Alan Shearer and the Newcastle United years – 1996/97
It would be no exaggeration to say that for Alan Shearer, his career at Newcastle United got off to a somewhat underwhelming start.
Although Newcastle had missed out on the title in agonising fashion the previous 1995/96 season, the spectacular signing of Shearer on 30 July 1996 had blown those cobwebs away, leaving the Geordie faithful feeling more optimistic than ever that success was finally on its way.
After a busy summer where Alan Shearer had shined at international level, scoring five goals in England’s run to the semi-finals of Euro 96, he would make his full debut for the team he had supported as a boy, against the team that had tried to desperately that summer to secure his coveted signature. Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United.
The match would take place at Wembley Stadium, with the Charity Shield up for grabs, with the game the first opportunity Keegan’s side had to brush the disappointment of the previous season behind them and lay down a marker for the year ahead.
Unfortunately for everyone concerned from a Newcastle persuasion, it wasn’t to be, with Alex Ferguson’s side running out comfortable victors, with two late goals putting the gloss on a 4-0 victory.
The start to the league season wouldn’t get much better with Newcastle losing 2-0 away at Everton. Shearer could have been forgiven for wondering what he had signed up for.
However, Alan Shearer and the team would quickly find their feet, with the boyhood Newcastle fan achieving his childhood dream and scoring his first goal for the club in front of an adoring St James’ Park crowd with a wonderful curling free kick to secure a 2-0 victory over Wimbledon.
He would then find the back of the net from the penalty spot in a disappointing home defeat to Sheffield Wednesday in the following game. However, the despondency at losing two of the first three league games would be short lived, as Newcastle embarked on a seven-game winning run that would take them back to the top of the table.
That winning run was sparked by a growing partnership between Shearer and his strike partner Les Ferdinand.
‘Sir Les’ as he had become known to Newcastle fans had been simply brilliant in the first half of the 1995-96 season as Keegan’s side had romped to the top of the Premier League table. Quick, powerful and strong in the air, Ferdinand had thrived on the service provided by David Ginola, Peter Beardsley and Keith Gillespie, scoring goal after goal and looking for all the world like he was going to lead Newcastle to their first top division title since the 1926/27 season.
However, as Ginola’s form tailed off in the second half of the season so did Ferdinand’s. Chances became harder to come by and when they did arrive were missed with increasing regularity.
When Newcastle’s pursuit of Alan Shearer gathered pace in the summer of 1996, many wondered if Ferdinand would leave quietly out the exit door.
However, it was never Keegan’s plan to sign one to replace the other. He wanted to create a frightening forward line that would terrorise defences up and down the country and although Ferdinand was disappointed to be asked to give up the coveted number nine shirt, which he had worn with such distinction, to Shearer, the pair quickly hit it off.
Consecutive 2-1 victories away at Sunderland and Tottenham Hotspur, with Ferdinand scoring three times, really kick started the season and both Shearer and Ferdinand would be on the scoresheet in a 2-1 victory over Blackburn Rovers at St James’ Park.
Shearer would then get the crucial winner in 1-0 victory over Leeds United at Elland Road.
The following match was an absolute thriller at St James Park and one that was typical of the style of football played during Keegan’s time as Manager of the club. The opponents were Aston Villa and the match was a tale of three of the Premier League’s best strikers.
Dwight Yorke, who would go on to be part of Manchester United’s great treble winning side of 1999 opened the scoring with four minutes on the clock, with Ferdinand levelling things just a minute later. Ferdinand would give Newcastle the lead before Shearer added a third before half-time to seemingly put the game to bed.
Yorke, though, had other ideas, completing his hat-trick either side of a fourth Newcastle goal from Steve Howey as Newcastle ultimately ran out 4-3 winners, their fifth league win in a row.
Where Shearer was really beginning to prove his value was in scoring crucial winning goals and he would get another one at the old Baseball ground to defeat Derby Country 1-0 and take Newcastle to the top of the table for the first time that season.
Next up, in a true test of the side’s Premier League title credentials was Manchester United at St James’ Park.
Like the Charity Shield, the fixture offered another opportunity for the team to gain some semblance of revenge for events of the previous season.
This time the players took it. In quite stunning fashion.
Despite the attacking talent at both sides’ disposal the deadlock was broken by the unlikely form of Darren Peacock. A corner played in by David Ginola was headed back across goal to Peacock by Shearer, who directed his own header towards the far post and the waiting Denis Irwin, who seemingly cleared the ball off the line as he fell.
Newcastle hands went up in appeal and a wall of noise broke out from the stands as the referee awarded the goal and pointed towards the centre circle. Manchester United players protested that it hadn’t crossed the line but 36,000 Newcastle fans, 11 players on the pitch and one passionate Kevin Keegan on the touchline didn’t give a stuff.
Whilst debate raged about that opener (TV replays later showed that it had crossed the line), our second was spectacular and no doubts as to whether or not this one should be given. A simple ball from John Beresford into the feet of David Ginola, who needed just one touch to elude the attentions of Gary Neville before rifling a right foot rocket past the despairing Peter Schmeichel.
Les Ferdinand, whose struggles to score in the corresponding fixture the previous season had proven so costly in our title challenge, then made it 3-0 with an excellent header following a brilliant Shearer cross.
The only thing missing now was a goal for the Geordie hero, who was being roundly booed by Manchester United’s travelling support every time he touched the ball.
That duly arrived after a Peter Beardsley drive and Les Ferdinand follow up were brilliantly saved by Schmeichel, allowing Shearer to slot home.
In commentary on Sky Sports, Martin Tyler utters the words ‘the script is complete for Newcastle United’ but little did we know the best was yet to come.
I’m sure any Newcastle fan who witnessed it at the time can still see it in their mind’s eye as Rob Lee passes the ball inside to the galloping Philippe Albert. The big Belgian takes two touches before spotting the Manchester United keeper in no man’s land and dinking the most glorious of chips over his head and into the back of the net.
It could and perhaps should have been the game that propelled us to the Premier League title. In reality though, it would prove to be the beginning of the end for Keegan’s time at the club.
Although Shearer’s form would remain strong, this wasn’t reflected in the results with the team winning just three of their next 11 league games and all was not well off the field with the manager.
Five years on, the emotional rollercoaster that is managing Newcastle United had undoubtedly started to take its toll on the manager, who had been the driving force behind the club’s rise from the brink of relegation to the old third division to coming so close to becoming champions of England.
Missing out in such fashion to Manchester United, having had such a commanding lead, had clearly taken its toll on Kevin Keegan, and even the signing of Shearer, who many had thought would be the final piece in the puzzle, wasn’t enough to keep him at the club.
Keegan’s resignation sent shockwaves through the fanbase and arguably nobody would have felt this more keenly than Alan Shearer himself, who had been persuaded by Keegan to turn down the advances of Manchester United and the guarantee of trophies, to return to his boyhood club.
Perhaps there were only two men who could handle the expectations of the job. One was Bobby Robson and the other was Kenny Dalglish. Robson, like Shearer a boyhood fan of the club, was halfway through his first season at Barcelona and understandably felt unable to walk away from one of the biggest clubs in European football.
Dalglish, a league title winner as a manager with Liverpool and Blackburn Rovers, was swiftly appointed and it would have been a move that delighted Shearer, as the two had previously teamed up so effectively at Blackburn Rovers.
There was a nice symmetry to Dalglish replacing Keegan, which replicated their playing days when the same had happened at Liverpool. Dalglish had been a more than able replacement as a player and fans of Newcastle United hoped the same would prove to be true as a manager.
Initial signs would prove promising and a 2-2 draw away at Southampton was followed by a dramatic 4-1 win over Everton at St James’ Park. Trailing to an early goal from future Magpie Gary Speed, the team would struggle to break Everton’s rearguard down until Les Ferdinand equalised on 75 minutes and opened the floodgates with Shearer adding the third from the penalty spot.
The following game was another from the Kevin Keegan manual of football management at St James’ Park against Leicester City. After taking an early lead through Robbie Elliott, Leicester City stunned the home side with three quickfire goals in the second half to race into a 3-1 lead and the game looked almost over.
However, Alan Shearer had other ideas. Like he would go on to do on so many occasions in the future he would take the game by the scruff of the neck, reducing the deficit with an absolutely stunning free kick which rocketed into the roof of the net at the Gallowgate end. He then equalised with a low drive into the bottom corner before securing a valuable three points with a tap in at the far post after some great work by Rob Lee.
After being knocked out of the UEFA Cup in the quarter finals by Monaco, attention then turned to trying to secure second place in the Premier League, which for the first time ever would secure entry into the UEFA Champions League.
Defeat at home by Southampton, followed by another agonising 4-3 loss to Liverpool at Anfield, saw the side drop to fourth in the table. A 4-0 over Coventry was then followed by three consecutive 1-1 draws which left the team languishing down in fifth place and potentially in danger of missing out on European football altogether.
However, three successive wins over Chelsea, Derby County and Arsenal, with Shearer getting on the scoresheet twice, followed by two scrappy 0-0 draws away from home against West Ham and Manchester United, left Newcastle in fourth place going into the final day, where they would take on Nottingham Forest at St James Park.
Alan Shearer and his fellow players knew they needed to win the game and hope that Liverpool and Arsenal, ahead of them, slipped up in order to claim second place in the table.
On a glorious May day Newcastle were irrepressible, scoring five goals without reply with Asprilla, Ferdinand (twice), Shearer and Rob Elliott on the scoresheet.
However, Liverpool would only need to beat Sheffield Wednesday while Arsenal travelled to Derby County with both sides expected to win. Newcastle had gone into the game level on points with Arsenal but with an inferior goal difference.
Arsenal won 3-1 which wasn’t enough to overhaul Newcastle’s goal difference, while Liverpool drew 1-1 with Sheffield Wednesday. As the news was announced over the tannoy at St James’ Park the reaction in the stands was euphoric.
The contrast to the emotions felt 12 months previously couldn’t have been starker. The previous season finishing in second place was a crushing disappointment. A year later, given everything that had happened at the club, it felt like a huge achievement.
After his big money transfer, Shearer’s first season was a resounding success. It may not have ended with silverware but he scored 28 goals in 40 games in all competitions and was voted PFA Player of the Year by his peers.
With the prospect of Champions League football to look forward to, his second season at St James Park promised to be an exciting one.
If you would like to feature on The Mag, submit your article to [email protected]