It could not have happened at a worse time for Newcastle United. With £6m just banked for Les Ferdinand, the sight of a stricken Alan Shearer being carried off from a pre-season friendly at Goodison Park was horrific. After that July 1997 day, and an ankle ligament injury, he would never be quite the same.
That’s Alan Shearer, who would go on to become Newcastle’s all-time leading goalscorer, and lead the line for England at the 1998 World Cup finals, and at Euro 2000. But his career can be cut into two, between the speedy goal machine of his Blackburn and early Newcastle days and the target man who still scored though not at his previous rate. At Blackburn he had scored 112 goals in 138 league games; at Newcastle, where he was entering his second season when calamity came, he scored 148 in 303.
Shearer was 26 at Goodison, the same age Harry Kane is now. Kane, acclaimed as the best English centre-forward since Shearer, has not suffered anything quite as catastrophic as that Shearer injury, or even the cruciate knee ligament rupture Shearer suffered as a Blackburn player, but a series of ankle problems have slowed down his productivity.
Last season, Kane was rushed back from a fifth ankle injury in two-and-a-half years, making a reappearance in the Champions League final that was forgettable at best. And he was a shadow of himself during England’s failed attempt to win the Nations League.
Kane started this season looking as lean as he has done since making his breakthrough of five years ago, the suggestion being that he had shed mass to ease the burden on those ankles. The goals have kept coming, too, with nine rattled in for his club and six in four matches for his country, but he is now playing in a struggling team, with Tottenham looking worn out by their push for glory of the last four seasons. Aside from his two goals against Red Star Belgrade on Tuesday, his sole goal came in the 7-2 thrashing suffered at the hands of Bayern Munich.
It has been a week in which a few leading football men have suggested that Kane could be the man to solve the striking problem at Manchester United, the vacancy left by Romelu Lukaku. The Kane of two seasons ago would have been ideal, but the current version? Again, comparisons to Shearer can be drawn.
Aside from perhaps Paul Gascoigne, there is no player who so frustrated Alex Ferguson in turning down Manchester United as Shearer, who did so twice. But once Goodison happened, Ferguson never again went back; the Shearer he had so coveted was no longer available.
Shearer returned to a struggling team.
The sale of Ferdinand, with whom he had plundered goals in the 1966-97 season, was accompanied by that of David Ginola and the departure of an ageing Peter Beardsley. The team that Kevin Keegan had built and had gone within touching distance of a Premier League title was being broken up by Kenny Dalglish, and Shearer was surrounded by lesser talents like a young Jon-Dahl Tomasson and Andreas ‘Pamela’ Andersson. Dalglish had even turned to old Liverpool pals John Barnes and Ian Rush in an attempt for quick fixes.
Newcastle entered the rebuilding process that Tottenham look in need of, and are a Premier League parable of what can happen when the wrong personnel is recruited. In January 1998, Shearer was rushed back into a team in crisis and the goals did not come as they had done before. It would take the arrival of Bobby Robson to revitalise the club, but it would never quite reach the mid-1990s heights that meant Shearer felt able to turn down Manchester United and join his hometown club for a world record £15m fee.
Shearer enjoyed an Indian summer under Robson but had slowed down to the extent that he required teammates to do his running for him. He and Craig Bellamy were by no means close pals, but having the Welsh firebrand’s speed around him made Shearer an effective player well into his 30s. He had rebuilt his physique, converting himself into a player of power, a supreme header of the ball, and someone whose legs had changed from those of a middle-distance runner to that of a power-lifter, with colleagues of the time awed by his activities in the gym.
Such a conversion may not be so possible in the modern game, should Kane be required to remodel. The game is quicker, and the crossed ball and header are no longer so prevalent. And the best managers in the English game – Mauricio Pochettino, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp – use quick, dynamic forwards. Manchester United rid themselves of Lukaku when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer did not feel the Belgian added enough dimensions to his team’s attacking.
Kane is good in the air in the modern sense, in that few dominate the skies in the fashion that was required in Shearer’s day, but becoming an old-fashioned centre-forward is no longer viable.
The target man is a dying breed.
One of the prime takeaways from Tottenham’s heartening destruction of Red Star was the sense that Kane fancies himself as a playmaker, scoring two goals while often dropping deep and spraying balls for his fellow forwards to chase down.
Those within Spurs have spoken for a while about his desire to be more than just a goalscorer, and he may also have chosen to take on responsibility to ease the burden on struggling teammates, but it is not uncommon for strikers to want to drop deeper when age and injury mean a change is required.
Kenny Dalglish became provider for Ian Rush rather than goalscorer for Liverpool while Wayne Rooney, who was also slowed by injuries and a heavy workload, attempted the same at Manchester United with rather less success.
If the sands are shifting at Tottenham, then Kane was expected to be a constant, but events may have changed that and him. And should the injuries recur on a regular basis, he might even become expendable to Pochettino or whoever might be the next Spurs manager. The next question is who would want to pay the big money that Tottenham would demand, even for a remodelled version.