Sometime, somewhere, I read that writers write when they are down and low, to vent out the frustration and anger that’s eating away at their within. It’s the sadness which makes them put pen to paper, as if that gets them in a right frame of mind somehow. Not me.
In contrast, I went through a tumultuous time for the last two months, picking the bits and pieces of my soul from the abysses of abject despair and desolation, as I experienced a second relegation in my 16 years as a Newcastle United fan. Not that I was naïve to expect anything else, albeit I had even written about how a relegation would benefit my beloved club and get it out of the shambles it has been in since the last 5 years or so.
However, when it actually hit me…I couldn’t get myself to react well to it. That was it for me, or so I thought.
This is not another story resembling the mysterious ‘Phoenix rising from the ashes’. It is not about how suddenly all the holes in my heart are now filled by hope. This is not about me rejoicing on promising signings, necessary exits and pre-season preparedness. This is also not about the “Rafalution” which is making more sense as each day passes.
This story is about a group of people, sitting 4000 miles away from St James Park, and how their passion and relentless pride in supporting Newcastle in some very desperate times has helped me pick myself up, and at times reflect on my own levels of commitment.
It is a small community, 100-odd active and probably some other latent members, who have come together through a common bond – the love for Newcastle United. It is the story of the Toon Army India.
Recently I celebrated, quietly in my heart, a year of my association with this incredible bunch. Throughout the year, I have grown in admiration for their reasons of supporting NUFC in a place like India, where EPL is synonymous with the likes, almost exclusively, of the Manchester and the London clubs.
Some have been since the days of Sir Bobby Robson and the Champions League, like me, but most have had their associations in more recent, disillusioned times. These people have connected with the glory of what Newcastle was once, have seen through the EPL promotional campaigns here in India and believed in the true potential of what Newcastle can be.
These people know their football, they can talk tactics, they know what’s needed to turn things around, all this from this far. Without even the pleasure of being at the St James Park on a matchday. If that is not incredible, which I thought when I first met them, I don’t know what is.
Of all the possible NUFC fan forums I have been to, the Toon Army India WhatsApp group was among the first few places where my friends were openly discussing relegation, even a couple of years back when the SackPardew campaign was gaining steam. These guys had the gumption and the desire of seeing the structures at the corporate entity, what had become of our club, totally dismantled at any cost, even if it meant getting sucked into the dangerous world of the increasingly competitive Football League. Even if it came with the fears of becoming the next Leeds, or the next Pompey, supporters – we, at Toon Army India, wanted this to happen somewhere in their hearts.
And when it did happen, they were not as weak as me. They were desolate, exasperated, embarrassed amongst their peers, just like me, but never did they let that bog them down.
Somebody just posted – “Yeaaaaahhhhhh finally….. The darkest hour is over… Only up from here…” and people cheered on. We ran havoc against the second best of the league Tottenham) in our last game (and dragged them down to 3rd, oh yeah!), and they just laughed and cried together.
They mourned at Pavel’s loss together, they thanked Papiss Cisse for those wonder goals, and the joy he gave us, together. They welcomed the Ritchies and the Gamezes, their messages pinged incessantly on my mobile as we started training and then the Pre-season.
And in these two months, whenever I had the courage to get on the forum, I could only see one emotion – OPTIMISM.
Today, when I finally looked at The Mag to read what people are saying, I sensed OPTIMISM. HOPE. BELIEF. A stark contrast from when I left.
I read through other fan forums, and I saw people in high spirits. If I didn’t know what transpired in May 2016, I would have thought this as a build-up to just another season. But it isn’t.
This season is where we will put our foot down and say – Let’s start the re-build.
This season is when we will finally create an identity in game play – Rafa style.
This season is when we will re-establish an English/British core to one of the most iconic clubs in English football.
This season is where we will lay the foundations of the journey which will take us right back to the upper echelons of the Premier League, soon.
This season will have purpose, will have ambition, will have a goal. I say this – as now I have HOPE.
This HOPE for some fan forums is a recent phenomena, for Toon Army India, it was never gone.
That is why I feel I was lucky. I was hitting a point where I could have jumped the ship, stopped watching football (I didn’t see the EUROs), much worse – lost the connection with my beloved club.
But no, they were there to bring the world to me, bring the smile and the encouragement. The excitement of another season, the passion of what it means to be a Magpie.
I have been inspired, and I have started believing again. Bring on the Football League, HWTL……
You can follow the author on Titter @rishirajlahiri