As I’m writing this, the news of Alan Shearer’s appointment to the Newcastle job is on every website bar Newcastle United’s own, so it might all still be an April Fool. And if so, a better one than the Graun’s depressingly poor Twitter put-on.
When Keegan returned to Newcastle, I was one of the doomsayers, and unfortunately the doomsayers proved right. But this time, the doomsayers sally forth without my support. I think Shearer has chosen the right job at the right time. Here’s why.
It’s hard, these days, if it was ever easy, for a manager to be in true charge of a club. Brian Clough had to waste enormous amounts of his time at Derby on politics, on outmanouvering his chairman. It had been the same story at Hartlepools. The very size of modern clubs makes any idea of total control absurd. But a manager must at least be in a position where he moulds the thinking of the people who work with him. Keegan couldn’t – because Ashley wasn’t desperate enough to take his own appointees’ hands off the reins. At Aston Villa, Martin O’Neill could, because Villa were ready to do anything to get him and then ready to let him get on with the job.
Newcastle will be looking at Aston Villa now in the clear knowledge that that could have been them, standing tall in a proud, worthy, but exhausted fifth. That they aren’t is because it took this season to bring home the consequences of all that mismanagement and Toon-striped shirtless bullshit, of everything that they’ve done since…. and when you type it, you can scarcely believe it – since they replaced Sir Bobby Robson with Graeme Souness…
And this is the moment that Shearer has been waiting for. Had he arrived earlier, as Keegan’s deputy, he’d have been no more than a figurehead on a figurehead. Now he’ll be allowed to do what he wants, for good or ill. He’ll have freedom to act. Newcastle have finally cried uncle, declared themselves powerless against relegation and realised that their life has become unmanageable. (I think I’m about to say that they’re ready for Al-Anon, but I’ll back away from that before it’s too late).
Newcastle need Shearer now far more than he needs them, and Mike Ashley’s been neutered. If only Sam Allardyce had had such luck. Whether Alan will turn out to be a good manager in the long term is moot. He has his A and B badges, so that’s out of the way. He has legendary political pull. Intelligent men who know their business have put him in positions of leadership. So far, so Bryan Robson.
But insofar as this season goes, he doesn’t have to be good at improving players, finding new ones, making clever selections and cleverer substitutions, or imposing his philosophy. All he has to do is change the air in the dressing room.
And when it comes to that, he has a fit Michael Owen on board. Owen, who came to Newcastle at Shearer’s urging, who is now working for him, who has been desperately unlucky with injuries and is looking to rebuild, who, like Shay Given, is almost certainly fed up with the ship of fools he’s found himself on. Shearer believes in Owen, and it’s about time someone did.
How clever it sounds to say that the day of the out-and-out striker is over. I know tactics, me, and Owen is a dinosaur. He’s a goalhanger, needs to contribute more to the team, take part in the build-up. To people of my age, this is all too reminiscent of the 1970s conversations about work-rate, which began with such knowing confidence amongst some very good managers and ended at the Stadio Olimpico in November 1976.
Calling Owen a goalhanging dinosaur is like calling Petr Cech one. (I don’t believe that Capello sees Owen in this light, by the way – I just think he wants Owen back on real form, showing Beckham levels of interest and drive. He might just get exactly that now. And praise goes to the strikers Capello has picked for not letting England down).
And as for Owen’s injuries, do at some point review Newcastle’s record in this respect over the last ten seasons. Something is clearly wrong there. Rumours abound about the fundamental unsuitability of the training pitches although there’s no reason to accuse their medical staff of any shortcomings. For whatever reason, Newcastle have been strung up by injuries, year after year. Arsenal and Liverpool have been unlucky this term, but their overall record is infinitely better.
There’s a useful squad behind Owen, one which Keegan got playing again. It doesn’t have much time left to rescue itself, but with WBA and Borough essentially gone, there’s only one relegation place left, and chances to escape it.
As for next year.. if Ashley thinks this one has been difficult, he’s seen nothing yet. I expect Shearer to remain in post, and for the real power within the club to drain from the chairman at speed, along with large sums of his money. It’s said that the British are the only nation capable of experiencing schadenfreude towards themselves. If so, expect Ashley to spend 2009-10 not in a Toon shirt, but in the Union Flag.