Shearer to walk the line for Newcastle

 

IT felt like the moment a mass fantasy became a reality. At five minutes past two Alan Shearer walked around the lush, pre-season green turf of St James' Park, Newcastle, and a city swooned.

Inside the spanking new stadium were 1,400 workers from Newcastle Breweries, who sponsor the club, and outside thousands more waited patiently in the rain. All they wanted was a glimpse of their hero and an assured nimble performance. Shearer gave them this comfortably and even supplied the deadliest of finishes with a line that sounded like a song by Johnny Cash: "After all, I'm just a sheet-metal worker's son from Newcastle."

Johnny Cash could actually be Shearer's nickname (it was Billy Big Pockets at Blackburn) but the world's most expensive footballer responded to questions about his wealth dryly. "If money comes my way," he said, "that's fine, I'll deal with it when it comes along. It certainly won't change me. I decided to join Newcastle before money was even mentioned."

Shearer laughed off a report that he will earn £6.17 a second every time he is on the pitch and said that there was no pressure from the world record fee. "I'll say it now, and probably say it time and time again, but the price tag has nothing to do with me. I don't set that price and all I can do is do my best. If I'm worth £15 million and someone is prepared to pay that, then that's out of my hands."

It was, of course, in the hands of the two men who flanked Shearer on the podium, Sir John Hall and Kevin Keegan. When Keegan arrived at Newcastle as a player 14 years ago he was hailed as the messiah and now as manager it seemed appropriate that `his prodigal son' signing should sit on his right hand side.

Keegan, however, was taking none of the glory and, as he frequently does, chose to praise the Newcastle fans instead. "It's your money," he said of the £15 million. "It's the money you've spent on your replica shirts, the money you've spent on your season tickets and your bonds, the programmes and the Black and White magazines."

Nine days ago when Keegan announced the Shearer deal he had described it as "a signing for the people of Newcastle." This was a press conference for the people and Keegan and Hall took the opportunity to enthusiastically reiterate their Geordie manifesto.

The manager said he saw his job as "reinvesting" the supporters' cash. "So when you come to watch the product on the park here it's the very best we feel we can provide."

Both Keegan and Hall thought it especially good news that Shearer is a Geordie returning home. "We have sold them off time and time again up here," said Keegan. "We built stands with the money and we've tried to buy players to replace,, them quickly. That's gone at this club now.

This was an echo of his "biggest-thinking team in Europe" remark last week and he repeated his intention not to sell any of the current squad and that he will play Shearer alongside, and not in place of, Les Ferdinand.

"Despite what some people think, I think they will make a terrific strike force. I think they can both take each other places where they dream about going." Shearer concurred and thanked Ferdinand for the iconic number nine jersey although he said he would play in any number for Newcastle - "even number 29".

Shearer also had praise for the club he had left behind, Blackburn Rovers, and revealed that there was a stage in negotiations with its owner, Jack Walker, when Shearer was swaying towards staying another year in Lancashire. "I had a long meeting with Jack Walker on the Sunday," explained Shearer. "I asked him if I could consider my options and see what I wanted to do.

The England striker then flew back from Walker's Jersey home and met Alex Ferguson on the Monday - "I was very, very impressed with him," said Shearer. "I could easily see why Manchester United have won so many trophies under him." Shearer then spoke to his mentor at Blackburn, Kenny Dalglish, whose advice was typically laconic: "Whatever you do you can't lose."

He finally met Keegan on the Tuesday and his mind was made up. "Obviously I was very impressed. Everyone knows I've always wanted to play for the club but if I'd gone elsewhere I would have had the best years of my career behind me. Now at Newcastle I have got the best years in front of me. And to play in front of my mum and dad at St James' Park is something else."

With Shearer's decision made, all Blackburn could do was name their price. "£15 million - and no quibbling" Newcastle's chief executive Freddie Fletcher was told, but neither he nor Shearer or anyone else was quibbling yesterday, not in Newcastle anyway.