They thought it was Al over. It is now. In his 18 years as a warhorse of a centre-forward, transplanted into the modern game from footballing days of yore, Alan Shearer has never shied away from a fight. As John Burridge recalled of the young Shearer's formative days at Southampton: "When he was still in the youth team he used to train with the first team and he was so good I thought, 'I'll have this little git'. So I clattered him and he kept coming back for more. It didn't bother him.
"I dived at his legs in training once and he hurdled over me. I shouted at him, 'Never jump over the keeper. Go for the ball. Put your foot in.' Well, I was playing for Falkirk four years later and Southampton came up for a friendly and Alan came in on goal at me. He left me needing four stitches. In the bar afterwards he said, 'You told me to do it'. I just smiled and said, 'Good lad'."
Eighteen years to the month since he scored a hat-trick on his debut as a 17-year-old YTS player for Southampton, the apprentice warrior has fought his last fight and made his last mark, goalscoring or otherwise. The battle of the wounded knee has proven to be just one scrap too many.
It matters very little. In fact, bowing out as a bloodied, goalscoring hero is the way the Geordie totem ought to go.
He meant to go last year, of course, but that would have deprived the Toon Army and the rest of us of some vintage moments - not least the strike that broke Jackie Milburn's Newcastle scoring record at St James' Park in February. It was classic Shearer: a hard-won header, a quick wall-pass to open the Portsmouth defence, and a clinical finish. The rest of us could see nothing when the ball was lumped hopefully forward. Shearer could only see one thing: the back of the net bulging.
The back of the Gallowgate net, that was - the end of St James' Park where the 12-year-old Shearer queued for five hours to witness Kevin Keegan's debut and outside which yesterday hung a giant banner of Shearer pictured in goal-celebration mode, accompanied by the message: "Thanks for 10 great years."
There has been a notable absence of silverware, of course, since the sheet-metal worker's son was paraded as a £15 million trophy on a stage erected at the Leazes End back in the summer of 1996. Bought by Keegan as the supposed "final piece" of a trophy-winning jigsaw, his only prize remains the Premiership pot he lifted with Blackburn in 1995. Not that Shearer hobbled into his retirement yesterday with the slightest pang of regret.
"My dream as a kid was to play for Newcastle United and to score goals at St James' Park," he said. "It doesn't matter that I didn't win a trophy because I did it my way and I lived the dream. Unless you come from the area, you wouldn't understand that mentality."
Then again, if you spend four months on Tyneside studying the Shearer phenomenon, you might just get a grasp of it. Jenny Lindstrom, who comes from Linkoping in eastern Sweden, did as much last year, researching a 32-page, 14,000-word Masters dissertation entitled The King of Newcastle - Alan Shearer is Above Football. Her paper was sub-titled "An ethnographic essay on the construction of a modern-day hero in a local society", and Miss Lindstrom concluded that her subject possessed " a consistent capacity for action that surpasses the norm of man, just like the ancient heroes."
Ruud Gullit put it somewhat differently. "I told him to his face, 'You are the most overrated player I have ever seen'," the Dutchman recalled. "He didn't reply." Not in words, perhaps.
Deemed past his sell-by date by Gullit as a 29-year-old, Shearer hung up his boots at 35 yesterday with 328 goals from 733 club appearances - 206 of them for Newcastle and 259 of them in the Premiership, both record tallies. He also scored 30 goals in 63 games for England.
Not that statistics alone could pay sufficient tribute to a centre-forward whose like may ne'er be seen again, in black and white or otherwise.
Exit a legend: From a Rover to a Magpie
1988: Finds net after five minutes of senior debut for Southampton against Arsenal, aged 17, and goes on to score a hat-trick.
1992: Also scores on his England debut in victory against France. Signed by Blackburn for a then British record fee of £3.3m.
1994: Named Football Writers' Player of the Year after amassing 31 Premiership goals.
1995: Another 34 goals bring Blackburn their first League title for 81 years; named PFA Player of the Year and becomes first to score 100 Premiership goals.
1996: Scores twice as England defeat Holland 4-1 at Wembley in European Championship; signs for Newcastle for another British record fee, £15m, after rejecting move to Manchester United.
1999: Thundering shot against Tottenham takes Newcastle into final of FA Cup. Hits five goals in 8-0 Premiership defeat of Sheffield Wednesday.
2001: Awarded OBE for services to football.
2003: Notches hat-trick inside first half in Champions' League against Bayer Leverkusen; scores 250th career goal.
2006: Beats Jackie Milburn's all-time Newcastle scoring record of 200 goals. Forced to retire after sustaining knee injury against Sunderland on 17 April.
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