If there is one thing which the Premier League has obsessed over since its inception 25 years ago, it is goals. Great goalkeepers, defenders and midfielders have graced English football, but prolific forwards invariably receive the most affection from fans, managers and pundits.
Alan Shearer is at least partly responsible for this obsession. With 260 goals to his name, the former Southampton, Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United striker is far and away the Premier League’s all-time top scorer. The only player even remotely close is Wayne Rooney, who is still 60 goals behind.
“A great goalscorer is someone who delivers when it really matters,” he tells me. “There are a lot of players who can score goals. But scoring when the team is playing badly, when the result is on the line, or when the pressure is on, is what separates the good from the best.”
Shearer’s famous ‘one-hand’ celebration is synonymous with the Premier League. He says it was “just what I did naturally,” and the same could be said of his goalscoring feats. What makes his record even more impressive is that he never played for a powerhouse such as Manchester United, though he was offered the chance.
Southampton first spotted the boy from Gosforth, Newcastle, playing for Wallsend Boys Club. Having spent time at their Centre of Excellence during the holidays, moving to the south coast in 1986 was the next logical step for Shearer. Apart from “a history of producing good players,” Southampton was also a city where the teenager could “focus on my football away from my mates.”
It didn’t take long for him to make an impression. Two years after joining the Saints, a fresh-faced Shearer was handed a full debut against Arsenal at The Dell. He responded with a hat-trick, and his reward was a first professional contract at the end of the season.
“I didn’t even know I was starting the game so none of my family had got tickets. To play was incredible, to score a hat-trick was amazing. The next day I was back in cleaning boots, so they didn’t let me get carried away.”
Shearer had announced himself to English football by becoming the youngest player to score a top flight hat-trick, and after a goalless season he started to gain momentum. He scored 40 over the next three seasons, as well as all seven for England Under-21’s en route to winning the 1991 Toulon Tournament.
By then, other clubs were sitting up and taking notice of Southampton’s young striker. For the first time, Sir Alex Ferguson made a bid to bring Shearer to Old Trafford. Instead, he opted to join Jack Walker’s ambitious Blackburn a few months before the inaugural Premier League season.
“Jack Walker, Kenny Dalglish and Ray Harford sold me the dream. They had all been successful in their lives before so they knew what they were saying.”
But it was Shearer who turned that dream into reality, becoming Dalglish’s talisman and netting 130 goals for the Lancashire club. He was unstoppable as Blackburn pulled off a remarkable title win in the 1994-95 season, thanks in no small part to their star man’s 34 goals. Some choose to focus on Walker’s huge investment in the club, but Shearer says this is missing the point.
“The season we won the title, I can’t remember the figures, but we certainly weren’t the highest spending club in the Premier League at the time. It was just because we were such a small club taking on the big boys.”
It was the second of three consecutive seasons in which Shearer scored 30 goals or more, and his presence is still felt at Ewood Park. The fact a street in Blackburn is named after him demonstrates his legacy in that part of the country.
Shearer also flourished for England during those early Premier League years. He scored on his senior debut against France while still at Southampton, but the summer of 1996 was when he proved his worth in an England shirt.
Euro 96 was the first major international tournament to be hosted by England since 1966, and the home team did not disappoint. Shearer won the Golden Boot with five goals as England made it to the semi-finals in their last great performance at a tournament, ultimately losing to Germany on penalties – a recurring theme to this day. He scored twice in the 4-1 rout of the Netherlands at Wembley, which he sees as the defining match.
“The game against Holland in Euro 96 was the greatest atmosphere I played in during my career. The game had everything – two great footballing nations, an incredible atmosphere, a fantastic team performance from an England side, which I don’t think we have matched since.”
He says it was a “shame” that Terry Venables was unable to continue with that side – five months before Euro 96, the manager had announced he would stand down after the tournament due to upcoming court cases. But two years later Shearer captained the team at the World Cup, and although England were undone by penalties once again in France – this time by Argentina in a bad-tempered round of 16 fixture – Shearer considers himself indebted to Venables’ successor.
“By far the proudest achievement of my career was captaining England. I will be forever grateful to Glenn Hoddle for giving me the honour, and to then lead England out at the World Cup finals was the ultimate, but yet again we failed in the penalty shootout.”
But there was still something missing for Shearer. The Blackburn striker was in high demand prior to Euro 96, but that tournament heightened the excitement surrounding him even further. Once again, he was approached by Man United, but another team entered the mix – his beloved Newcastle, which he describes as “my club.”
“I’d all but agreed to go to Manchester United, but once I met Kevin Keegan and spoke to him there was only one thing I could do, and that was return home to Newcastle.”
Players rarely get the chance to play for their hometown club under their childhood hero, and it is hard to argue with Shearer’s choice. Newcastle paid a world record £15 million to sign him, but the fee was unimportant. They had their man, and Shearer was home.
“It was the ultimate fulfilment of my boyhood dream returning to play at St James’ Park wearing the number 9 shirt. With 15,000 people coming to watch my unveiling, I knew I had made the right decision.”
Many wonder what might have happened had Shearer joined Ferguson’s side that summer. Newcastle failed to win a single trophy during his 10 years at St James’ Park while United swept all before them, but Shearer says he does not regret “any decisions” he made in his career.
“My only regret is my injuries. I couldn’t have done more on the pitch to try and win a trophy for Newcastle. When I signed we were challengers and the only time I would have had a regret was if Newcastle had won a trophy during my career and I had not been part of it. I did everything I could to make it happen, but it wasn’t to be.”
Shearer had to adapt his game after suffering ankle ligament damage during a pre-season match against Chelsea in 1997. He evolved from complete forward to target man with great success, before injuries caught up with him in 2006.
And yet, he surpassed Jackie Milburn’s scoring record and provided countless memorable moments for the Magpies. He was given a hero’s send-off at his testimonial, and the club erected a statue of him outside St James’ Park – with one arm raised, of course. Shearer did not just play for the club; he embodied it.
Then there is that daunting 260-goal mark which looms over the league. Rooney recently became the second player to break 200, but he is in the twilight of his career. Can anyone catch Shearer?
“Harry Kane and Romelu Lukaku are both young enough to have a chance. They would have to stay injury-free and of course play most of their careers in the Premier League. I honestly think that with the standard of defending now, I would comfortably score 40 goals a season. They currently both play in sides at the right end of the table so both have a chance.”
Shearer is not alone in criticising defending in English football. As someone there at the start of the Premier League 25 years ago, he is more qualified than most to analyse the changes since then.
“The overall product has improved. The Premier League is a global phenomenon. I don’t think the standard of football has improved, but our league is definitely the most competitive and exciting.”
He admits he was tempted by a managerial career, but “those days have passed” since an eight-game stint in charge of Newcastle at the end of the 2008-09 season, where he could not prevent his old side from relegation. Now Shearer is an established pundit on BBC’s Match of the Day, where he feels at home.
“I love my job. For a while, when I was thinking I would go back into management, I held back on giving my real views on TV as I didn’t want to say anything I might regret if I then took a job.”
“I realised, though, that meant I wasn’t giving myself the chance to be my best in either field so I made the decision to focus on my TV career and really work on being the best I could be at that, without compromise.”
It is a phrase which could sum up Shearer’s career.
Photograph: Arq London