No more heroes any more?

May 15, 1998

Alan Shearer will probably be canonised in Newcastle if he scores the winner in the FA Cup Final tomorrow. But, as Richard Holt explains, working-class heroism is not what it used to be.

Will tomorrow's FA Cup Final finally topple Jackie Milburn from his 50-year reign as Tyneside's favourite son? If Alan Shearer - like Milburn a local boy from a working-class family - manages to score the winning goal for Newcastle United against Arsenal tomorrow he will surely get a statue outside St James's Park to stand beside "Wor Jackie's". Such is the desperation for success in a city where football has been the sole spectator sport for a century and the prime focus of civic identity.

But what turns a football star into a sporting hero anyway and what exactly do such figures "mean" to their communities?

Newcastle United, which has always considered itself one of the country's big clubs, has not lifted a domestic trophy since a mixture of local miners and Scots won three cup finals between 1951 and 1955. Milburn was the hero of all three games, scoring twice against Blackpool in 1951. In 1955 he again showed his sense of the big occasion, heading past Bert Trautmann in the Manchester City goal in under a minute. Between these two triumphs came a lucky win in 1952, when Tyneside was victorious over the southern football "superpower" that all northern teams want to beat: Arsenal.

But how does Milburn measure up to the man who now wears his number nine shirt? Shearer certainly outshines Milburn as an international player. Milburn played only 13 times for England while Shearer already has more than twice as many caps and was the top scorer in Euro '96. With 238 goals in 492 appearances, Milburn is Newcastle's top scorer but Shearer was the first man to get a 100 goals in the Premiership and the first since Jimmy Greaves to score 30 in three consecutive seasons. At 28 there is no doubt that Shearer has the edge as a goalscorer.

But statistics alone do not make heroes. Style, loyalty and character have more to do with a community choosing to revere a player. In terms of playing style Milburn is the more attractive, a supremely fast, natural, attacking player, "like a greyhound out of a trap" while Shearer is slower though just as powerful and more effective. He also seems more willing to kick an opponent than Milburn ever was.

Shearer clearly loses out on regional loyalty; Milburn was a "one club" man, "Newcastle daft" as the saying went, whereas Shearer deliberately turned down an offer from his local club to go to Southampton, "coming home" only for a fee of Pounds 15 million. The story that Newcastle missed him by making him play in goal at a trial game turns out to be a myth as he admits in Alan Shearer: the story so far (1998) - a forgettable, formulaic football biography, less informative than Milburn's Golden Goals (1957) which nevertheless offers an insight into character, the last and arguably most important of heroic qualities.

The violent, alcoholic excesses of Paul Gascoigne have tended to obscure the role of prominent players as upholders of the respectable values of the Victorian "labour aristocracy" from which they were descended. For Shearer to outshine Milburn in this respect would be very difficult. For "Wor Jackie" - the possessive pronoun says it all - was a peculiarly hard act to follow in human terms. Nevertheless the two Newcastle directors secretly taped in a Spanish brothel have done their best to boost Shearer's moral status. Alongside their remark to the effect that the fans were credulous fools and Geordie women were "dogs" came the derisive reference to Shearer as "Mary Poppins". This jibe seems to have unwittingly shored up Shearer's image as a decent Geordie, the acceptable face of northern masculinity to set against the demonised Gazza and his cronies.

Shearer's new book will confirm that impression, stressing his devotion to his parents and respect for their traditional values - Dad was strict but fair, Mum was warm and kind. He admits he was "hopeless" at school though he "quite liked woodwork" but he had a good moral education at home. His father, a sheet metal worker, taught him "there are certain things you never do, and hitting girls is one of them" - not an example that seems to have been in evidence in the rougher Gascoigne household. He says he phones his parents every day. He has a small circle of old friends, and is very close to Jack Hixton, the scout who watched him playing for Wallsend Boys Club. Otherwise, his life seems blissfully free from clubbing (let alone frequenting foreign brothels with club directors). He lives happily with a pretty wife and two daughters. When he says he wishes he could just take his kids to McDonalds, you have to believe him. Here is an ordinary family man from a respectable industrial background, who just happens to be a great footballer and very rich to boot.

All this is grist to the mill in the making of a legend that can stand alongside Jackie Milburn's formidable reputation for being nice. For "Wor Jackie" was "a canny lad" to beat all "canny lads". His funeral in Newcastle Cathedral in 1988 - he died at 64 of lung cancer from a lifetime of smoking - drew tens of thousands to the city centre in a massive ritual of public mourning. For it was not simply the passing of a great player which was being mourned. It was the death of a man who, without ever meaning to, had become the symbol of a vanishing way of life and style of manhood. Milburn was a miner and the son of a miner, working in an Ashington colliery as a fitter until he was 24, patiently queuing for the bus behind the other men who were going to see him play, helping to bind the colliery villages into a wider regional culture based on the city and its football team. A man, as his BBC obituary put it, "whose attitudes throughout seemed to represent all the finest features of a working-class life in the Northeast".

It was these "attitudes" and their representation in the media that made Milburn as fondly remembered as a person as he was admired as a player. Local honours were heaped on him. He was the first footballer to be made a freeman of the city. "Wor Jackie" was the acceptable face of the patriarchal family. Cardinal Hume, who received his freedom of the city at the same time, remarked on "a quality of goodness about him which inspired others". This became a familiar refrain, spelt out on national television in 1981 for This Is Your Life and echoed in a presentation by the Duke of Edinburgh on behalf of the Sports Council.

As time passed there seemed to be a growing interest in Jackie as a husband. Northern Life in 1978 told the story of how he met his wife in a moment of Mills and Boon romantic impetuosity: "She had her back to me but I said that's the one I'm going to marry." He later confided to Woman's Journal that "we've never really had a row, well not a big one". He could even remember the name of the first film they went to see together, which was more than she could. Presumably this went down well with a largely middle-aged female readership increasingly concerned about rising divorce rates. Local radio programmes tended to focus on his other love: Northumberland and its beaches, explored from his caravan up the coast with his wife and three children, feeding the seemingly endless appetite of the local media for comforting stories about ordinary folk. For all their hard times, Geordies lived in the "best place in the world". No wonder buses, trains, council estates and a football stand at St James's Park were named after him, not to mention statues, a musical and several more biographies.

Such adulation was out of proportion to his achievements as a player. Milburn was good but inconsistent, no Tommy Lawton. But it was not really his merits as a player which were remembered and celebrated 30 years on. It was popular nostalgia for Tyneside as it was when he played. A time of hope, of full employment, of the postwar welfare state, of a wider moral consensus and a more stable family structure, before the ravages of industrial decline and Thatcherism seemed for a while to send the city in a spiral of urban decay and rising levels of crime. There was a marked fragmentation of what had formerly been a more homogenous working class as those with marketable skills moved out; families like the Shearers who lived in a council flat in middle-class Gosforth beside a student hall of residence where young Alan used "the dark brown double doors for shooting practice". The residuum was left along the Tyne in Scotswood and Byker, breeding grounds for the hooligan support that drove the respectable working man away in the 1970s and 1980s.

It was the advent of a wealthy patron in the form of retail property developer, Sir John Hall, combined with the Taylor report and vastly increased television earnings from Sky television, which saved Newcastle United and brought Alan Shearer "home", though many men like his father can no longer afford a ticket to watch a game. Tyneside is changing, caught between nostalgia for the old certainties on the one hand and high-tech inward investment and consumerism on the other. The Milburn legend speaks to the old world and the Shearer story to the new. Shearer's autobiography has no sense of history but plenty of references to exotic holiday destinations. Times change and a new heroic ideal is taking shape in the interplay between old morality, big money and a media-friendly masculinity, which Gary Lineker carries off expertly. But all this is "academic". If "Mary Poppins" is really to become the new Milburn, much will depend on whether he can find a bit of "Wor Jackie's" Wembley magic when he trots out of the tunnel tomorrow.

* Richard Holt is professor in the Centre for Sports History and Culture, De Montfort University.

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