Alan and Stuart

They were 99.8 miles apart and the level of volume was different, but last Saturday Newcastle United’s Alan Shearer and Bradford City’s Stuart McCall received the same reception.

Alan had just walked into the St James Park arena he knows so well and is still revered for his heroics in – 206 goals in 404 appearances in a black and white shirt – at the start of a new chapter. Having retired to the comfort of the Match of the Day studio, he is back as caretaker manager with eight games to save his club from relegation. A pack of photographers surround him as a capacity crowd applaud and chant his name.

Stuart has just completed what has become a familiar walk from the dressing room to the dugout in the Valley Parade arena he knows so well and is still revered for his heroics in – 45 goals, but so much more in his 395 appearances spanning two spells in the Claret and Amber – for game 95 of a fledgling managerial career. Under pressure and increasingly unloved by some, the City boss nevertheless receives a great ovation from most home supporters ahead of a game his team must not lose to remain in the promotion hunt.

Alan was confirmed as caretaker boss on April Fools Day but the position of his club is no joke. A pitiful six wins all season has left Newcastle staring the unthinkable, the Championship, in the face. Only five seasons ago they’d narrowly missed out on a Champions League spot for a second successive season, after finishing fifth. Shortly after they sacked manager Sir Bobby Robson, then quickly went through Graeme Souness, Glen Roeder, Sam Alladyce and Kevin Keegan. Now boss Joe Kinnear isn’t well enough to salvage the mess and the under-performing club come under the control of one of its greatest performing players.

Stuart was confirmed as City boss in the summer of 2007 and how the club needed him. Since Paul Jewell was allowed to walk away in 2000, with City in the Premiership, the club has gone through Chris Hutchings, Jim Jefferies, Nicky Law, Bryan Robson, Colin Todd and caretaker David Wetherall, slumping to three relegations in six seasons. “We need some passion,” was the cry, and there was Stuart learning the ropes with Neil Warnock down in Sheffield, ready to go it alone.

Alan is what’s needed to save the club, is the general feeling of Newcastle fans scratching their heads at how a squad with the likes of Michael Owen, Damien Duff, Obafemi Martins, Steven Taylor and Kevin Nolan are in such a mess in the first place. One supporter sums it up by saying of Alan, “if he can’t inject some passion into these players, no one can” and most people can relate to times when their team is in such a mess that matters such as tactics, picking the right players and confidence don’t matter – you just want to see passion displayed. Passion can lift Newcastle out of relegation, surely?

Stuart set about rebuilding his beloved Bradford City and instilling passion but, very quickly into his first season, the pledge to deliver promotion looked rash and the team were underperforming. How can a legend like Stuart tolerate seeing his team thrashed 3-0 at home to Accrington? How can he pick less than committed players like Omar Daley? Eventually Stuart turns it round but there’s too much ground to make up and it quickly becomes a case of building for the next season.

Alan couldn’t have picked a worse opposition team for his managerial debut. Chelsea are still fighting for the title and second half strikes from Frank Lampard and Florent Malouda ensure there is no fairy tale start in the hot seat. Other results have not been kind and the situation is becoming ever desperate. Sections of the media are smug and pour scorn over supporters’ hopes that inspired words from their hero was all that was missing. One such journalist writes, “That’s the problem with Messiahs, things tend to get messy for them pretty quickly and, in this context, passion is a loaded word.” Does passion cloud judgement? Is passion a poor substitute for managerial ability?

Stuart appears to be getting it right second time round, with a blistering start to the season giving way to some gritted determination which keeps City in the automatic promotion into February. But it suddenly all goes wrong again and rising anger from some prompts Stuart into re-thinking his future and vowing to quit if a play off position isn’t achieved this season. “That’s the problem with Stuart, he’s not a manager,” becomes an oft-used phrase, in between loud booing and abuse at his players. Numerous arguments are started with the words, “he may be a legend, but…” Is passion a poor substitute for managerial ability?

Alan probably knew his Newcastle would lose to Chelsea and next week’s game at Stoke is now massive. It’s unthinkable that Newcastle could lose that one, maybe the one after that too. Three points is the gap to make up, but can a team which has been wretched all season be turned round by passionate words from the legend? Does he have the managerial ability? Suddenly the dream managerial appointment feels almost nightmarish. Surely Alan – 206 goals in 404 appearances – isn’t going to be man who drags his club into the Championship, is he?

Stuart is applauded as he walks to the dug out against Brentford because, even with his team on the brink of failure and facing another season in a division everybody hates, the vast majority are still desperate for him to stay on, still desperate for him to succeed. No amount of name calling behind an online alias can distort the fact many others still believe. That 45 goals but so much more in his 395 appearances means he is a leader we should not discard so readily. That if the club is going to be plotting for promotion to League One again during this summer, its better it is still Stuart doing it. City don’t play great against Brentford, but, despite the lack of quality, they improbably equalise in injury time. Credit to perseverance and also credit to Stuart for effective substitutions that changed the tide back in City’s favour. Would he be celebrating passionately on the touchline without some managerial ability?

Alan might be back on the Match of the Day couch next season, but Newcastle may no longer be appearing on it. Yet what if the great escape is pulled off? What if Shearer can get the passion back and get the results? How much more of a legend will he become to the Toon Army? And what chance would Joe Kinnear have of re-claiming his job with the inevitable pressure to offer Alan the permanent position? Not even Mike Ashley is that stupid.

Stuart might be out of work this summer, but what if Peter Thorne’s stoppage time equaliser is the turning point? What if the top seven spot is achieved? What if in seven weeks City’s players and management are dancing around Wembley with 30,000 City fans chanting Stuart’s name? No one would be calling for him to go then. Passion would be back in vogue.

Alan would learn in time that fans who, at this moment believe he can do no wrong, will eventually be compiling lists of why he doesn’t have a clue and why he needs to go. He will have to explain why a player who doesn’t look interested to the fans is a key part of his side. He will sign strikers not fit to lace his boots and face questions over his judgement. 206 goals in 404 games will in time be used against him. He may be a legend, but…

Stuart knows all of this and more, but is learning to have broad shoulders and that some things need taking with a pinch of salt. That for every fan pleased he’s picked one player, there are others scratching their heads and how ultimately this should not matter. He will know that, as he keeps building up the club in front of and behind the scenes. Working tirelessly to return the club to the sort of position it enjoyed when he, with his 45 goals but so much more in his 395 appearances, was playing such a big part of.

Alan and Stuart both have much resting on their shoulders during the season’s final weeks and there is much in common with the clubs they oversee. Both have been in the decline. Both have guilty of looking at the here and now and forgetting the bigger picture. Both have too often believed the answer to the problem is to bring in another manager.

Alan is still able to walk on the River Tyne water in Newcastle fans’ eyes, but Stuart’s untouchable status has long disappeared. Some fans argue his lack of experience has held back the club, though recent history hardly suggests a different manager would have done a better job in rescuing the sinking ship. Maybe the fact City are doing more than tredding water now is something Stuart deserves credit for. The passion to do more than a good job, but do a good job for his club; the increased experience to know what’s needed to deliver success, using his passion in the right way.

Whatever Alan and Stuart can deliver in these next few weeks, their commitment, work rate and desire to deliver a better future for their clubs will not be questioned. Not to save their bacon, not to look like heroes, but because they care deeply. Success and failure will mean more to them because of who it is for.

Perhaps the biggest lesson their employers and supporters could learn is where hiring and firing has got them and what they would lose if Alan and Stuart aren’t still in their respective dugouts come August.