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Saturday, April 4, 2009

PREMIER REPORT

Newcastle looks to Shearer for miracle finish


LONDON — Saturday at St. James' Park Alan Shearer, without a second's managerial experience, will lead Newcastle United against Chelsea, whose manager Guus Hiddink is one of the most successful coaches in world football.

Christopher Davies

It is a measure of how desperate the relegation-threatened club is that it pleaded with its greatest ever goal scorer to somehow wave a magic wand and keep it in the Premier League.

Mike Ashley, the Newcastle owner, has almost made an art form of bad decisions during his time in charge, not the least believing coaches Chris Highton and Colin Calder could keep the club in the Premier League while manager Joe Kinnear recovers from his latest heart surgery.

Relegation to the Championship would plunge Ashley and Newcastle into financial meltdown, which is why he has gambled by offering Shearer a seven-figure bonus to preserve its Premier League status.

Of all the clubs at the bottom, Newcastle faces the toughest run-in, with matches against high-riding Chelsea, Liverpool and Aston Villa, plus fellow strugglers Stoke, Portsmouth and Middlesbrough among the eight games for which Shearer will be in charge.

We hear that Shearer's presence will motivate the dressing room. If being paid £80,000 or whatever a week to play in the best league in the world, in front of packed stadiums, is not sufficient motivation then Newcastle really does have problems

The players he takes over are the same underachieving, motley crew which has taken Newcastle to the drop zone. Shearer will be assisted by Iain Dowie, his former Southampton teammate, whose managerial record shows him sacked — sorry, leaving by mutual consent — from Charlton, Coventry and Queens Park Rangers of the Championship.

Just the man to help keep Newcastle in the Premier League then.

It is impossible to believe Shearer can outwit coaches like Hiddink, Rafa Benitez or Martin O'Neill. How can he with zero experience in the job?

He turned down the chance to work with Messiah I — Kevin Keegan — and as a multimillionaire with a secure job working for the BBC, Shearer doesn't need the money, but he is in a win-win situation in many ways.

If Newcastle is relegated nobody can justifiably point the finger at him because he was in charge for only eight games. Survival will mean Messiah II has worked a footballing miracle.

What cannot be doubted is Shearer's love of Newcastle and his commitment to the cause. Maybe his heart has ruled his head, but for that he should not be criticized. His mere presence will raise spirits, which Newcastle certainly needs, but Shearer admitted he faces "a massive task."

He added: "I believe we have the quality to do it. It would devastate me if Newcastle were playing in the Championship next season. I had a reputation as a player. Now I've moved on to something different and I'll be judged on results.

"Any eight games in the Premier League would be difficult. I'm not bothered how we do it [stay up]. In the ideal world it would be pretty, but we have to stay in the Premier League."

Much will depend on Michael Owen's ability to find something like his best form after another season punctuated by injuries, but the striker, overlooked by England manager Fabio Capello, already knows he will start against Chelsea.

"I remember when I was having a bad time before Euro '96," said Shearer. "A month before the finals [England coach] Terry Venables pulled me aside and told me I would be starting. It was great man-management and gave me a lot of confidence."

Shearer refused to look beyond the next eight games.

"After that the powers that be will decide which direction the club will go in, he said, but it is difficult going on impossible to imagine Shearer walking away whatever Newcastle's fate.

And anyway, they have run out of messiahs.

* * * * *

FIVE GAMES, five wins . . . England can start planning for the 2010 World Cup finals. Its 2-1 victory over Ukraine was winning ugly, but the Group Six table makes for pretty good reading.

It was not a convincing England performance, and had Ukraine left Wembley with a point, as seemed likely when Andriy Shevchenko equalized in the 74th minute, it would not have been a huge injustice.

John Terry came to England's rescue with a winner in the 85th minute and everyone went home happy — even happier when they heard Diego Maradona's Argentina had been stuffed 6-1 in Bolivia.

European champion Spain remains head and shoulders above the rest in Europe, though much will happen between now and June 2010.

England must hope Ben Foster or another young goalkeeper makes rapid strides, because while 38-year-old David James can still make stunning saves, he does not inspire confidence and there is invariably at least one "James moment" when collective hearts are in the mouth.

Christopher Davies covers the Premier League for the London Daily Telegraph.


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