Anyone who knows anything about football knows all about the prestige of the number 9 jersey at Newcastle United. It is every young Geordie lad’s dream to grow up and wear the iconic shirt and, luckily for his hometown club, the self-proclaimed “sheet-metal worker’s son” did just that for 10 years and he did it with pride, passion and distinction, becoming the club’s all-time leading goalscorer along the way. How times have changed.
The club has been beset by an almost endless stream of problems since Big Al hung up his boots in 2006, lurching from one disaster to the next: botching numerous managerial appointments; throwing good money after bad on ill-judged, over-paid recruits; under-performing badly in both the league and cups; taking advantage of the fans’ passionate support by publicly lying to them countless times and, generally, dragging the club’s good name through the dirt again and again.
Granted, the Shearer era was not without its low points – who could forget the glorious Freddie Shepherd News of the World sting where he insulted the fans’ intelligence, labelled Shearer ‘Mary Poppins’ and dismissed Geordie women as ‘dogs’ all in one fell swoop – but at least The Toon Army could always take it for granted that they had one of the country’s top strikers leading the line; a man who not only loved the club but who also had the ability to carry the team, almost single-handedly, in hard times.
The failure to properly replace Shearer after his retirement arguably set Newcastle on a downward spiral from which they have never really recovered. That was the summer of the 2006 World Cup and a remarkable number of thoroughbred strikers were on show in Germany; proven performers like Miroslav Klose and Luca Toni, as well as rising stars like Fernando Torres, Carlos Tevez and David Villa – any of whom would have had the class and pedigree to take over as our number 9. Instead, Glenn Roeder plumped for the raw, unpolished talents of Nigerian livewire Obafemi Martins and hoped for the best. Unfortunately, the gamble didn’t pay off.
Of course, if the initial succession strategy had gone to plan, one of Europe’s elite strikers would indeed have taken over from Shearer but, as it happened, that superstar replacement came and went long before Gosforth’s most famous son had even made his exit.
Patrick Kluivert’s arrival in 2004 was seemingly perfectly timed to dovetail with the curtain drawing down on Shearer’s illustrious career; the Dutchman was supposed to play in tandem with Big Al for a season and then assume the mantle the following year but we all know how that turned out. In the end, Shearer outlasted him and the summer of 2005 saw the signing of another big name as Freddy Shepherd’s ill-advised record-breaking Galactico, Michael Owen, arrived. Something I never questioned at the time was why Owen wasn’t champing at the bit to wear the famous number 9 – if not when he first arrived, then, at least after Shearer’s retirement. Although, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear to see that assuming responsibility wasn’t ever high on the England striker’s list of priorities.
All of that led to Martins’ arrival and his departure after Newcastle’s relegation in 2009 meant that the famous shirt was left vacant during their glorious season down in The Championship – Chris Hughton rightly reasoning that it was a motivational carrot to dangle in front of Shola Ameobi, Andy Carroll, Nile Ranger and the rest of the strikers at the club.
Carroll rose to the challenge gloriously and he grew into the role so impressively that Mike Ashley decided to cash in, leaving the shirt up for grabs again until Papiss Cissé’s arrival 12 months later. His stunning form during his first six months on Tyneside had fans believing that a new Messiah had been found but, sadly for Cissé, his confidence and composure have deserted him entirely in the last couple of seasons and he looks to be headed for the exit door.
Newcastle’s most impressive goalscorer this season, the on-loan Loïc Rémy, is just the type of striker they need – strong, hard-working, skilful and clinical – and he also seems to have settled well on Tyneside but failing to secure his signing on a permanent basis last summer looks to have been a costly error and it would be a huge surprise if he stayed at St James’ Park.
Which leads us on to this summer – eight years on from that World Cup in Germany and the Magpies are still in dire need of a talismanic centre forward to follow in the footsteps of Shearer, MacDonald, Milburn and the countless others that have worn Newcastle United’s number 9 shirt with such distinction down through the generations.
It takes a special kind of man to wear that shirt and to carry the hopes and dreams of thousands on his shoulders; a man who will be inspired by the responsibility, rather than shirk away from it. Let’s hope that somebody out there is ready to rise to the challenge before the magic and mythology of the fabled shirt are lost forever.