Shearer has them agog on the Tyne

The world's most expensive footballer returned home yesterday. It rained, but nobody minded. Simon Turnbull was there
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The Independent Online
It was just as well that the young man on the stage before us actually said at one point: "I am only human." With Newcastle at a standstill, 15,000 folk cheering every word relayed to them by tannoy in the car park behind us, and reporters from Tunis and Moscow among us, it would have been easy to forget that the cause of the public deification cum media circus at St James' Park yesterday was a mere mortal.

Alan Shearer's coming home was everything those who have followed Newcastle United's metamorphosis from sleeping giant to money monster would have expected. The faithful foot-soldiers of the Toon Army stood raptly to attention in the drizzle outside and roared so loudly at each pronouncement their new spiritual leader made he had to pause before completing his answers.

The questions were posed by the 200-strong media entourage sat in the Sir John Hall Stand. Shearer sat on a stage constructed on the ash-track, next to Kevin Keegan and the directors of Newcastle United and Newcastle Breweries.

Ticket-holding guests, members of Newcastle's Platinum Club scheme and those fortunate enough to have connections with the brewery, were allowed to fill the empty seats around us. Then, when our part of the show was over, Shearer and Keegan were led to a stage in the car park to acknowledge the masses who had struck up their first chorus of "Shearer's coming home" some four hours earlier.

Amie Ladjemi, the gentleman from Le Presse de Tunisie, a French daily published in Tunisia, was not impressed. "This is about money coming home," he said. "It's an exhibition of how rich Newcastle United are."

It was indeed, to some extent. But, then, it was only four years ago that Newcastle became the laughing stock of English football after a public exhibition of how poor they were: when Keegan stormed across the car park at St James' and threatened not to return because the board could not guarantee him pounds 90,000 to sign Darren McDonough from Luton.

The money monsters, having paid pounds 15m to own the world's most expensive footballer, weren't going to hide him under a bushel. As Keegan, sometime companion of the money monster, told the fans: "This is your day because it's your money that's made it possible. You've bought the shirts and the tickets and put the money in and I've invested it so we can have the very best on the pitch."

To get the leading goalscorer in the European Championship it has cost Newcastle not just the pounds 15m they have paid to Blackburn but reputedly a contract worth pounds 2m for each of its five years. When they signed their last great Geordie No 9, Jackie Milburn, it cost 30 shillings a week and a pounds 10 signing on fee. After catching the bus back to Ashington, he gave pounds 5 to his mother for a new dress, pounds 1 to his father for beer and baccy and kept pounds 4 for a new suit.

"The price tag has got nothing to do with me," Shearer said yesterday. "I'll just go out and try my best. If someone thinks I'm worth pounds 15m that's fine. I decided to come here before any money was mentioned.

"I always wanted to play for Newcastle. If I'd gone somewhere else I would have played for Newcastle with my best years behind me. I wanted to come here with my best years ahead of me."

The irony of it all, of course, is that Shearer would have gladly joined Newcastle for nothing. He queued for five hours to watch Keegan's debut as a Newcastle player but failed to impress the club he worshipped during a trial in which he was asked to take his turn as a goalkeeper.

It is because Newcastle United spent so long in the wilderness that Keegan, and now Shearer, have been hailed as messiahs on Tyneside. The promised land, of course, is the one reserved for the champions of English football, and Newcastle have not been there since 1927.

Then, as now, they broke the British transfer record to buy the man whose goals guided them there. Newcastle's directors ambushed Airdrie's midweek board meeting to make a pounds 6,500 offer the Scottish club could not refuse for Hughie Gallacher.

The historical ghost of "Wee Hughie," whose 36 goals secured the title in his first full season, will be exorcised if Shearer achieves a similar feat in the campaign ahead, though watching the pounds 15m man with his object- deportment yesterday you could not see him matching the firebrand Gallacher's legend away from the St James' Park pitch.

He was known to pop into The Strawberry, the nearest hostelry, for a pre-match pint or four, was once charged with being drunk and disorderly while playing in a tour match in Budapest.

Shearer-mania will doubtless reach even more manic proportions if he shoots Newcastle to victory against Manchester United in the Charity Shield at Wembley on Sunday. But, as he told us yesterday, it is one of the major domestic trophies that the Toon Army crave.

"We just need that trophy and this place will be alive," he said. "The challenge for me was to win trophies here. If we get them no-one will understand how much it means more than me. Like everyone outside, I've been a Newcastle fan for a long time."

That, more than money one suspects, was the reason Alan Shearer was paraded before us yesterday - and why BBC Radio Lancashire sent reporter Nigel Adderley but chose not to switch their live broadcast from the Heysham Flower Show. It will have been little consolation to their listeners that Shearer revealed at one point he was close to staying for another year at Blackburn.

The reaction down the road on Wearside was probably less than enthusiastic too. On the day Shearer signed the front page headline in the Sunderland Echo lamented: "Oh, no! Look who the Mags have signed!"

While the Magpies were proudly clutching their potential winning ticket yesterday, Sunderland supporters were wondering how on earth their promoted side were going to survive in the Premiership.

Newcastle's poor neighbours have spent just pounds 1.6m this summer, which is roughly what it has cost to insure Shearer for five years. The Sunderland Echo decided to send one of their men yesterday. His name? Mr Rich. He was not the only one...