Four years ago I took an opportunity to head out to the UAE and left my native North east England on a grand adventure. Not quite like TE Lawrence but in many ways I have never looked back, experienced some amazing things in a land of real opportunity and love it here.
One of the hardest parts of leaving for me was most certainly becoming an expat fan of Newcastle United. Missing the craik of going to the games with mates, many I have known and done this with for most of my life. I was very active amongst fans groups and organisations. I was founding Chair of Newcastle United Supporters Trust and even fronted a campaign to try and buy the club in a Barcelona style socio concept, which was ultimately, and sadly, unsuccessful.
Stepping away from the region and indeed the UK meant finding a new way to feel involved, to stay connected to the club that I have been brought up with and lived and breathed with for pretty much all of my life. It was my father’s club; he even played for NUFC in the late 1950’s and took me to my first game, a feeling I can still recall even now. It was my grandfather’s club; he hitchhiked to 3 FA Cup finals and taught me my first word – “GOAL!”, taught me geography by finding where other clubs that play in black and white stripes were on a globe and so much more. It was his father’s club. And so on.
The UAE, as I have discovered, is football mad, especially for the Premiership. But I often feel over here that people don’t really get some of the more tribal traditions however. I get asked “why do you support Newcastle?” by bemused locals especially, who seem happy to flit in what I see is a very modern, media driven way between Chelsea, Arsenal, Man U and Emirati owned Man City. Right now it’s hard to say why. But it is my club. Note when Geordies talk about Newcastle United, ownership is just a name above the door. It will always be OUR club. This stands whether you attend all the games or none, whether you go home, away, watch on television, talk about, live it and breathe it. Possession is never in doubt.
So what is it about Newcastle United? There is lots of hype, lots of lazy stereotypes that I see written in the media about my club and my fellow Geordies. Seemingly easy to deride and, yes, sometimes we make ourselves easy targets too. But let’s see if I can change your perspective, dispel some myths and possibly even add to the growing numbers of NUFC UAE.
In 1892 Newcastle East End, who had the players and the financial backing took over the lease on the bankrupt Newcastle West End’s ground on St James’ Park. The Newly formed Newcastle United entered the football league in 1895 and by the early 1900s was regarded as one of the finest teams in England winning 3 titles and an FA Cup by 1910.
There is a palpable synergy that exists between the club, the city, the support and the region as a whole and it is understanding this relationship that will give anyone from outside of the area a grasp of what NUFC is all about. Newcastle is a one club city. The ground, St James’ Park, is in centre of that city. The “Cathedral on the Hill” as it is sometimes referred to is genuinely the heart of the town. Travelling into the city centre by road or rail across the Tyne you witness what is a truly iconic image of the stadium, towering over everything. To give you an idea of this impact, during the recent Rugby World Cup, ahead of their match against Tonga in Newcastle, All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster said: “We’re very impressed….For most of us it’s our first time here. To drive in through the city and see it on top of the skyline then come inside it’s been awesome. It’s very much an iconic stadium for us Kiwis, so to come here and walk around and have a chance to play it’s a privilege.” St James’ bowl style set up with fans quite close to the pitch and overarching roof which covers all but one stand (because of planning issues with the listed buildings of Leazes Terrace behind it) creates a uniquely intimate atmosphere, one that was said to be feverish for South Africa’s victory over Scotland the previous week. Feverish it can be, sometimes this is a good thing, sometimes it can become poisonous.
St James’ Park is the very epicentre and heartbeat of Newcastle and the region. When the club is up, the people are up and you can feel it in every corner of the town. When it is down, likewise the feelings are reflected in the people, the shops, the bars and cafes. It shows in what happens immediately post match in the city; after a win it’s rammed, 3 deep at the bar waiting to be served, queuing for tables in restaurants, the vibe is tremendous and goes on into the small hours. After a loss? It can be dreary in every way, riding the last bus home alone for the few hardy souls that remain.
Those feelings can impact throughout the whole week and you find the city riding the crest of a wave or plumbing the depths until the next match day arrives and shot at redemption or a chance to continue riding the surf. Once you get a string of victories or a run of defeats it can make matters even better or even worse accordingly. Walk into any workplace or office on a Monday morning after a matchday you can almost certainly tell what the result was at the weekend. The effect on regional economy and productivity is actually quantifiable and measurable. Much more than just a feeling.
This doesn’t just affect the city of Newcastle upon Tyne either. The connection of the club lies not just in the town centre but across the wider region. Newcastle is a club of three counties. The local rivalry with Sunderland is not just a football rivalry. That only goes back to the late 1800’s while the regional rivalry between the cities dates back to the English Civil War where Royalist Newcastle were challenged by Parliamentarian Sunderland for regional coal and trading rights and to the Jacobite Rebellion where again Newcastle remained loyal to the Crown where Sunderland sided with the Scottish Stuarts, again with the aim of regional economic supremacy.
The Tyne-Wear rivalry splits communities across the three counties through which the rivers flow. This is a derby of regional pride and importance. Not one of a single city or of a metropolis with many local grievances. Pockets of support for both clubs, usually due to movements of communities through mining, ship building and the railways, exist in all areas of Northumberland and Durham. So when the club hurts, so do many more places than just Newcastle town centre. The same could be said for Sunderland too for that matter. Often the difference between the two clubs is simply the colour of the stripes on the shirt, not that many of us admit that too often.
This historical and deep connection to the community and the feeling of genuine ownership that runs through the population of Newcastle and it’s environ, not just the 52000 that can fill St James’ Park is what makes the club. It’s what can break it too. It is what can create the “goldfish bowl” that Jermaine Jenas famously complained about. Almost everyone in the city lives and breathes the game, feels that the club is theirs, wants to know what their heroes have done today, what they will be doing tomorrow, where they shop, where they hang out etc etc. This cuts across everyone from the young school child to the highly educated healthcare professional, from the octogenarian at the bus stop to the entrepreneur developing his business in the modern buildings of the regenerated quayside. Newcastle as a city has grown up in lots of ways, it is more cosmopolitan and welcoming than ever. Accepting of all, universally without care of race, creed, colour or faith this is the modern metropolis of the North that the club represents. That connection, as I say, runs deep. As the river flows through the town, the club is in our veins. Sir Bobby Robson talked once of “bleeding black and white”. We do.
And when we feel that connection is awry, as often it has been under Mike Ashley, when the club lets us down, when the owner does or says crass or ridiculous things, when the players fail to wear the shirt with the pride we expect of it, that’s when we hurt the most. And here we come to the most common misconception, the weight of expectation at Newcastle United. What expectation? We demand only one thing as fans; that the club and its players represent us with pride and honour, that they try and give their all as we would were we given the chance to play week in week out. We don’t expect trophies or titles. How can we? The last competition we won was the Inter Cities Fairs Cup (the forerunner of the UEFA Cup) in 1969. Since then? Nothing. Yes we had a golden era in the 90’s where we came oh so close. When Kevin Keegan’s “Entertainers” did exactly that. We have enjoyed Champions’ League football, beaten Barcelona, Juventus and more, been to UEFA Cup and Europa League quarter and semi finals, tasted defeats in FA and League Cup finals since that last cup was lifted and in my lifetime have known nothing but glorious failure. And so what do we want? What do we expect?
When you next read Graeme Souness writing about “expectations on Tyneside”, when you next hear Richard Keys on BeIn talking about “Geordies being demanding” and when you next see myopic revisionist history on Alan Pardew’s tenure in charge think about what kind of expectation we really have. We demand a club that tries, players that share our passion, a team that will stand up and fight and bloody the nose of the great and good on occasion and just give us hope. It’s the hope that kills, not the weight of expectation or any other delusion lazy journalists are happy to regurgitate without actually stopping to think for a moment. And are we wrong to ask that if the club tries like it did before perhaps, just perhaps we could enjoy something like those European nights again? We certainly aren’t demanding, expecting or asking for trophies. They would be nice but frankly we just want a club to be proud of. Why are we derided for asking for that when fans of clubs like Everton, Spurs or Aston Villa, for example, seem exempt from similar criticism? And if we are deluded for thinking we are a big club (whatever that means) then why does everyone keep writing and talking about us?
So here we are. Demanding deluded Geordies with our club flirting at the wrong end of the table yet again, this time still in serious peril. We’ve just beaten Liverpool in front of 52000 fans for what has been our 5th win of the calendar year. It’s December. Let that sink in. Some clubs had that by mid February. It’s ridiculous. We’ve already suffered heavy defeats at Manchester City and Crystal Palace, lost to Sunderland for a record 6th time in a row. There were still 52,000 in the ground last weekend. Demanding? Well we deserve better than that surely! We are run seemingly as an advert for a tacky sports shop and at present appear to be a club without soul or direction. Yet it’s still our club. And all we want, as dysfunctional and as disconnected as we are at times, is for that club to a beacon for the region that all of us can look to with pride and affection. One day perhaps we will rise again. Until then avoiding relegation would be a start and it won’t be for a lack of effort on our part, not matter how ‘deluded’ anyone tells you we are. Is that too much to ask?