rsenal were in a great run of form when they travelled to the Dell to face Southampton in April 1988. They were unbeaten in eight league games and, even though they were missing Tony Adams and David O’Leary, they must have been feeling confident when they heard that Southampton would be without striker Danny Wallace. His replacement had impressed in youth football and had made a couple of appearances from the bench in recent weeks, but the prospect of facing Alan Shearer rather than Wallace must have appealed to the Arsenal defence.
Shearer had been spotted by Southampton scout Jack Hixon while playing for the Wallsend Boys Club in Newcastle as a 13-year-old. He moved to the club two years later and quickly set about justifying Hixon’s faith in him. Having scored 48 goals at youth team level for Southampton, he clearly knew where the net was, but his full debut was to be beyond his wildest dreams.
Southampton manager Chris Nicholl told Shearer on the morning of the match that he would be in the team. After just five minutes on the pitch, he had opened the scoring, profiting from indecision in the Arsenal defence to head past John Lukic. A Kevin Bond own goal levelled matters in the 10th minute, but Shearer was at it again 20 minutes later, putting Southampton in front with another close-range header. When Mark Blake extended the lead to 3-1 just before half time, Arsenal’s players must have been fearing their trip back to the dressing room.
“I have tried to instil into them that they are all playing for their places,” said a frustrated George Graham after the match. “The first hour highlighted what I have been trying to preach. I thought Southampton gave us a hiding.” Any tea cups Graham threw at half time did little to help. Shearer completed his hat-trick just four minutes into the second half, scoring from inside the six-yard box after he had initially slammed a sitter against the crossbar. He ran off in delight – a sight that would become familiar over the next two decades. It had been 21 years since a player had scored a hat-trick on his full debut in English football – when Colin Viljoen scored three for Ipswich in against Portsmouth in 1967 – and that was in the Second Division.
Paul Davis scored a late consolation goal for Arsenal but, come the end of the match, all the talk was centred on Southampton’s new star, who, at 17 years and 240 days, had just broken Jimmy Greaves’ record of the youngest player to score a hat-trick in the English top flight.
Graham, however, was slow to praise the teenager. “They were soft goals,” said the Arsenal manager. “He didn’t really earn them. This is the worst we have played since I took over. I am just glad it has happened now, with a few games to sort it out before Wembley.” Graham did not get his wish. Arsenal were beaten 3-2 by Luton in the League Cup final later that month, with those defensive frailties all too visible.
Nicholl chose to protect the hero of the hour and Shearer left the ground with a signed match ball, but without giving any interviews. “He has been waiting for his chance and gave a tremendous performance,” Nicholl said. “But it is vital he keeps his head the same size. When success comes quickly the danger is youngsters don’t realise that only hard work will keep it going.”
There seemed little chance of Shearer getting too big for his boots. The following day, youth team manager Dave Merrington made sure the striker was at the ground to clean the kit and players’ boots. “Looking back, it was a great thing to do,” reflected Shearer later.
Shearer had hit the ground running but, he was exposed to the demands of top-flight football gradually over the next few seasons. He won Southampton’s player of the season award in 1990-91 and by 1992 he was working his way into the England set-up. He had another dream debut in February 1992, when he scored in England’s 2-0 win over France at Wembley. Gary Lineker scored the other goal.
The rest, as they say, is history. After moving to Blackburn for a record £3.6m in the summer of 1992, Shearer scored twice on his debut in the new Premier League, helping the club to win the title in 1994-95. He won the golden boot at Euro 96 then moved back to his boyhood club Newcastle, where he built up his tally of Premier League goals to 260 – a record that will stand for some time.
We had been given a taste of all this back in 1988 and, to his credit, Southampton forward Colin Clarke was spot on at the time when he said: “Everyone at the club has been aware of his potential. He has everything and his attitude is right. He is good in the air, good on the ground and can become a very fine player.” That 17-year-old YTS lad, who was on £35 a week at the time, would definitely prove that he had it all.