While many football cultures around the world eulogise the number 10, English football has a fixation with the number nine. It is the preserve of the goalscoring centre-forward; an iconic presence who will drag his team out of any situation, however desperate, and shoot them to victory. They are part of the heritage of English league football, embodied in legendary figures such as Dixie Dean, Tommy Taylor, Nat Lofthouse and Jackie Milburn.
Nowhere in England does the number nine carry as much cultural baggage than at Milburn’s former team, Newcastle United. The regular search for a new one is less a need for goals, more a quest for a messianic saviour. Since Milburn’s day, only one has managed to ascend to the same level of adulation as the player they called Wor Jackie. To secure him, Newcastle United had to correct a colossal mistake. In the 80s Alan Shearer was literally on their doorstep, but he got away from them – 281 miles to be exact, to Southampton.
“I told them I was a centre-forward,” Shearer recalled of one trial at Newcastle United in 1982, “but they played me in goal for two days.” He also had trials with Manchester City and West Bromwich Albion but signed with Southampton in 1986. Shearer made his full debut in March 1988 against Arsenal at just 17-years old and became the youngster player ever to score a hat-trick in the First Division in a 4-2 victory. In his early years with the club he formed part of a rampaging front three alongside fellow youngsters Matt Le Tissier and Rod Wallace.
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Despite Southampton manager Chris Nicholl famously claiming that Shearer “couldn’t trap a bag of cement,” he quickly developed into the most sought-after player in the whole country. Shearer was top scorer for the England under-21s when they won the Toulon Tournament in 1991, and then scored on his full England debut against France in 1992. Graham Taylor included Shearer in his squad for the 1992 European Championship, where he made only one appearance as England were eliminated in the first round.
That summer Shearer became the most expensive transfer in the history of English football. To the chagrin of Alex Ferguson and Manchester United, he signed for newly promoted Blackburn Rovers for £3.6 million. Shearer had scored a modest amount of goals at Southampton; at Ewood Park his ability erupted. In the first four seasons of the new-fangled Premier League he rattled in 130 goals in 171 games. That included a hefty 34 Premier League strikes in the 1994-95 season as Blackburn overcame champions Manchester United to win their first title for 81 years.
Shearer was the poster boy for that triumph, and one of the founding fathers of the early Premier League. Along with the likes of Eric Cantona, Andy Cole, Robbie Fowler, Ian Wright and Le Tissier, he decorated the formative years of BSkyB’s new ball game with memorable goals and performances. Although he lacked the enigmatic appeal of Cantona – Shearer famously went home to creosote his garden fence after the title victory – he was no less engrossing. His confidence was bulletproof, his will to win frightening and he possessed the ruthlessness of a dead-eyed shark in front of goal. It was a set of qualities that, when combined with his natural ability, made Shearer’s mid-nineties drought with his national side utterly bewildering.
‘Thanks for worrying, but I can look after it’
Alan Shearer and David Platt at the Great Wall of China, on England’s pre-Euros trip
Image credit: Getty Images
England had failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup under Graham Taylor and were at one of the lowest points in their international history. The team now faced over two and a half years of friendlies before what would become commonly known as Euro 96. During that time new manager Terry Venables workshopped a variety of different formations, often against opposition with no greater ambition than a half-paced, mutually agreeable draw.
Like the rest of the country, Venables knew Shearer was the best striker in the league. A year before Euro 96, Venables told Shearer he would be starting up front at the tournament with Teddy Sheringham; yet for 12 straight internationals before the tournament, Shearer failed to score. “When he swaps the blue and white of Blackburn for the white of England,” wrote Rob Hughes in The Times during this spell, “he is like Superman without the cape.”
The dichotomy seemed even more absurd in the season leading up to Euro 96. Blackburn struggled to defend their title, but through no fault of Shearer. He scored five hat-tricks that season in an underperforming side, despite carrying a groin injury in the second half of the campaign. In his final game of the season, against Wimbledon in midweek in April, he scored another two belters just days before going under the knife for an operation to be ready in time for Euro 96. The brace made Shearer the first post-war striker to score 30 goals in top flight football for three seasons in a row. “I’d hate to see him when he’s fit,” said Wimbledon manager Joe Kinnear. “He’s one hell of a player. When I heard he was going in for an operation on Thursday, I tried to get the fixture changed.”
Other strikers were trying to change the mind of Venables. Fowler had an incredible spring with Liverpool and Les Ferdinand, Newcastle United’s incumbent number nine, had scored heavily as his team chased the title. While Shearer recuperated a national debate took place about who should start up front for England, but Venables would not be swayed. Shearer himself was grilled about his drought by the press ahead of England’s opening game of the tournament with Switzerland and wore the stoic demeanour of the captured airman. “Thanks for worrying everybody, but I can look after it,” he deadpanned. “It doesn’t bother me as it does others.”
Switzerland and Scotland
Alan Shearer celebrates his goal with Darren Anderton against Switzerland
Image credit: Imago
It took just 23 minutes for Shearer to look after it against the Swiss at Wembley. Paul Ince crafted a through ball that put him clear into the penalty area; Shearer boomed it past the Swiss goalkeeper Marco Pascolo, with the ball faintly clipping the near post as it tore in. There were 21 months of frustration released by the shot, and the subsequent celebration. Shearer abandoned his trademark jog away from the scene with one hand nonchalantly raised, and instead jumped wildly around Wembley pumping his fist into the air. “When it mattered, he knew where the goal was!” said BBC commentator Barry Davies, with the triumphal air of a proud father.
Switzerland knew where it was too and equalised with a late penalty as England gassed in the second half. It had been a deflating first day. Venables’ team were already in the doghouse with the public and the media after a pre-tournament preparatory trip to China and Hong Kong that culminated in an infamous piss-up in the China Jump nightclub and £5000 of damage to their Cathay Pacific jet on the flight home.
That scandal radiated around midfielder Paul Gascoigne. England had been patiently waiting for him to cash-in the potential he had shown at the World Cup six years earlier, and his leading role in the controversy ahead of Euro 96 led to strong calls for him to be dropped from the squad. In the current social media age Gascoigne would never have survived; it was a close enough call in Euro 96. Yet he came through the furore and paid back Venables for his support by scoring the goal of his life to seal a 2-0 victory over Scotland in England’s next match.
In one minute, the whole tournament had changed for England. Sixty seconds prior to Gascoigne’s goal, David Seaman had saved a penalty from Gary McAllister. Instead of limping to another draw England won the most hyped fixture of the first round and moved to the top of Group A. When the stadium DJ played the England team song ‘Three Lions’ on the final whistle, it set the tone for the rest of the summer. It’s almost been airbrushed from history that England actually took the lead in that match through Shearer, who deftly nodded England in front in the 53rd minute from a Gary Neville cross.
Relief was now being supplanted by self-belief; Shearer was finally becoming the player for England that he was for Blackburn. No one would feel the effect of that donning of the cape more than the Netherlands in the final group game, in a performance that has passed into English football folklore. “It was the biggest and best atmosphere I experienced in an England shirt,” Shearer told the BBC in 2016, “and it was also the most complete team performance I was part of for my country – everyone was a 10/10 that night.”
Teddy Sheringham and Alan Shearer both scored twice against Netherlands
Image credit: Imago
Venables had admired the style and tactical flexibility of the Dutch since he was a teenager and was obsessed with beating them at Euro 96. They had become a yardstick for the modern game in the mid-nineties after a brilliant young Ajax team toppled the mighty AC Milan in the Champions League final in Vienna in 1995. It was a victory that had seemed to broaden everyone’s horizons in the game and offer a glimpse at a new future for football. So, when England went 4-0 ahead after just over an hour at Wembley, it became one of the most pinch-me moments in English football history.
There are a number of popular myths about that day. Many involved on the English side say that they played a great Dutch team off the park, but that is an exaggeration. In terms of personnel a number of the Ajax alumni were missing through either injury or rows with the coach Gus Hiddink. England also counter-attacked to ruthless effect; the Netherlands had more possession, more shots on target and more corners, and cut England open several times without scoring. Whatever data you pull to interpret football however, only one statistic matters; England ultimately scored four to the Netherlands’ one, and secured their most famous victory for 30 years.
It was a goal from Shearer that defined a memorable evening. He had put England in front with a penalty in the first half, and effectively finished the match as a contest with England’s third of the night. Gascoigne burst into the Dutch penalty area after a one-two with Steve McManaman and laid the ball back to the edge of the box. Sheringham, who scored England’s goals either side of this one, faked to shoot before cushioning the ball across to Shearer at the very last second. Shearer duly stepped forth and smashed an unstoppable drive past Dutch goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar and high into the net.
The giddiness around Wembley that night was soon being matched across the rest of the country. Gascoigne’s goal against Scotland seemed to spark a chain reaction across England and Euro 96 was suddenly a riotous party, like an Anglo-Saxon offshoot of the Britpop and Cool Britannia movements sweeping the UK. Three Lions was everywhere, with the lyrics printed in the tabloids ahead of England games to get everyone up to speed. The euphoria and momentum around England’s run managed to gloss over a horrible performance by them in the quarterfinal against Spain. They were totally outplayed and just about survived Golden Goal extra-time before winning 4-2 on penalties. In a tournament characterised by individual catharsis, Stuart Pearce scored one of England’s kicks six years after missing in a World Cup semi-final against West Germany in Turin.
That secured another semi-final against the Germans, and the chance for redemption on a national level. In the thirty years of hurt since England had won their one and only international trophy, Germany, with their West prefix, had been personally responsible for some of its most scarring moments. Germany might now have unified, but this iteration was not as strong. Their captain Jurgen Klinsmann was missing through injury and they had lost several other players during the tournament. In what was surely the most expectant atmosphere ever felt at Wembley, Shearer latched on to a corner flicked on by Tony Adams to head England in front within three minutes. It really, really, really could happen.
The same old story
Alan Shearer leaves the pitch after defeat to Germany
Image credit: Getty Images
The universal truth of football soon applied itself: German teams will always come back. Stefan Kuntz equalised 13 minutes later, and the two teams locked themselves into a high octane, high-quality match that is as epic as anything ever contested between the two. It went into Golden Goal extra-time, in which both teams could have settled it in a wonderfully open first 15 minutes. Given the final outcome England’s two big chances are laced with regret; Darren Anderton hit the post, and minutes later a bobbling Shearer cross was misjudged by Gascoigne, who lunged in and missed an open goal by millimetres.
It was a chance that needed a natural goal scorer to anticipate the German goalkeeper Andreas Kopke failing to get a hand on the cross as it moved through the six-yard box. “If it had been the other way round, my pass and Shearer in the box, we’d have been in the final,” said Gascoigne in Glorious. Instead the game went to penalties, and the full horror of Turin was revisited. Gareth Southgate missed in sudden death for England; Andreas Moller roofed his subsequent effort to put Germany into the final.
The defeat was crushing for England. Wembley was desolate and a stark contrast to the fervour of a few hours earlier. It was like a power cut at 11.59pm on New Year’s Eve. Germany then went on to win Euro 96, beating tournament darlings the Czech Republic at Wembley four days later. They were more than worthy champions; as well as knocking out the hosts, they had also eliminated Italy in the first round and the luxuriously talented Croats in their quarter-final at Old Trafford. It was also achieved while haemorrhaging players through injury and receiving a barrage of ugly jingoistic goading from the British tabloid press.
England had at least restored some dignity to their international status, a situation that had looked alarmingly in jeopardy halfway through their game against Scotland. Central to all of it had been Shearer; he finished as the top scorer in the tournament. After just five goals in his first 23 games for England he went on to register 25 in his next 40. Shearer retired from international football after Euro 2000, in which he scored the winning goal as England finally beat Germany 1-0 in Charleroi.
Alan Shearer on his unveiling as Newcastle’s world record signing
Image credit: Getty Images
After Euro 96 it was clear that Shearer was too hot for Blackburn keep. The Premier League was changing rapidly, and the seeds for the competition becoming a global phenomenon in both reach and make-up were planted in the 1995-96 season. The Bosman ruling came into force in December of that season and the Premier League secured a monstrous renewal deal with BskyB a few months later. English football was now awash with cash and able to shop overseas almost without limitation. The rest of the summer of 1996 was highlighted by some jaw-dropping transfers, though the biggest of all was a homecoming for the most coveted player in the English game.
On 30 July 1996 Shearer finally signed for Newcastle United. The fee was a whopping £15 million, which not only shattered the British transfer record but broke the world record too. Shearer had once again turned down the overtures of Alex Ferguson and Manchester United, who had overhauled Newcastle to win the league the previous season. That meant Newcastle’s title drought was up to 69 years and running; given what he had done at Blackburn, securing Shearer looked certain to end it.
Shearer’s unveiling at St James’ Park was covered live on BSkyB News. In the driving rain, 20,000 Newcastle fans were there to welcome him back, adapting the refrain of Three Lions into “Shearer’s Coming Home” and bellowing it into the sky. When he was introduced, it was a reception similar to when the Beatles returned from America. “I walked out there and saw this sea of people,” said Shearer, “and this sea of black and white. My name was being chanted. It was just an incredible scene, it really was.” These were truly seismic times for English football. The popularity and idolatry of Premier League footballers was about to skyrocket, with players ready and waiting to take it to new levels. Just a few weeks later, Manchester United’s young midfielder David Beckham announced himself when he lobbed Neil Sullivan from inside his own half at Selhurst Park.
The optimism evident at St James’ Park that day never materialised into success. Newcastle’s manager Kevin Keegan quit a few months into the 1996-97 season, and Shearer would work under five different full-time managers over the next decade as the club gradually receded from their swashbuckling mid-90s heyday. He also picked up a serious ankle ligament injury in a pre-season match that side-lined him for most of 1997-98. Thereafter, he was never quite the terrifying force witnessed in the first five years of the Premier League again.
Shearer didn’t win any medals with Newcastle, but he did help himself to industrial vats of glory. In his ten years there he scored 206 goals, breaking the club’s scoring record held by Milburn. There is a statue to Shearer outside of St James Park capturing their idol wheeling away after yet another goal, one hand raised in the air in triumph. He is the highest scorer in Premier League history overall with 260 goals, and the only player to have cleared three figures for two different clubs.
More importantly, he had been the number 9 that Newcastle had been waiting for. When he signed for the club in 1996, Les Ferdinand obligingly switched to number 10 so that Shearer could fulfil his destiny. The numeral is as inseparable from Shearer’s identity as his goal celebration. It was also not the first time that year that its significance to him had become apparent. Ahead of Euro 96, Shearer had appeared in the video for Simply Red’s official tournament song We’re in This Together, a cod-gospel dirge quickly forgotten amid the success of Three Lions. For the shoot, the organisers presented Shearer with an England shirt emblazoned with number 10 on the back; he pointed out the error, and it was swiftly changed to the only number appropriate.
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