Last Friday I had a good night with a Newcastle United theme. It’s not too often you can say that these days…
It will come as no surprise to you that it was nothing to do with the current situation at the club. One of my all-time heroes, Philippe Albert, did a talk-in appearance that I was never going to miss and it was tremendous.
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Albert spoke with real feeling for the club and the area, discussing the most exciting time in our recent history with good humour and perfect recall. This was the latest in a number of recent appearances from the stars of the ‘entertainers’ era, and they will always be well thought of on Tyneside. However, it also struck me how bittersweet these occasions can be.
First, although there were many happy memories for Albert to mention, there is always the stigma that this was underpinned by a failure to win silverware. For anyone who experienced the 95/96 season, thoughts of the infamous Graham Fenton game against Blackburn, or Ian Woan’s equaliser for Nottingham Forest, are torturous to relive. Regardless of this, our team was magnificent and it almost feels nit-picky and ungrateful to even mention it.
The second element that can feel a bit awkward is, of course, the comparison factor. Philippe Albert remembered the days when training at Maiden Castle was open to the public, and would regularly attract crowds of 3-4,000.
Kevin Keegan gave his squad specific instructions that they were to stay behind afterwards for autographs, photos and quality time with their adoring public. KK hammered home the point that without the fans they wouldn’t be there, and it was the least they could do in return.
Contrast that with the current approach and it is unrecognisable. The title contenders of ’96 would spend time meeting the kids, but the underachieving relegation battlers of 2015 train behind closed doors. The only time fans get anywhere near the training ground now is when they have been invited there for a fight by the assistant manager.
This is the part that’s hard to swallow. The failure to win the title in ’96 hurts me a hell of a lot more now than it did at the time. At the end of that season it was heartbreaking, but a magnificent team had given its all and they would probably go one better the next year.
The addition of Alan Shearer that summer only served to increase the optimism. The fact that the intervening 20 years would deliver nothing would be difficult to believe, let alone the fact that the club would be on its way to dying a slow death.
Then there’s the role of the fans. The Albert anecdote was from a time where the players at least respected the supporters and there was a tangible connection, whether this be in the form of a training ground autograph or a half-cut conversation in Julie’s on a Saturday night. Everyone was together in their pride in the team and their unequivocal support, and Newcastle United was the primary topic of conversation wherever Geordies went.
In current times, I actually feel a bit bored when I’m out of the area and someone wants to talk about my team. Emphasising the fact that you are getting the pi** taken out of you by the owners of your advertising vehicle (formerly football team) is bad enough, before you have to listen to some half-arsed opinion of how you shouldn’t have let Alan Pardew go, from a person with no concept of what it feels like to lose constantly for 4 months while your manager goes off nutting people.
Even worse can be the discussions between Newcastle fans. If someone asks now if you have a season ticket, you don’t know what you’re getting into.
It could be an attack of astonishing vitriol claiming you are part of the problem for the temerity of going to the match and you must be in love with Mike Ashley and might as well sell your kids to a Sports Direct sweat shop.
Alternatively, if you voice any disapproval toward the regime you may meet with the ridiculous witterings of a brainwashed Ashley-ite, spouting off about competing at our natural level and financial stability.
Whatever went on at board level back in the nineties (and they were never really popular) they never wanted to alienate fans and certainly never divided the support.
The most unsettling moment for me of the Albert event came towards the end. Seeing there were some obvious father and son combos in attendance (it was Father’s Day weekend) my wife asked me if this was the sort of thing I would do with our (currently 1 year old) son in future.
I said that I would love to, but I wasn’t sure it would ever happen. For a start, would my son ever see players of such a stature? Will the jobbers, mercenaries and stepping stone users of future years ever be worthy of a triumphant return to Tyneside?
More pertinently, will he want to be part of the disjointed circus that is his local team, and will my patience last long enough to help introduce him? The desire to do this is one of the main reasons keeping me going back.
It’s been a while since I gave these things much thought. When Ashley appeared on Sky Sports promising things, some people advocated patience. I think this was granted almost by default, as personally I’ve enjoyed four weeks of not having to think about it all.
However, given the large void of nothing the last month has produced, it’s nice to have a little escape from the present.
For all the misery of comparison it’s well worth a night listening to one of our old legends and I’ll be doing the same with Rob Lee in a couple of weeks time. Hopefully another pleasant distraction from what looks like more grim times ahead.
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