When it comes to sports teams I support, I’m something of a glutton for punishment.
In every sport I follow regularly–American football, baseball, hockey, collegiate sports–success simply isn’t something that happens. At best, my chosen teams make a run at the post-season that gets supporters’ hopes up just long enough to dash them when it eventually fizzles out. At worst, well, let’s just say Aston Villa’s ‘you’re nothing special, we lose every week’ chant wouldn’t be too out of place.
Football, theoretically, should be different. I’m an American, I have no direct links to any English cities or their histories, the handful of friends I have that follow the sport have support spread far and wide. I could just as easily hitch my wagon to the likes of Chelsea or Man United and experience, finally, what winning a title feels like. But, like I said, I’m a glutton for punishment.
So by random choice at the age of 14, I became a Newcastle United supporter.
To be fair, I had no idea what I was getting into. I’d just gotten FIFA 05, and jumped into manager mode. Cycling through the teams in the Premiership that were available, Newcastle United stood out.
I don’t recall why exactly..
Maybe it was the crest, which seemed a bit more dignified than a mere sports logo.
Maybe it was the fact that they had some of the better stats of the available pool.
Whatever it was, I was hooked, determined to learn all I could about the club. I memorised the names Shearer, Ameobi, Owen, Dyer, Chopra. In the days before Youtube, before streaming, before the American (relative) success in 2010 put football into spotlight, being a foreign fan was no small task.
When money permitted, I dragged my dad out to the local bookstore for whatever imported British football mags I could get my hands on, devouring them for any mention of my team.
Picking through the BBC on the family computer became a lifeline to see how they were doing; success and disappointment came in equal measure, but nothing I wasn’t already used to. Not knowing what Champions League or the Intertoto Cup were, I regarded finishing 7th as grudgingly respectable, and anyway, better than my other teams had done recently.
Were it not for my natural curiosity, the season of 2005-06 might well have been the end of my journey from video game to beautiful game. In the end, what held me firmly in the Toon camp was not the team itself so much as the city and the supporters.
What I could not readily access in the way of club information and games, I resolved to make up for by learning as much as I could about this place called Newcastle and its people. What I learned resonated with me: a working-class city, a die-hard fanbase whose team were the pride of the city and a bright spot when things were rough. Things my two American sports cities, Detroit and Oakland, had in common.
The Raider Nation and the Toon Army seemed to me like kindred spirits of sport: common, hard-working people for whom their game and their team were not just an afternoon’s entertainment but a way of life. I added visiting Newcastle and seeing a Tyne-Wear derby at St James Park to my bucket list, now certain that I’d made the right choice.
As time wore on, I’d be lying if I’d said I kept up my level of enthusiasm. Life and other sports took top priority, but buried deep in ESPN I always kept an eye out, to see how the lads were doing.
Recently I’ve gotten back into following it more closely, though my naturally nocturnal rhythm howls in protest at being woken up at 7 AM to watch matches.
Once again, it was FIFA that got me back into it. I’ll admit I started back up with someone else, at the suggestion of a British friend who said they’d be a good, entertaining watch (not going to name names, but no it wasn’t Leicester and sure as hell wasn’t Sunderland). Before too long though, I started to feel the pull of the team that first got me interested, all those years ago.
March of 2016 may not have been the most opportune time to rekindle my passions, but so it was. It’s been a bit of a process catching up.
New names to learn (possibly even newer names, if rumours of the transfer window are to be believed).
New sponsor to google and immediately decide I hated.
Catching up on the various potpourri of shadiness and incompetence that is Mike Ashley. But it seems, for all the misfortune of the past decade, I’ve found my way back into the fold at an opportune time.
As the song goes, I’m coming home Newcastle, wish I’d never been away.