Was Alan Shearer World Class?
Alan Shearer was World Class. Although this fact was not always recognised, globally or historically within the game, his goal scoring record across two decades was exceptional. His prowess as a goalscorer rivalled some of the greatest strikers to have ever played the game. By the end of 1996, Shearer was amongst the best Centre Forwards in the World, finishing third in that year’s Ballon D'or.
Who Was Alan Shearer?
When shortlisting the greatest footballers of all time, the name Alan Shearer, would rarely feature towards its summit.
Those old enough to remember the English game as far back as the early 1990's will be aware of him or a young avid follower of the Premier League who knows its history.
Most British fans will know him too.
Afterall Shearer was captain of the England national team for two years, featuring 68 times and scoring 30 goals.
However for lovers of the game in other parts of Europe and beyond, Shearer will be unfamiliar, only aficionados of world football and its intricate past may recall his talents.
On a domestic level at least, Shearer was a dominant force, playing at the top of his profession for almost two decades. He is the second highest goalscorer in the history of the English game, netting 283 times with 260 of those goals scored in the Premier League era alone, a current record in the competition.
Shearer's playing style was best described as 'old school.' An old footballing term referring to a traditional and often 'back to basics' approach of playing.
“In my opinion, Alan Shearer is the greatest English centre-forward there has ever been without a shadow of a doubt; he’s a very, very special player.”
He was a classic Centre Forward. A position that has become less popular in the modern day game and one that younger supporters may be unfamiliar with. The naming of the role has been slowly replaced in recent years by 'striker' and applied to more versatile attacking types with pace and a certain level of trickery.
Even the Striker position has evolved over time, with general ‘forwards' now the trend, goalscorers that often attack from wider areas like Manchester United's Marcus Rashford for example.
Further still from the Centre Forward mould is 'the 'false nine,' technically gifted midfielders who drift across the length of the final third, first popularised by European sides with smaller and less domineering players.
From his emergence in the late eighties, to his eventual retirement in the mid 2006, Shearer's methodology barely changed. His attributes fell directly into line with typical forwards of that era. Shearer was strong with his back of goal, possessed great aerial presence, favouring powerful and precise finishes.
It was a skill set clearly inherited from generations of British Centre Forwards before him.
Shearer had obvious traits of the game’s greats such as Dixie Dean, Everton's famous powerhouse of the 1920's and 30's, who once scored an unprecedented 67 goals in a single Division One season. Shearer also displayed shades of one of his heroes. Newcastle United's Jackie Milburn, the club’s bullish attacker who possessed a similar dogged sharpness and ability to score from long range, and whose goalscoring record Shearer would eventually surpass.
There is little debate about Shearer's status domestically.
As an International, Shearer’s quality is comparable to the high standards set by past England forwards such as Gary Lineker, who boasts the best goals to game ratio of any English player (0.6) and Wayne Rooney; the country’s record goalscorer with 53 strikes to his name.
But Shearer's mediocre reputation amongst the European elite and lack of impression on the global game scale does raise doubts as to whether he can actually be considered one of the planet’s finest.
Was Alan Shearer World Class?
The World Class Debate
Labelling a player as ‘World Class’ is one of the most widely contested footballing conversations.
Branding any player with the tag isn't simple.
Judging a player solely upon his ability is not enough. When you boldly claim a footballer is a global talent, there must be a consideration of his quality in the moment, but also a reflection on how he will be remembered amongst the vast history of the game.
Ask your average football fan and you'll often find three trails of thought.
First are those easily swayed. They’ll claim the latest promising talent is a world beater based on media hype and a handful of eye catching performances. In stark contrast, the purists will claim that only the once in a generation players deserve the accolade.
Then there is the supporter who follows thinking more within the spirit of this debate. A footballing mind with an understanding that the issue can often be highly subjective.
It is tempting to compare any candidate to players with matching tropes. Whilst this can be a useful starting point, there are numerous examples of footballers with similar quality, yet who are remembered very differently in the history books.
Here at WSG we have devised some key points to base our discussion around.
Peak Performance Level
Could analysing them really provide a definitive answer to the World Class conundrum?
Longevity in football is simple.
Sustaining a certain level of performance throughout the entirety of a player’s career.
It is a difficult feat for any professional footballer. To play at the required intensity, display a continuous high standard of decision making, effecting key moments within a match; over the course of many years and hundreds of games.
For a goalscorer it is especially challenging.
Other positions on the field are measured differently. Goalkeepers and Defenders are often assessed over time by reflecting on their role within a whole team’s defensive record or remembered fondly for individual moments of brilliance and heroics.
Midfielders are analysed in a similar way with the addition of assist records for stand out offensive players in the position.
An out and out forward like Shearer, referred to as a ‘number nine’, will forever be scrutinised by his record in front of goal. There are three indicators to consider.
Number of appearances
Amount of goals scored
Games to goals ratio
A player’s games to goals ratio can be a handy indicator of a forward’s quality in terms of continuous performance over time. It is a simple calculation of how many goals a player scored per game.
A player with a ratio of 0.5 (who on average finds the back of the net once every two games) is considered to be successful in front of goal.
Players like Gerd Muller (Germany and Bayern Munich) and Eusebio (Portugal and Benfica) are miles ahead of the curve, registering a goals to game ratio for 0.9. Their modern day equivalents, the likes of Lionel Messi (0.8) and Cristiano Ronaldo (0.73), highlight the level of statistics that firmly cement a player’s World Class place.
Alan Shearer’s ratio is closer to 0.52.
But it isn’t particularly useful holding the Englishman up next to such extreme examples.
A better investigation is to explore how his performance over time compares to goalscorers from Europe’s big leagues with a similar goals to game ratio.
Two players stand out for such a comparison to Shearer.
Ronaldo Luís Nazário (The Brazilian Ronaldo) and Raul….
They are from the same era
They are considered classic ‘number nines’
They scored twenty or more goals in at least ten different seasons
Below is a table that shows all three players' goalscoring records for both club and country.
Goals Games Ratio Goals Games Ratio
Ronaldo 352 518 0.67 62 98 0.63
Shearer 379 734 0.51 30 63 0.48
Raul 404 942 0.42 44 102 0.43
Based on numbers; Shearer sits in between the other two forwards.
At club level, Shearer scored more goals than Ronaldo but the Brazilian reached his tally in noticeably fewer games. And whilst Raul scored more goals than the Shearer, the Spaniard played over 200 more times throughout his club career.
Internationally we see that once again Ronaldo impresses. He is the third only to Pele and Neymar as the highest goalscorer in Brazil’s history. Raul was once Spain’s all time leading marksmen and yet his record in comparison to Shearer is lacking.
Shearer is joint seventh on the list of England’s top scorers.
Interestingly Ronaldo - who was unquestionably World Class, sits above him and Raul - who many could argue falls short of a similar label, is below him.
It still leaves the debate open as to which side of the line Shearer lies.
Peak Performance Level
A player’s peak can be summarised by that golden period of their career when their performance is at its maximum level.
When his game is firing on all cylinders for the majority of the time.
Some players hit their peak in a debt season and then are never heard of again. Others have a miraculous one-off season. Some perform to a consistent level over multiple campaigns.
For a Goalkeepers and Defenders it may be a season or more of clean sheets, countless shotstopping displays, repeated wondrous saves and dominance despite your opponents best offensive efforts. To creative midfielders a period of tremendous pass completion, defence splitting balls and goal assists perhaps.
A forward’s true peak is based around goals.
Alan Shearer's Goals (for club and country) in a Calendar Year
1994 34 goals
1995 39 goals
1996 34 goals
Shearer’s peak was from the beginning of 1994 to the end of 1996.
Signs that Shearer was about to hit his peak were coming. From the age of twenty he had already become a ‘20 goals a season’ man for Southampton before continuing his rich vein of form following a move to Premier League new boys Blackburn Rovers in 1992.
Shearer got off to a great start at Ewood Park and scored nearly 30 goals in his first eighteen months at the club.
But it was in that previously mentioned peak that Shearer excelled. He netted in excess of one hundred times for club and country, leading Blackburn Rovers to their maiden championship in 1995 and the England National side to the semi-finals of Euro 96.
It is a goal tally some elite strikers strive for in one illustrious career.
By the end of 1996, a twenty-six year old Shearer was entering what many experts and pundits refer to as a player’s ‘prime.’
A point at which peak performance is at its utmost and the player at the height of his powers.
The question still remained.
Was Shearer now worthy of the ‘World Class’ acknowledgment?
Shearer was in the finest form of his career. Of that there was no doubt.
Having moved to Newcastle United, the team he had supported his whole life, his goalscoring form continued and Shearer would end that season with another impressive 37 goals to his name.
Whilst Shearer was now accustomed to praise from the British Media, had raised his international profile by scoring five times to take the golden boot at Euro 96, the end of that year would finally see him receive global recognition.
Shearer finished third in the 1996 Ballon D'or.
To many, the achievement may appear mediocre, but it held some significance. Because it was the first time in a decade that an Englishman had even appeared in the world's top three.
It is with the Ballon Dor that we can explore three important questions...
What did ‘World Class’ look like in 1996?
Is it harder to gain global recognition if you are English?
Does a player need to win trophies to gain ‘World Class’ status?
What Did 'World Class' Look Like In 1996?
But which other players were considered to be at the top of their game by the end of 1996? And were these players contenders for the World Class label?
Finishing above Shearer in second place was the aforementioned Ronaldo. The Brazilian had been a revelation since bursting onto the scene as a teenager for PSV Eindhoven.
By the end of the 1996/97 season he would score 47 times in La Liga for Barcelona and win the Spanish cup too. He was clearly World Class that season and went on to prove himself to be a legend of the game for both club and country.
The winner of the accolade was German defensive midfielder Matthias Sammer. That summer he had won the Bundesliga title with Borussia Dortmund followed by the Euro 96 and was named player of the tournament.
But if Shearer had won the competition rather than Sammer then could he have claimed the Ballon D'or instead?
There's a strong chance that Ronaldo would have taken the prize.
It turns out gaining World Class recognition isn't that easy when you’re English.
Is It Harder To Gain Global Recognition If You Are English?
Looking at things statistically for a moment. A logical indicator of judging a player to be World Class is The Ballon D’or. A trophy that is seen as the highest accolade for any European player, voted for by fellow professionals and awarded to the individual considered the game’s finest performer that calendar year.
Taking an overview of its past winners, British players feature less often than those from different countries. There have only ever been six British winners with four of them (Stanley Matthews, Denis Law, Bobby Charlton and George Best) picking up the award between 1956 and 1968. In fact in the last six decades, a British player has been named the World’s best on only three further occasions, Liverpool’s Kevin Keegan twice in 1978 and 1979, along with Michael Owen in 2001.
It is worth noting that all of them are attacking players.
So is it that British players have a harder time convincing the world stage of their quality or do other nations simply produce better talent that outshines their British counterparts year in year out?
An interesting case study is to compare the achievements of the most recent British Ballon D’or winner…. Liverpool's Michael Owen, who won the award only five years after Shearer’s top three finish.
There's no doubting that Owen's had an elite season. He scored 24 goals, notably less than Shearer's typical total per campaign, but helped guide Liverpool to a trio of trophies; the English League and FA cups along with the UEFA cup now rebranded as the Europa League.
“Scored goals at every level and even when he was out injured for months on end, he always seemed to be top scorer! I like him because you get a lot of flair players, but nobody was as mentally tough as Alan, who got the most out of his body for such a long time. Probably the greatest Premiership player ever.”
Who did Owen pip to the Ballon D'or crown?
Real Madrid's Raul finished in second place, ending the season with a similar goal tally to Owen and winning a La Liga title. Third place went to Oliver Khan, Bayern Munich's legendary showstopper, who claimed both a German League title and European Cup.
Does A Player Need To Win Trophies To Gain 'World Class' Status?
More often than not, Silverware seemed to be a deciding factor in being rated amongst the year’s best. It had been the case for Owen and all the other British winners before him, which makes Shearer’s 1996 finish even more remarkable. Because he hadn’t won a single trophy for the entirety of that calendar year in comparison to Ronaldo and Sammer who had three to speak of.
The fact that Shearer failed to collect more winners medals to go alongside his goalscoring records has always been a huge talking point.
Should Shearer Have Moved To Manchester United?
Shearer will be forever remembered for leading the line, along with the help of surprise package Chris Sutton, in driving minnow club Blackburn Rovers towards the Premier League title in 1995.
Despite Rovers indifferent 1995/96 season and a seventh place finish, on a personal level Shearer was still in top form and added another 37 goals to his tally. In the Summer it came time to move on. There were two clubs in the frame to fight for his signature. Manchester United and Newcastle United.
Manchester United were the obvious choice. They had just lifted their third Premier League crown in four seasons and were quickly establishing themselves as the team of the decade. If Shearer wanted trophies then Old Trafford was the place to go.
But Newcastle United were a tempting prospect. Having narrowly missed out on the League title to Manchester United the previous season, they were an attractive offensive outfit who were clearly looking to take the next step and win their first major honour since the mid 1950’s.
Most crucially they were Shearer’s boyhood club. The team he had supported his entire life.
“When I was a young boy I wanted to play for Newcastle United, I wanted to wear the No.9 shirt and I wanted to score goals at St James’ Park. I’ve lived my dream and I realise how lucky I’ve been to have done that.”
The 1996/97 season saw Newcastle finish second in the League again and Shearer trophyless for another campaign. His move to St James Park ultimately ended in individual success, accumulating enough goals to become record goalscorer for his club and the Premier League.
Did Shearer need to win more for a player of his calibre?
Without a doubt.
Was Alan Shearer World Class?
If we return to those four criteria outlined at the beginning of the debate, it becomes apparent where Shearer’s strengths lie and also his weaknesses.
Shearer’s longevity is undeniable. He was consistent over numerous seasons at the summit of the English game, scoring over twenty goals or more in eleven different seasons. Shearer was able to score an unbelievable amount of goals that varied from close range finishes, to powerful headers and even the occasional piledriver.
At his Peak, Shearer was sensational. That golden two year period, in which he scored nearly a goal for every game played and won the biggest honour of his career; the Premier League title.
Shearer received less global recognition than perhaps he deserved.
His record as a goalscorer has surpassed many players who are considered in the World Class bracket. It has already been highlighted that being British is always a major hurdle for players to be considered as best in the world. Had he been Brazilian, German, French or Spanish perhaps then Shearer may have found more admiration and appreciation for his skills.
The trophies that Shearer won during his career were seriously lacking. There are very few legendary players who walk away from the game without the major honours under their belts. Domestic titles are a must, domestic cups are key and of course the major European club competitions along with international success.
His timeless quality and record achievements shouldn’t be overshadowed by the fact that he was bypassed by many in the global game. The empty trophy cabinet seen by the majority as a failing should have less negative connotations and point instead towards a loyal professional.
Alan Shearer was World Class. The World just didn’t know it.