The biggest roadblock en route to Alan Shearer’s world record-breaking transfer to Newcastle United in 1996 was not Blackburn Rovers’ gripe with a £15m bounty, the England striker’s wage demands, or interest from Manchester United, Juventus and Barcelona. It was, by contrast, the seemingly inconsequential matter of a shirt number.
The one in question was the No9. It was the property of Les Ferdinand. It was a jersey Shearer, who was born and raised in Newcastle upon Tyne, had perpetually and romantically coveted. Ultimately, his wish was granted, but not before a protracted saga: eager for the move to go through, Lee Clark, another Geordie and lifelong Magpies fan, graciously passed on his No10 to Ferdinand, who duly made his England team-mate’s wish come true.
The tale emphasised how sacred the No9 shirt is on Tyneside. For while the Magpies have failed to win the top-flight title since 36 goals in 38 outings from Hughie Gallacher thrust them to glory in 1927, the jersey in which the diminutive Scot scored with military regularity has been donned by a plethora of iconic greats thereafter. Besides Ferdinand and Shearer others include Albert Stubbins, Jackie Milburn, Wyn Davies, Malcolm Macdonald and Andy Cole.
The hallowed shirt was curiously unemployed during Newcastle’s recent Championship-winning campaign, after Obafemi Martins vacated it to join Wolfsburg in the summer of last year. The suspicion was that manager Chris Hughton, who was actively scouring the transfer market, was saving it for a celebrity foreigner. However, the former Republic of Ireland left-back conversely hinted that he was ready to hand it to an unrenowned Geordie.
But although Andy Carroll is relatively shy on prestige, he’s anything but shy on physique. The 21-year-old stands at 6ft 4ins and uses every inch of his hulking frame to bully opponents. Championship defenders will certainly be grateful they’ve seen the back of him, after his 17 goals and leading of the Newcastle attack propelled them back into the Premier League at the first time of asking.
Hughton explained why Carroll was foremost in his thinking over the squad number when the 2009/10 season reached its conclusion: “When you look at the greats who’ve worn it, it can be a burden for others, but I honestly don’t think it would be for Andy, he’s not that type of character. He has got no fear and I think he would simply revel in the situation.”
And Carroll certainly revelled in having his No24 replaced by the No9 last week. "It hasn't really sunk in yet,” he enthused. “I'm immensely proud and really it's an unbelievable feeling. When you look at the fantastic players down the years who have worn the shirt, it sends shivers down your spine, it's amazing.
"Having grown up following and watching the team, I'm obviously aware of the great tradition the No9 shirt holds. It's probably unique in football in that sense and, as I say, to be wearing it, is incredible. Alan Shearer was my idol as a young lad, and who would have thought I would be following in his footsteps?”
One man who did was Shearer himself, who has watched the diamond in the rough who became Newcastle’s youngest-ever player in Europe in 2006 polish himself into a centre-forward who holds the ball up competently, terrorises opponents with his aerial ability, and scores goals. “I’m pleased for him,” said Newcastle’s record all-time marksman.
“There are a few people who would have shied away from it over the years. He’s shown some courage to take it – he’s a Geordie lad and he’s got to enjoy it. Andy’s big and strong and tough to play against, and if they can get balls into the box he will be a handful in the air.”
Shearer knows all too well that the Toon Army worship No9s. Given Carroll’s innate penchant for putting himself about and the fact that he is a Geordie, one of their own, he is a hero-in-waiting. Now he has to live up to a shirt Shearer, MacDonald and the late Sir Bobby Robson have described as the most important in English football.
“It's every young Geordie lad's dream to be a Newcastle United No9, and I'm so lucky to be given that chance,” said the Gateshead-born colossus. “It’s a great feeling to have that shirt on your back. It's an opportunity I relish and intend doing my utmost to do the shirt proud.”