Alan Shearer and the Newcastle United years – 1997/98
There was a great deal of excitement going into the 1997/98 season after the positive end to the previous Newcastle United campaign, which had seen the club snatch second place in the Premier League and secure Champions League football for the first time.
With Kenny Dalglish having a full pre-season under his belt, and his previous success in management with Liverpool and Blackburn Rovers, there was real belief that we could finally be on the way to ending the club’s agonising wait for a trophy.
Alan Shearer had of course been a pivotal part of Dalglish’s success at Blackburn and he would surely play a key part in any successes achieved.
As it transpired, those plans would be shattered after Shearer suffered an awful ankle injury in a pre-season friendly at Goodison Park.
The intervening months between the injury and his comeback would prove to be incredibly challenging for Dalglish and the team.
Unfortunately, the strike partnership between Shearer and Ferdinand, which had been so potent the previous season, was not only broken apart by the injury to Shearer.
After years of heavy spending the club decided it needed to bring money in (despite Champions League football and cash to come in) and after two excellent seasons, Ferdinand was one of their most bankable assets. In a terrible twist of fate the club agreed a £6 million deal for Ferdinand to go back to London and join Tottenham Hotspur, the day before Shearer suffered his injury.
Attempts were made to try and change Ferdinand’s mind but to no avail and Dalglish suddenly found himself shorn of two of the best strikers in the Premier League.
David Ginola, a creator of so many goals during the previous two seasons, also joined Ferdinand in London, while other key squad players such as Lee Clark and Robbie Elliott were sold, with Peter Beardsley following them out the exit door in August, signing for Bolton Wanderers.
Incoming players included a highly rated Irish goalkeeper by the name of Shay Given, while big things were also expected of a young attacking talent from Denmark, Jon Dahl Tomasson.
Somewhat bizarrely, Dalglish also added an ageing Ian Rush, John Barnes and Stuart Pearce to his squad, all secured on free transfers.
With Tino Asprilla increasingly erratic, on and off the pitch, much of the attacking burden would fall on Tomasson’s shoulders.
Tomasson had been hugely impressive in pre-season, scoring three goals and looking a constant threat.
He had signed from Heerenveen after an impressive season in the Dutch top flight which had seen him score 24 goals in 38 appearances.
However, it was obvious he wasn’t a player who would be capable of leading the front line, one who had been signed to complement Shearer rather than replace him and from the moment he missed a glorious chance on his home debut against Sheffield Wednesday, he was always going to be up against it.
Despite all the challenges thrown in front of them, the team got off to a decent start, winning five of their first seven league games to sit in sixth place in the league.
The team were also enjoying a great adventure in the UEFA Champions League, overcoming the challenge of Croatia Zagreb in the final qualifying round, with Temuri Ketsbaia scoring a dramatic winner in extra time.
That followed by a stunning 3-2 victory over Barcelona at St James’ Park with Tino Asprilla scoring a famous hat-trick and Keith Gillespie producing the best performance of his career to terrorise the Barcelona defence.
However, the wheels would soon start to come off and after back to back victories over Southampton and Crystal Palace, Dalglish’s side would go eight games without a win, a dreadful run which included six defeats.
Thankfully, the prognosis on Shearer’s return was starting to become more positive. When he had suffered the injury the sports pages had been full of speculation that the injury was serious enough to put Shearer’s participation in the France 98 World Cup in jeopardy.
However, by Christmas he was back training with the squad and his return would surely provide a much-needed boost to a team desperately struggling without him.
Shearer finally made his Premier League comeback on 17 January as a substitute against Bolton Wanderers, as the team claimed their first win since the end of November. Despite that victory and the return of the Geordie hero, the team’s struggles continued in the league, with Shearer himself finding life difficult and he would finish the season with only two league goals to his name from 17 appearances.
However, where more success would be enjoyed was in the FA Cup. Newcastle had a long proud history in the tournament, having won it six times and reached the final on a further five occasions. None of that success was recent though. They hadn’t won the tournament since 1955 and hadn’t reached a final since 1974 when they had been outclassed by Liverpool in the final, going down 3-0.
So the club was long overdue some success, and after defeating Everton 1-0 at Goodison Park, with Ian Rush inevitably getting himself on the scoresheet, they were given, on paper, what looked like a kind draw against Stevenage Borough, although the potential for a banana skin was clearly high.
Shearer was in the starting eleven and immediately made an impact putting his side ahead with a thumping header from a Keith Gillespie cross in the first five minutes. However, Dalglish’s side would be pegged back with Stevenage securing a money-spinning replay at St James’s Park.
It was expected that Newcastle would romp home easily on their home turf but once again they made hard work of it, with another two goals from Shearer securing a nervy 2-1 victory and a place in the fifth round.
The draw would continue to be kind as Newcastle secured a home tie against lower league opposition. This time the opponents were Tranmere Rovers and the match followed a similar pattern to the previous cup ties with Newcastle once again struggling to overcome their opponents, but a goal from Shearer ultimately seeing them prevail.
Newcastle fans were now definitely getting excited and quite rightly. They were heading to Old Trafford for an FA Cup semi-final where they would face Division One side, Sheffield United, who were managed by the combative and combustible Neil Warnock.
Newcastle came up against a side built in Warnock’s image and they would once again have to rely on Shearer to secure their place in the final.
He broke the deadlock on 60 minutes. Following a wonderful cross by John Barnes, Shearer rose majestically at the back post to thump a header towards goal which was magnificently saved by Sheffield United goalkeeper Alan Kelly. Despite that the ball seemed to be heading across the line, but Shearer made absolutely sure, thumping the ball into the back of the net and beating the despairing last ditch tackle of the Sheffield United defender.
The victory earned Newcastle and its fans a trip to Wembley where they would face Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal side who were chasing the double after winning the Premier League title.
Widely mocked on his appointment as Arsenal manager, Wenger had proven all the doubters wrong, transforming Arsenal into the best team in the land.
There was no doubt Newcastle were going to be up against it, but the team had enjoyed a charmed run to the final, and there was a genuine feeling amongst the support that this really was going to be Newcastle’s year.
Unfortunately though, it wasn’t to be, as Shearer and his fellow players found themselves making the lonely trudge up the stairs at Wembley to collect their unwanted runners up medals. Shearer came closest to scoring for Newcastle during the game itself, hitting the post with a left foot drive but otherwise, Arsenal were a class above and fully deserving of their double winners status.
Shearer’s second season at the club was ultimately a disappointing one. Dalglish would later admit that they rushed him back from the injury too quickly, no doubt to try and arrest the slump that had befallen the team in Shearer’s absence.
Dalglish was becoming increasingly unpopular amongst the fanbase, despite the run to Wembley, and everyone knew that huge improvements were needed on and off the pitch, in the worst season for the club since they had returned to the Premier League.
The one bright point was that Shearer made it through the 1998 World Cup unscathed and with a couple of goals to his name.
The Geordie faithful were hoping he would be back to his very best by the time the 1998-99 season kicked off.
(You can catch up with Aaron’s earlier Alan Shearer 1996/97 season article HERE)
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