Monday, 22 June 2020

1988: Alan Shearer's dream debut

Arsenal must have been sick of the sight of Southampton during the 1987/88 season. After a slow start to their Division One campaign, ten straight wins catapulted George Graham's team to the top of the table. But a 1-0 defeat to Southampton at Highbury triggered the start of a disastrous run of just one win in eleven matches, as any hopes of a title tilt faded.

The ship was steadied between February and April, with an undefeated eight-match run at least giving the club a chance of a second-placed finish behind runaway leaders Liverpool. That was until Southampton appeared again to throw a spanner in the works, and a 17-year-old striker introduced himself to the footballing world in dramatic fashion.

Arsenal were vulnerable as they made their way to the south coast. Already without David O'Leary, who was fighting a losing battle to try and regain fitness for the Littlewoods Cup final, the last thing Graham needed was for Tony Adams to drop out. But flu ruled out Arsenal's skipper, leaving a less than solid centre back partnership of Gus Caesar and Michael Thomas to take to the pitch at the Dell.

Thomas had played at right-back during his early days in an Arsenal shirt. Yet the fact that the talented attacking midfielder was now required to slot in alongside Caesar highlighted the lack of options available to Graham. Caesar would endure a torrid time at Wembley against Luton; the opening hour at the Dell was an appetiser for this.

There was one consolation; at least the new pairing did not have to face the dangerous Danny Wallace. His replacement had been making his mark in youth team football and had made a couple of appearances from the substitutes bench in recent weeks. But the prospect of facing Alan Shearer rather than Danny Wallace must have appealed more to Thomas and Caesar.

The Newcastle-born centre forward was first spotted by Jack Hixon when the Southampton scout watched a 13-year-old Shearer playing for the Wallsend Boys Club. Moving to the club at the age of 15, an eager Shearer was keen to rise to the challenge of making it in the professional game. Over the next couple of years, Shearer did his best to justify Hixon's faith in him.

Southampton manager Chris Nicholl informed Shearer on the morning of the match that he would be making his full debut. His 48 goals at youth team level suggested he knew where the back of the net was. Nevertheless, his full debut would be beyond his wildest dreams, Roy of the Rovers stuff in the harsh reality of the English top flight.

After just five minutes, Shearer opened the scoring, profiting from indecision in the Arsenal defence to head past John Lukic. A Kevin Bond own goal levelled matters in the 10th minute, but Shearer was at it again just past the half an hour mark, another close-range header putting Southampton in front. When Mark Blake extended the lead just before half-time, Arsenal's players must have been fearing their trip back to the dressing room.

"I have tried to instil into them that they are all playing for their places," Graham said after the match. "The first hour highlighted what I have been trying to preach. I thought Southampton gave us a hiding." If Graham had thrown tea-cups and unleashed the hairdryer treatment at half-time, it did little to help.

In the 49th minute, Shearer completed his dream full debut, scoring from inside the six-yard box after he had initially slammed a sitter against the crossbar. Running away in delight, Shearer had become the first player in 21 years to score a league hat-trick on his full debut; Ipswich's Colin Viljoen scored three in a Second Division match against Portsmouth in 1967.

Arsenal did manage to stop the hurt for the next 40 minutes, with Paul Davis netting a consolation in the 82nd minute. Yet come the end of the match, all the talk was centred on Southampton's new star, who at 17 years and 240 days had just broken Jimmy Greaves' record of the youngest player to score a hat-trick in the English top flight.

Graham was far from impressed that Shearer had been able to etch his name into the record books. "They were soft goals, he didn't really earn them. This is the worst we have played since I took over. I am just glad it has happened now, with a few games to sort it out before Wembley." Sadly, for Arsenal fans, those defensive frailties would be visible for all to see during the Luton heartbreak.

Nicholl chose to protect the hero of the hour, Shearer leaving the ground with a signed match ball, but not giving any interviews. "He has been waiting for his chance and gave a tremendous performance," Nicholl said. "But it is vital he keeps his head the same size."

There seemed little chance of Shearer getting too big for his boots. The following day, youth team manager Dave Merrington made sure the striker was at the ground helping to clean the kit and players' boots. "Looking back, it was a great thing to do," Shearer later admitted.

Shearer may have hit the ground running, yet for the next few seasons, he would be exposed gradually to the demands of Division One football. Winning Southampton's Player of the Season in 1990/91, by the 1991/92 campaign Shearer was starting to work his way into the England reckoning. Another dream debut awaited in February 1992, as England's latest centre forward scored against France at Wembley.

The rest, as they say, is history. Moving to Blackburn for a record £3.6 million, Shearer scored twice on his debut in the new Premier League, helping the club to win the title in 1994/95. Winning the golden boot at Euro 96, he then moved back to his boyhood club Newcastle, and when he retired in 2006, his tally of 260 Premier League goals appeared to be a record that was set to remain for a while.

We had been given a taste of all this back in 1988. Southampton forward Colin Clarke was adamant that the club had a star for the future, and his words then have proved wise: "Everyone at the club has been aware of his potential. He has everything and his attitude is right. He is good in the air, good on the ground and can become a very fine player."

"When success comes quickly the danger is youngsters don't realise that only hard work will keep it going," Nicholl said. That 17-year-old YTS lad, who was on £35 a week at the time, would definitely prove that dedication could get you to the very top. As an Arsenal fan, I'm just a tad annoyed that the first demonstration of his very obvious talent had to take place against my club.

No comments:

Post a Comment