Amidst the gloating of Sunderland fans since Newcastle were relegated, I have been thinking of the time I first went to football games. As their little plane flew over St James Park I was transported back to 16 May 1990, the second leg of the second division promotion play-off semi-final. Newcastle v Sunderland. Sunderland won and went on to face Swindon in the final.
Before I get ahead of myself, I have an admission to make. My first match was a Sunderland game. And my second. I think maybe my third too, but I’m not certain of that.
I was brought up in South Shields and my Dad was from the Isle Of Man, without much affinity for any club. I had no guiding adult to sway me towards either of the two clubs I lived between, or take me. They say you’re born into it, but I had carte blanche.
So it was, that in 1990, when I was 10 years old, in the final year of Cheviot Junior School, a member of the football team, all excited for Italia ’90 – another lad at school told me his dad would take us to a game. At Roker Park. I was delighted and jumped at the chance to start following a local team.
I know for a fact he took us to one game, maybe two. My entire recollection is that we stood at the Fullwell end. It was dark in there and the floodlights were tall. That is it. There isn’t any remnant in my mind of any goal, any player, any roar, the green of the grass, a pie, a song, swearing, nowt. Little more than the day before or the day after.
I also know that my school hired a bus to take the football team to a game at Roker Park that season too. Memories of that day?
My form teacher took us as the school team manager. It was a cold wet day and Ride on Time by Black Box was on the radio on the way there. We sat in the clock stand. People stamped their feet on the wooden floor to create a rumble that I enjoyed. I got mixed up with the scoreline (which I still don’t remember) and Gary Bennett played.
Gary Bennett is my first live football memory. Even actual Sunderland fans wouldn’t want that. Nothing he did that day sticks with me as being particularly noteworthy. He could have had a stinker. I think he was just the player who was stood in front of us when someone told me ‘that’s Gary Bennet’.
It’s fair to say Sunderland were not firing my imagination.
So, keeping in mind what little impression the club had made on me so far, it came to the aforementioned semi-final, second leg.
We were round that lad’s house listening to the game on the radio, and all I can remember about it is how bitter he was. Sunderland led by one for most of the game before doubling their lead late on, but all he was worried about was how biased the commentator was being. At one point we wandered downstairs to chat to his dad and he felt exactly the same way. It didn’t matter to them that they were winning, this commentator was blatantly a devoted Mag as far as they were concerned.
Then came the moment that I think knocked my life as a supporter onto the right trajectory. This grown man got out the yellow pages to look up a number and actually rang the radio station to complain about their coverage. While beating their local rivals in possibly the biggest North East derby ever, this was what he wanted to do?
Even as a ten year old, I distinctly remember pitying both the grown man and his son their cheerlessness. The inferiority complex inside these sorry individuals. It was something I decided I never wanted to have any part of. Remember, this wasn’t a Geordie’s disdain for Mackems, this was an open minded 10 year old boy, happy enough to be unwittingly indoctrinated into their club, if it held any appeal whatsoever, but who was quickly repelled by what he saw.
In my mind I promptly walked out of that house without explanation, leaving them looking at each other in confused silence and I never saw the lad again, think Simple Minds at the end of The Breakfast Club. In reality, I probably stopped for a little while longer and then said my goodbyes. It was a couple of months until the end of school term and we were moving to the comprehensive, so that was probably when we actually went our separate ways.
Having been the lowest placed qualifier for the play-offs (Newcastle the highest) Sunderland went on to lose the play-off final to Swindon, but fortuitously won promotion by default due to some financial shenanigans that soon saw Swindon stripped of their recently won top flight status.
As for Newcastle, I didn’t run immediately to their warm bosom. It was still more of a cold tit for a couple of years. Jim Smith got almost a year more before Ardiles came in. Less than a year later he was gone too. I didn’t know who I wanted to support, I only knew it wasn’t Sunderland.
It was the next appointment that inspired a generation. Once Kevin Keegan was appointed Newcastle manager, THAT was a club that fired my imagination. The day he was announced I remember another lad at school literally skipping around the playground with joy. This was the sort of giddy excitement I could go for.
I followed the promotion season as voraciously as anyone can when there is no internet and their mam won’t let them go to a game. Basically Teletext and Look North.
By the time I was allowed to go to a game Newcastle were in the Premier League. I remember far more detail of my first game at St James Park as a spotty teenager. Blackburn, third home game of the season, sunny Sunday afternoon in front of the Sky cameras, The older lads I was with got served pints in the Farmers Rest, I was too nervous to try. Cole put us ahead. In the Gallowgate end it felt like I shifted 30ft in the melee. Shearer equalised for them. The mood was buoyant despite just one win in five. The football was sharp and adventurous, it held my attention. I wasn’t looking up the floodlights and noting their height that day.
That plane flying over St James Park on the last day of this season reminded me of those two 10 year old boys listening to the 1990 Second division play-off semi final second leg. It reminded me of the fundamental differences in their character and made me wonder if it reflects differences in the wider fan bases. I’m not saying anyone in that family ordered the plane, or even contributed to funding it, but it’s the sort of thing people like that would do. Isn’t it? Get out the yellow pages while they’rewinning.
As the plane circled I also wondered if the final parallel might yet be to come. The noise and passion for our club as we dismantled Spurs 5-1 made you wonder about what could yet happen. The current versions of my ten year old self have had little to pull them into Newcastle or Sunderland if they don’t have an overbearing guardian.
Until now. Newcastle are daring to dream. Despite going down. That’s what I want, even without succeeding, aspiration, even if it fails, appeals more than schadenfreude. Benitez comes with a pedigree greater than Keegan or Robson. If he has indeed got all that he asked for, as Keegan did in his ‘back me or sack me’ moment under John Hall, then who knows what is possible.
It’s like we lost the play-off but could be going places all over again. Like the nineties, Newcastle could be on the verge of pulling off something to fire the imagination again.
Do Sam Allardyce and Sunderland offer their fans the same kind of promise?
I don’t care. If we pass them on the way up, I’ll barely glance sideways.
Because I’m not like them.