SIR Bobby Robson’s Mail on Sunday column last weekend was ostensibly about Manchester City. But it ended up giving an insight into the remarkable level of authority Alan Shearer wielded as a player at Newcastle.
During his five years as Newcastle manager, Robson enjoyed a far better working relationship with Shearer than his predecessor Ruud Gullit did. But both managers lost their jobs just days after leaving Shearer on the bench for a league match.
In both instances, the press reported the benching of Newcastle’s No. 9 as the last desperate act of a manager who had lost the dressing room.
Judging by Robson’s column, maintaining squad unity at St James’ Park was no easy task. (Although if you speak to professional footballers, past or present, they will tell you it has always been the way at every club in the land. It’s just that we outsiders don’t get to hear about 95 per cent of this unrest.)
One of Robson’s techniques for maintaining squad unity, he revealed last weekend, was to give staged rollockings to Shearer in front of the other players.
“When I needed to remind the Newcastle players of their responsibilities, I would arrange with Alan that I was going to have a go at him in a team meeting in front of the other players,” Robson wrote.
“It made the Newcastle players believe they were all treated as equals, even the great Shearer.
“And they got the message that rules were not to be broken by anyone. It also helped my relationship with Alan. He was in on my ploy and so felt privy to my thinking.”
So, just to recap: Robson felt he had to be seen to give Shearer the odd verbal lashing to keep the rest of the squad onside. But he felt he had to agree it first with Shearer to keep his captain onside.
Now that’s what I call ego-juggling. It’s a wonder, really, that Robson lasted five months in charge at Newcastle, let alone five years. None of his successors have lasted more than 15 months.
When Robson was fired in August 2004, Shearer was initially installed as the favourite to replace him. When Graeme Souness left, when Glenn Roeder left, when Sam Allardyce left, when Kevin Keegan left (again), stories linking Shearer with the manager’s job were never far away.
Shearer’s shadow has been a constant presence over St James’ Park, even when the man himself has been absent. It still comes as something of a shock to realise that there was a three-year gap between his retirement from playing and his recent return to the Toon as manager on a short-term basis. It really did feel as if he had never been away.
When he did return, more than one expert suggested it would give Newcastle that vital lift in the relegation fight; a battle in which they would never have become involved in the first place but for comical levels of mismanagement throughout the season.
It’s all very well talking about passion and belief, as if they were all you needed to win football matches. But tactical acumen comes in quite handy as well. Those who know Shearer well say he is one of English football’s most intelligent thinkers. His tactics during Newcastle’s 1-0 defeat at Tottenham on Sunday, though, had season pros scratching their heads.
Was their formation 3-5-2? Or 4-4-2? Or 4-3-3? Was Damien Duff really supposed to be marking Aaron Lennon? And who was supposed to be playing on the right-hand side of midfield? No seemed quite sure, least of all Newcastle’s players.
Shearer has already faced the first major test of his authority, thanks to Obafemi Martins pulling out of the squad with a groin injury on the morning of the 1-1 draw at Stoke. While his public criticism of Martins might have played well with the fans, it doesn’t paint a picture of a squad all pulling in the same direction. As Sir Bobby could have told him, it’s hard work juggling all those egos.
The new manager has to make his authority count for something in Newcastle’s five remaining matches, which include winnable home games against Portsmouth, Middlesbrough and Fulham. Failure to beat Pompey at St James’ next Monday night would give the Toon a mighty shove towards the Championship.
As Robson and Gullit found to their cost, if Shearer’s on the bench, it means there’s trouble at Newcastle. In a different sense, the man himself is now finding that out the hard way.