Messiah followed by inept manager, followed by tactical genius, followed by egomaniac; aloof owner who despises fans;star players treated shamefully. Inferior players recruited at crazy wages, best players sold with no replacement in mind. Good players played out of position, neglectful recruitment; euphoria followed by despair. Sound familiar?
This is the probable story of ANY football club, but it is especially poignant when that football club is among the best supported in the world, by die-hard fans for whom the team is a fundamental part of their lives. I know this because I have been supporting my team, THIS team, for almost 70 years.
I have not personally witnessed every event at Newcastle United over those 70 years because serving my country for 15 of them and then prolonged periods of work elsewhere on the globe, have kept me away from Tyneside. I think it’s significant, though, that the two periods I DID witness direct, were legendary in the annals of this great club.
I was 6 years old when my dad took me to St James Park for the first time. I can just imagine the look on my face. In those days, before MOTD, the only football you saw on TV (we didn’t have one!), or at the cinema, was the FA CUP Final or the latest England triumph (England hardly EVER lost!). The only LIVE football you saw on a regular basis was the local working mens club team at the rec. Or Walker Boys or Northumberland Boys at some of the more salubrious pitches around the city.
I think the entrance fee for me was 6d (2.5p). We climbed the steps at the Gallowgate end and I saw the St James Park pitch for the first time. It took my breath away. When the teams came out, the colours were so bright, the noise so loud, I was in a world that took away the drudgery of everyday life in postwar Britain. I caught a fever then that has never left me.
At that time, we were on the cusp of the Cup Final years. That team of the 50s still lives strong in the memories of those old enough to have been there. The days when we just knew that if Wor Jackie had played for any other team, he would have won a hundred England caps; when we witnessed the visits of giants of the game like Nat Lofthouse, Stanley Matthews, John Charles; when there were special cinema programmes put on for kids to celebrate yet another FA Cup run and sing the song (to the tune of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for some strange reason).
At the beginning of the 60s, I joined the RAF and didn’t live again on Tyneside for almost 30 years. Apart from occasional visits, I didn’t properly witness the gradual erosion and rise again of the club and the team. But I read every word I could find. The eventual demise of the Westwoods and McKeags; the arrivals of McDonald, Wynn Davies, Tony Green, Jimmy Smith and Kevin Keegan; the rise of Gazza. The doldrums of the late 70s and early 80s. The cliché is true: Newcastle’s was the first result I looked for in any newspaper anywhere in the world.
I worked in the Midlands and Wales for 7 years after leaving the RAF, then went to Holland to work for another 8 years. I saw Newcastle play a few away games to Coventry and Wolves, and on occasional visits home, saw a match against Notts Forest (lost) and Arsenal (lost). Despite disappointing results, the magic of St James Park remained deep in my heart.
I finally arrived back home on Tyneside in 1989. I started going to matches again, and eventually managed to get a season ticket in the old Gallowgate end. The Shepherd/Hall consortium later announcing the redevelopment of St. James’ to coincide with our return to the top flight. Whatever else may be said about the club and its administrators back then, the new stadium, as many feared, did not destroy the spirit of the place. If anything, our new surroundings (I was now in the East Stand) enhanced match day atmosphere. That first day (against Spurs), there was a crackling electricity in the air that even the disappointing result couldn’t quell..
So I witnessed the amazing ‘Keegan Second Coming’ years at first hand. Experienced the delirium of the team being EVERYBODY’S favourite. Saw some wonderful games both home and away. Trooped to St. James’ to watch the ‘beamback’ when we played away and I couldn’t travel. Wore the shirt with pride. Joined in the protest outside St. James’ when we sold Andy Cole. Tried to be philosophical when we ‘blew’ the title race.
Redundancy and subsequently not being able to afford it forced me to give up my season ticket in 2001. It was probably the saddest day of my life.
There have been many ‘what-ifs’ since.
What if, for instance, Bobby Robson had been persuaded to come to St. James’ immediately after Keegan and inherited his wonderful squad?
What if the board had been wise enough to see the shortcomings of Gullit, Dalglish and Souness before trusting them with our precious team?
What if Chris Hughton had been allowed to carry on with the squad that trusted him to the core instead of handing over to a hapless, hopeless, clueless ‘friend’ of the owner?
What if Rafa had been appointed in January?
I can take the modern social media’s outpourings of scorn by ‘fans’ at various players in the current squad. The same thing happened all those years ago…
Charlie Crowe only used his right foot to stand on; Vic Keeble would take a penalty with his head; David Batty was ‘a thug lowering the standard of our team’. Then there are the constants: ‘our defence is crap; ‘we need a striker’ (because we’re bored with this one and he’s been here for a full season already); ‘he’s not Premiership standard’; ‘he’s too small’. It’s all been said before, and it all may or may not have been true. But that’s life supporting Newcastle United. I think every player who signs for Newcastle should spend at least a day getting acquainted with the history of the club through its archives and be made to understand that he is walking in the footprints of giants.
I just hope that ‘Rafamania’ is the beginning of yet another period of high-flying for Newcastle United. There were 40 years between ‘keeping the FA Cup on the sideboard’ and the fantastic Keegan era. It’s almost 20 years since then. The FA Cup years spanned seven years with a rapid decline; the Keegan era five years with a gradual decline. The odds are that even if Rafa does perform miracles, success may last seven or eight years if we’re lucky.
The ideal scenario for some, I suppose, would be for NUFC to start interesting some oil mogul because of Rafa’s genius winning us something. That would rid the club of its current hated owner (assuming he keeps his promise) and allow us to compete with the ubiquitous ‘top four’. But after decades of deriding that ‘top four’ for ‘buying’ success, would we really want to go that way?
For the sake of the soul of St. James’, I hope not.