Friday, April 01, 2005

Shearer Stays For One More Year

Being an avid Newcastle United fan, I couldn't help but mention this huge story.

Alan Shearer took his first step into football management today when he agreed a new deal with Newcastle which will make him a player-coach.

Shearer, 34, had insisted all season he would retire at the end of the current campaign but has agreed a one-year extension to his current contract after a change of heart. The Magpies captain confirmed at a St James' Park press conference that the persistence of manager Graeme Souness and chairman Freddy Shepherd had persuaded him to play on for one more season.

I can't say that I am extremely surprised by this, but I'm very pleased to hear it. It's hard to overestimate just how important Alan Shearer is to Newcastle both on and off the field. On the field, he's still banging in the goals--18 this season, 191 for his Newcastle career (only 9 away from Jackie Milburn's Newcastle record, a record that Shearer wants badly). His leadership on the field is immense, and he commands attention from teammates and opponents alike. Off the field, in the locker room, he's the head of the team, the captain, and he's still the one that the team looks to for a lift and for encouragement. That part is virtually irreplaceable.

Newcastle's striker situation has undoubtedly been eased by this announcement, however. Craig Bellamy has been loaned out to Celtic, and will presumably never again wear the Newcastle jersey. He will either stay with Celtic for 6 million pounds, or move somewhere else for a similar fee. Patrick Kluivert's contract has to be renewed for the next couple of seasons, and that decision will be coming at the end of this season. I personally think he's done enough to warrant that extension. He's got tremendous class and control, and we still haven't seen the best of him due to nagging injuries and his difficulty in adjusting to the English game. Shola Amoebi, frankly, has taken several steps backward over the last 18 months, and I can't see him being a suitable striker for much longer at Newcastle. Kieron Dyer can be used up front, but is more traditionally an attacking midfielder, and Michael Chopra is young and untested. With this in mind, clearly having Shearer back eases some of the incredible pressure on the Newcastle board to buy a new striker.

They will still buy one, however, and it is possible that Shearer's decision to stay might influence who it could be. Michael Owen is known to be somewhat unhappy at Real Madrid (he just doesn't play enough), and could be available in the summer for the right price. He's a proven striker and would be a great buy for Newcastle; however, Arsenal and Chelsea are both rumored to be interested, and he would almost certainly favor them over Newcastle. Unless his tremendous admiration for Alan Shearer points him in Newcastle's direction, where he could be beloved forever. I doubt it, but it's possible. It would mirror Shearer's own decision to join Newcastle in 1996 for a then-world record transfer fee from Blackburn--Shearer chose his hometown club, nowhere as popular as Manchester United, over the more popular club. Shearer is a hometown hero, Owen couldn't be a hometown hero, but he could be a huge fan favorite by making a surprising choice.

One major concern is the fact that having Shearer in the lineup means Newcastle plays a much more longball, less technical, game. Shearer is a classic English center-forward who collects a long pass and holds up the ball--with Newcastle's impressive midfield, that's probably not the best way to play. With Kluivert up front, a more technical game is natural, and seems to work better. I hope Newcastle won't get complacent in that regard; moving away from the old "lump it up there and let Shearer deal with it" technique has been long overdue.

Another concern would be Shearer's power behind the scenes--as a player-coach, he would have a lot of say in gameplanning and player development, and this might make it difficult to drop Shearer from the lineup should his form dip. He's 34 now, and his body has shown signs of breaking down from all the wear and tear of his extensive playing career. His style is hard-nosed and lends itself to all types of bumps and bruises. This year, Shearer's been great at St. James' Park, less so away from home, but his form has been good enough for him to be an automatic selection. That might change. If it does, can he be dropped? That's something to keep an eye on.

All of that aside, it is a great day for Newcastle United, and I look forward to seeing Shearer in the black and white for at least one more season. There's still more to play for this year, by the way. Newcastle will face Sporting Lisbon in the quarterfinal round of the UEFA Cup, along with Manchester United in the FA Cup semifinals. Shearer still needs a trophy with Newcastle; maybe this is the season he finally gets one.

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