an arthroscope examination, in which a microscopic camera is inserted into the damaged area.
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