It’s sometimes possible to lose perspective on just how very, very good Alan Shearer was at kicking – and heading – a football into a goal.
Consider this: over 22 Premier League seasons featuring hundreds of centre-forwards, the magical 30-goal mark has only been breached nine times. Six men - Andy Cole, Thierry Henry, Kevin Phillips, Cristiano Ronaldo, Robin van Persie and Luis Suarez, all at their absolute peaks, have done it once each. Wayne Rooney, Didier Drogba, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen and Ian Wright never managed the feat. Alan Shearer did it three times.
The fact his goal-quakes so rarely resulted in trophies is probably why the Geordie may not be everybody’s automatic first pick as the greatest English top-flight front-man of the past two decades. But the greatest he was – and the only season where his ability was properly rewarded was 1994/95.
That season, he could barely miss. He found the net on 34 occasions, equalling Andy Cole’s record for Newcastle United, set a year earlier. Nobody has come close to the tally since, and the mark still stands (Ronaldo and Suarez got 31 in their season-long rampages, Van Persie, Henry and Phillips all hit 30).
Bargain of the century
Shearer was the key reason Blackburn Rovers scooped their third ever top-flight title, 81 long years after they’d sealed their second. Certainly, the team had some other fine players: Tim Flowers in goal was an extraordinary shot-stopper, Colin Hendry a pasty tower of Caledonian might at the back, and then there was the English midfield maestro, of whom moneybags owner Jack Walker – in a probably apocryphal story – once rebutted manager Kenny Dalglish’s attempt to sign a notable Frenchman with: “Why do you want Zidane when we’ve got Tim Sherwood?”
But the Geordie – poached from Southampton for £3.6 million from under Alex Ferguson’s hooter – was to prove the bargain of the century for the Lancastrian steel baron who bankrolled the side.
As a forward, he had the lot. Strong and physical (some would say a little overly so, especially those defenders who caught his elbow in the kisser), able to hold up the ball well, with impeccable positioning, an incredible leap, bullet header and a shot that could fell a bull elephant, Shearer terrified defences (His secret? “Get your head and knee over it to keep the shot down, and strike the ball with your laces to generate power,” he once told FourFourTwo).
He also had the ability to create chances and link play – a legacy of his younger days as a midfielder – and while this element of his skill set became less apparent later in his career, Shearer was always someone who thrived with the correct sidekick. The summer of 1994 saw his perfect henchman arrive from Norwich City. Chris Sutton was another muscular-yet-thoughtful battering ram of a striker. Together, the original (footballing) SAS rained down death from above.
The duo’s ability to lay chances for each other on a plate cannot be underestimated: Sutton assisted Shearer 11 times and Shearer paid him back nine times; between them they accounted for 61.25% of all Blackburn’s 1994/95 goals. Sutton would end the year with 15 strikes and 17 assists; Shearer with an unbelievable 34 goals and 16 assists.
Big Al got vital strikes in wins over Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Coventry and Southampton; he thumped hat-tricks against QPR, West Ham and Ipswich Town. But ultimately, Shearer was the difference when it counted most. After a wobbly goalless draw with Leeds, Ferguson – manager of title rivals Manchester United – used some classic mind games by claiming that Rovers would have to “finish like Devon Loch” if they were going to blow the title.
Going the distance
The crafty comparison to the famous blundering nag seemed to work. Blackburn collapsed at Manchester City and West Ham. Ferguson ramped things up further and suggested Blackburn may be lacking nerve, leading to Flowers blowing his top in a tremendous TV rant (“don’t talk to me about bottle!”) – and a perfect Shearer riposte. A fine performance and a goal against his hometown club, Newcastle United, saw Blackburn emerge as 1-0 winners and the rot came to a stop.
In the end, it was United who lacked the most bottle. The title went down to the final day of the season, and Rovers blew their lines by losing at Anfield (after a week of ridiculous speculation about how Liverpool would let them win because they didn’t want to see another United title triumph). But Ferguson’s men also faltered, managing just a draw at Upton Park. Shearer had secured his one and only Premiership title.
In typical no-nonsense style, Shearer famously went home to creosote his fence the next day (although he later revealed that his father-in-law in fact did the creosoting, while he merely brought out refreshments). That oft-repeated anecdote gave Shearer the reputation of something of a dullard, and his straightforward attitude to life and football still skews the judgement of those who would argue that the grace and elan of Henry, or the cunning artistry of Suarez or Van Persie made for better players.
But Shearer, named PFA Player of the Year, didn’t care much. He’d scored 31 goals the season before, and kicked on to bag 31 in 1995/96, too, completing an incredible hat-trick of prolific seasons that is unlikely ever to be equalled.
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