Richie Barker and the Alan Shearer shirt he's offered to Rotherham United striker Michael Smith
January 7 2006, St James’ Park: one of the most memorable days in the Rotherham United assistant boss’s football career.
Barker was captain of League Two Mansfield Town who’d drawn top-flight Newcastle United in the third round of the FA Cup and Alan Shearer, the Premier League’s all-time top scorer, was wearing the Magpies’ armband.
“I was number 9, Shearer was number 9 and we walked out alongside each other,” the Millers number two recalls.
“On that day, he equalled Jackie Milburn’s record by scoring his 200th Newcastle goal as they beat us 1-0.”
Barker is talking about the Toon legend because the name, Shearer, has become part of the story of table-topping Rotherham’s push for League One promotion.
A signed jersey once worn by the Toon and England centre-forward is one of his treasured possessions but there’s a chance he might have to hand it over to Millers striker and Newcastle fanatic Michael Smith.
Smith has scored 15 goals already this term and Barker is regretting his pre-season decision to tell the player he could have the memento if he puts the ball in the back of the net 25 times in this campaign.
“I feel horrendous about the whole thing,” he says with a pained smile. “I’m devastated by the thought of having to give it up. Shearer is my hero more than he is Smudge’s hero.
“I offered the reward because I wanted to somehow motivate Smudge to score that many goals as I thought 25 from him would virtually guarantee us promotion.
“He’s obviously had an unbelievable start to the season. The worst-case scenario would be him scoring 25 goals, us not going up and I still have to give away a prized asset.”
Back to that north-east afternoon 15 years ago when Shearer was 35 and in his final season as a pro and Barker was the 30-year-old leader of the Stags for whom he scored 48 times in 106 outings in a two-year spell at Field Mill.
The Newcastle hot-shot struck in the 80th minute at the Gallowgate end to match the total of ‘Wor Jackie’ from nearly half a century earlier. He would go on to break the record in February and finish his Toon career three months later on 206 goals.
“I was very understanding of the fact that there was no chance I was getting the shirt he’d worn against us,” Barker says. “It was going in their museum.
“Unbeknown to me, though, my wife contacted Newcastle and told them the story of me being a massive Shearer fan and being the captain of Mansfield who walked out next to him.
“Three months later, they very kindly sent me a signed shirt Shearer had worn in a game the week before. It was still sweaty and grass-stained and I spent a fortune getting it treated and framed properly.”
Although Smith has 15 goals to his name, he’s only just over halfway to his 25 target. Two of his tally have come in EFL Trophy games and that competition doesn’t count.
“He disputed it for a while but he’s finally accepted it,” Barker grins. “It was actually him, right at the beginning, who came up with the rule of restricting it to the league, FA Cup and EFL Cup.”
For now at least, the shirt remains in the Hove home on the South Coast where some of the other Barkers live and to where Richie heads from his Wickersley base when Rotherham’s schedule allows.
“It’s hung up in my son’s bedroom,” he says. “I’ve got to break the news to him that he might be losing it, but first I’ve got to break it to my wife who got it for me in the first place.
“It’s alongside a signed Lionel Messi shirt, which is an equally prized possession. It’s my belief that Messi is the best player ever to walk this planet, but Shearer is definitely my hero. As a centre-forward myself, I loved watching him.”
Barker’s love of the jersey, his admiration for Smith and his desire for a return to the Championship have left him a conflicted man. If all his May dreams come true, this is what will happen ...
“It’s awful,” says a very worried assistant boss half in jest, half in seriousness, “But I hope Smudge gets 24 and we win the league.”
ASSISTANT boss Richie Barker has acknowledged that players on the fringes of Rotherham United’s promotion-chasing team may seek to leave in next month’s transfer window.
The Millers’ strength in depth has helped to take them to the top of League One this season but, inevitably, some members of the squad have been in the first 11 more than others.
Rotherham haven’t lost in 21 matches and Barker said: “The players are all enjoying this run, they’re all enjoying being part of it.
“However, we’re well aware that some people are enjoying it more than others. They’re going to enjoy it more if they’re starting matches.
“The players have careers and at some point somebody will say: ‘Look, I’m not prepared to be a part of this, I need to go off and play somewhere else.’
“That’s fine, it’s human nature. Anybody who does go, we’ll just replace them as best we can.”
Attacker Kieran Sadlier has made some league starts and has featured in the EFL Trophy, EFL Cup and FA Cup but is probably the senior man who has missed out most.
Young summer singings midfielder Hakeem Odoffin and wing-back Tolaji Bola haven’t had the amount of game-time they were hoping for. Both have shown promise and loan moves to accelerate their development might be an option.
While appreciating some players’ frustrations, Barker ruled out any departures unless they are of benefit to the Millers’ fortunes.
“I don’t think the gaffer would allow someone to leave if it wasn’t right for the club — if we couldn’t replace him or couldn’t get the right finances,” the number two said.
“But we are humanist people who understand that if somebody isn’t happy there’s no point keeping them. Providing it’s right for everybody, we could freshen it up.”
Boss Paul Warne is happy with his squad and would be delighted if January turns out to be a very quiet month.
Barker said: “We say to the lads all the time, If we are to be promoted it will be through the squad.
“If you asked the manager, he would say a great transfer window would be nobody in and nobody out. I would tend to agree with that.”