Remembering The Greats: Alan Shearer – The Local Hero

The man himself put it best: “I’m just a sheet-metal worker’s son from Gosforth.” Alan Shearer’s was a simple faitytale story with a dash of realism, the type Hollywood would love to write. Full of grit, determination, triumphant ups and stinging downs, in the end he got to do what he always dreamt of. He scored for Newcastle United wearing the number 9 shirt, 206 times exactly, more than anyone else.

There is a ‘rags to riches’ element, in his humble Tyneside roots, but he is now both the envy and hero of everyone in the area. There is too much pigeonholing in football these days, certain criteria which defines a successful career, normally centring around the number of medals on a mantelpiece. That idea assumes every player dreams of lifting silverware and nothing else. Of course, most would tell you that is an aim, but not the be all and end all. For some playing football is enough, especially for the right team. Shearer was most definitely the exception to that rule.

It is a myth, though, that he completely turned his back on defined ‘success’. Sir Alex Ferguson was desperate to sign him for Manchester United, twice. He failed both times, Shearer signing for Blackburn Rovers first in 1992, and more famously Newcastle for a then world-record fee of £15million in 1996.

He has become the bud of jokes, particularly among Manchester United fans, for ignoring their interest and subsequently turning his back on a much more ‘successful’ career. While he definitely, in the case of the second move, put his heart first, he admits he almost signed on at Old Trafford. It should also be remembered that, when he returned home to join Newcastle and play for childhood hero Kevin Keegan, the Magpies were legitimate title contenders, as opposed to the institutionalised laughing stock they appear now.

All he wanted was to play for Newcastle, despite other temptations along the way. It took longer than he probably anticipated growing up, failing at a trial after being put in goal despite an, unsurprisingly, prolific goalscoring record in the grassroots for the fabled Wallsend Boys Club, also responsible for producing the likes of Michael Carrick and Steve Bruce. Ironically, both enjoyed that trophy-laden life in the red half of Manchester, neither pulling on a black and white shirt.

Newcastle have not been the best at spotting and nurturing their own, which is frustrating given the amount of stars who developed. Shearer was the only one to play for the club in his peak years, but he ended up at Southampton first, before Blackburn, where he won the Premier League title, his one taste of that ‘success’.

The long route home, not returning until he was 26, may take gloss off his love affair with the club somewhat. He may not match Paolo Maldini or Francesco Totti for longevity, but he still embodies everything Newcastle fans expect from both football and life. Hard work, effort, and a no-nonsense approach. Blood, sweat and tears were always part of the Alan Shearer package in some form.

Newcastle don’t look like surviving what has seemingly becoming an annual relegation battle this season. They’ve been there before, falling into the Championship in 2009 with Shearer in charge on an interim basis. Rafael Benitez in in place for a similar rescue mission, but the problems run deeper in the system. The players lack the core understanding of the emotional attachment the city and the club share, the necessity for good results to allow fans to enjoy weekends and the expectation of 100% effort all the time. This current team could use Shearer the player more than any of the sides he actually played for.

He is so much more than just a club icon, he is arguably the Premier League’s greatest ever, miles ahead in the all time top scorers charts with 260. His England record, too, stands up against most with 30 in 60 games. He played alongside some brilliant players, and fought against top strikers to be the senior man internationally, but bettered them all.

Shearer should not be cast aside or forgotten because of choices he made. He may not have played at the top level for as long as some, but he will say he chose wisely. The embodiment of everything Geordie, a fighter and a gladiator. Few did it better than him.


Gary Neville leaves Valencia a failure, but success is in his path

It seems rather fitting that both Gary Neville and Remi Garde left their respective jobs less than 24 hours apart. Neither man seemed suited to the needs of Valencia, in Neville’s case, and Aston Villa for Garde. Yet both went in, just four months ago, with good reputations, making it all the more disappointing that they failed to deliver.

The main difference between them, though, was the remit under which they were working. Garde, who had done great things with Lyon before departing there in 2012, stepped into a crisis situation at Villa, without the required track record to help save the club from relegation. Ten games into the campaign, having failed to win under Tim Sherwood, Garde was ushered in, but failing to secure a victory until January meant he was unable to have the desired effect. Having departed by mutual consent on Tuesday, he leaves them cut adrift and hurtling towards the Championship without hope of a fight.

Neville, meanwhile, joined Valencia, most likely thanks to his personal friendship with owner Peter Lim and brother Phil being on the coaching staff, with a proven knowledge of the tactical side of the game, a great personality and winning mentality. Crucially, he had never managed at any level before, despite a role as England manager Roy Hodgson’s assistant.

Success was never out of the question for him. He had, after all, rewritten the rules on punditry during four years with Sky Sports. That is by no means easy, but falling into the trap of mundanely stating the obvious, definitely is. Neville was able to portray immensely complex analysis in simple steps, all with intoxicating humour and great on-screen chemistry with former rival Jamie Carragher. Learning from the very best, Sir Alex Ferguson, during hid entire career with Manchester United also stood him in good stead for a career in management.

A first job, particularly these days with the average lifespan of a coaching job seemingly shrinking by the week, has the ability to make or break a career. Neville could hardly have entered into a more pressurised situation than the one he found at Los Che, one of Spain’s biggest clubs with the financial power and reach to return to past heights thanks to the input of Lim and super-agent Jorge Mendes.

The first campaign under that regime, with Nuno Esperito Santo in charge, went well, with the club gaining Champions League qualification for the first time in four seasons. Fans expectations, which have never been particularly low anyway, skyrocketed, and a poor start to the season, Nuno was sacked. It seemed a tall order for anyone to get them back on track, despite only being 11 games into the new campaign.

Neville was also arriving in the shadow cast by a second failure of David Moyes’ career, at Real Sociedad. Moyes spent a year at the Anoeta looking to rebuild after a nightmare stint at Man United, but ultimately his poor grasp of the language, culture and footballing style cost him dear. Neville had to learn from that, but faired worse, something he deserves some criticism for, too.

The Spanish media, particularly in the Valencia region, and fans never took to him. In that country, more than most, it is like swimming against a heavy tide when the respect of those is lost.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but Neville’s claim that he would hurt his credibility had he ignored Lim’s call is not entirely correct. Not many would turn down such an opportunity, but his biggest mistake was not looking beyond the bright lights of Europe’s premier club competition and focussing on the fact he faced an uphill battle to succeed. No one has ever criticised his credentials, and he was brave not to shirk the responsibility by remaining in the comfortable Sky studio, but a job in this country would have given him a better springboard.

It is worth remembering Neville completely changed his public image during his television career. His playing days showed him in as an arrogant, competitive loudmouth, a persona which returned on the touchline in Spain. Those traits are needed for success as a coach, but must be honed and tailored if he chooses to step into another job any time soon. An honourable man, he knew his time was up because his results have not been good enough. After losing 11 of his 28 games in charge, he leaves Valencia just six points above the relegation zone.

Football is far too unforgiving. While Neville has made some errors in judgment, which can only be expected when taking his first steps, he remains the brightest footballing mind in Britain today. This entire experience has proven a stark reminder that a good pundit doesn’t necessarily make a good coach, as much as a good player doesn’t, but it would be interesting to hear Neville the analyst’s observations of Neville the coach. He did admit he would have reservations about the appointment as an onlooker, after all.

Gary Neville may be battered and bruised, but will come out of this experience much stronger. He took a job many would dream of an found it too much at this stage in a promising career. Perhaps Remi Garde’s old job would be more his speed, but some time away would do him good.

Arsenal’s rose-tinted glasses slowing progression under Arsene Wenger

There is a sense of entitlement that surrounds Arsene Wenger, only replicated once in England before. Many see him as managerial royalty, in the same way as Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, meaning he should have complete control over the destiny of both himself and Arsenal.

Comparisons between the pair, though, do Ferguson a huge disservice. The Scot is unrivalled in terms of both success and longevity, an anomaly in the modern game, which has seen a rise in the quick fix culture. By the time he retired in 2013, he was part of the Old Trafford furniture, making every decision. He had been successful for so long it was too late to call him on any failure, proven by exiting the Champions League at the group stages and surrendering the Premier League title to Manchester City in hid penultimate season.

He vacated his, for lack of a better word, throne, after 27 years. Wenger has been at Arsenal for almost 20 now, which in itself is a great achievement, and the main reason for the similarities with one of his oldest adversary. Both have won trophies, built teams and are the architects of their respective clubs’ recent success, but the difference is Ferguson’s victories were consistent, Wenger has ridden the wave for about a decade.

Stability is a huge part of any club who build some sort of dynasty, as both have under Ferguson and Wenger. The former’s remarkable ability to constantly move with the times kept up his hunger and avoided him becoming stale. Wenger was incredibly intelligent man, years ahead of his time when he stepped through the doors at Highbury in 1996.

Ferguson successfully built about four teams, only failing to win trophies during bedding in periods. Wenger, on the other hand, masterminded seemingly indestructible era, blending the British steel of Martin Keown, Tony Adams and Sol Campbell, with the French flair of Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and Thierry Henry.

The beautiful thing about that team was, particularly in Vieira’s case, it had both skill and grit in equal measure. Three league titles and two FA Cups were won between 1998 and 2004, the latest with that unforgettable unbeaten season. To this day, Wenger both lives off and is judged against the success they brought.

But where he falls down when measured against Ferguson, is his inability to rebuild since the likes of Vieira and Henry departed. His commitment to a change in style, moving away from strength and power, focussing on technique and players with a low centre of gravity shows just how smart the man is, and proves he understands the game’s development like no-one else.

Yet, such a dedication to that has become detrimental, and instead of adding to the good things from the glory days, they have been forgotten. Sunday’s 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford raised questions over the leadership and mental strength of his current side, two things taken for granted before. These issues have been raised for many years, but this time it was worse.

It is not to say Wenger is all bad, and his defence is a strong one. Simply put, the club would not harbour dreams of dominating England again if it weren’t for him, and he has added back to back FA Cups to his collection, becoming the most successful manager in the competition’s history.

His shortcomings in the Premier League title hunt were down to a mixture of the rebrand of his team, their move to the Emirates Stadium in 2007 and the rise of some rather financially wealthy rivals to add to Ferguson and Manchester United. Their neighbours, City, and Chelsea, not to mention the Gunners’ fierce rivals Tottenham, have proven worthy opponents for Wenger in the past.

Now, though, it is time remove the excuses. This season, despite the inconsistent form of City, the continued post-Ferguson malaise of the Red Devils and Chelsea’s surprise slump, allowing Leicester City to top the table, Wenger and Arsenal are in the process of blowing yet another title bid.

There is a perception surrounding Arsenal that there team is young and developing, even now. The idea that Wenger is still nurturing his side has also been part of the narrative, but an average age of 26 last weekend, compared to 24 for Man United, show that, in reality, the problems lie with one man.

Every transfer window is the same for Arsenal, whether they need a striker, midfielder or central defender. Those three positions have not been convincingly filled for a number of years, meaning Wenger has neglected to properly strengthen the spine of his side to launch a real title assault.

Arsene Wenger is an intelligent man whose work has revolutionised both Arsenal and football in England. He deserves the immortality he receives when looking at his early years, but his mistakes have led to disappointments later on. Now was his time to bounce back, the excuses no longer work, but the same problems remain. A parting of the ways in the summer looks best for all parties.



Cristiano Ronaldo’s post-derbi comments show why Lionel Messi is more popular

Individual rivalries are, naturally, a phenomenon reserved for single-player sports. In Tennis, Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal are a great example, while Joe Frazier and Mohammed Ali defined Boxing in their era.

They are what makes those sports a great watch, keeping them alive as spectacles. Every great needs competition to push them. Football, though, has not tended to rely so heavily on players competing with one another, always looking at the bigger picture of how the teams fare. That was until Cristiano Ronaldo met Lionel Messi.

Ronaldo is arguably the most unique footballer on the planet, in that it can be argued he puts himself above the team more than any other. There are a lot of myths about the Portuguese international, who has never hidden his desire to be the greatest player to ever live. His talent is not only undeniable, but stunningly obvious, and his ego is there to match.

In a world where political correctness is monitored like never before, Ronaldo’s bullish attitude is to be welcomed, for the most part. His personality has driven him on to numerous individual and team awards, records, accolades and general adulation.

Like every other top player around, Ronaldo has been incredibly unlucky. For all of his hard work, intensity and effort with Manchester United, Real Madrid and Portugal, he has never quite been able to escape his nemesis Messi. Yet, as with the plethora of other top rivalries, the pair really keep each other going.

It is no surprise that the duel intensified when Ronaldo joined Real in 2009 because, with Messi ruling the roost at Barcelona, both then played on each side of perhaps the most unique divide in the game. It is a hatred that runs deep and has both football and political connotations.

They each represent their respective philosophies; Messi is the hard-working ‘boy next door’, who wins through fairness and modesty, Ronaldo the flashy king of kings who dwarfs all before him. Both players have been split by a hair over the past seven years or so, but Barcelona have dominated both Real and football in general. Most records are held by one or the other, and the coveted Ballon d’Or has been shared between them since 2007.

The sad truth of all this is each has a band of loyal followers, meaning many cannot appreciate both for what they are. Instead of admiring both in a way they deserve, taking in everything they do, each time one fails it becomes an opportunity for the other’s fans to partake in a round of unfortunate mudslinging.

The is no known issues between the pair, with mutual respect growing in recent years. The idea that Ronaldo is a cold-hearted, arrogant machine is unfair and fabricated to a degree, as is the thought of Messi strictly being a team player. He knows how good he is and wants to be the main man at Camp Nou, something Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Villa and even Luis Enrique found out the hard way.

It isn’t hard to see how the stereotype has developed, though, and Ronaldo certainly didn’t help himself after Real’s third straight La Liga defeat to neighbours Atletico at the weekend.

He has attempted to backtrack since, but his quotes claiming that if his team-mates were of his standard results like that wouldn’t happen, causing even close ally Sergio Ramos to come out firefighting, have shown him to be the bad loser his, sometimes unfair, media persona depicts.

The idea of him being jealous of Messi and his personal and professional relationship with both Neymar and Luis Suarez was intensified by comments made before a Champions League game at Roma, too. It mustn’t go unnoticed what an achievement it is to get that trio playing so perfectly together, given previous failed attempts with others.

Ronaldo has had a different idea of getting to the top to Messi, and has struggled to outdo the Argentine. Instead of making bad headlines with words, Barça’s number 10, who it must be stressed is not perfect, makes good ones on the pitch as often as his Madrid counterpart does. Seeing the result from the Calderon on Saturday, Messi picked Barça off the floor against Sevilla the next day, scoring a stunning free kick to inspire them to a victory from behind.

Football has been blessed by such an intense individual battle, the type it hasn’t seen before and probably won’t ever again. There are so many arguments on both sides as to who is better, but it should be remembered that, above all else, they are to be enjoyed, because neither will last forever.

Their personality differences have helped the narrative, but the frustrating thing for Ronaldo is he has not been able to shake off the stigma of being second best. Saturday evening’s events showed, in part, just why that is.