I only realised that I was going to be back (ED: Paul is an ex-pat currently living and working in Holland) for the Burton Albion game last weekend. I’ve had a business trip planned to the North West for a couple of months now, but until I heard the preview following the Wigan game, the penny hadn’t dropped that there was a midweek fixture.
Wednesday games always have lower crowds, so I quickly bought up tickets in a nice part of the ground. And travelling through Newcastle Airport, as long as the flights and Metro were working to time, then I’d be able to enjoy the match and a quick pre-match pint to boot.
Although the Metro system was to collapse later in the evening, its creaky power cables held up long enough to take my Milburn stand seat with five minutes to spare and the Jarl Ale still tantalising my taste buds. Spot on time to see the Gallowgate flags doing their thing, to hear the strains of Local Hero blasting out and to get every nerve in my body tingling.
Everything was set for a great night to mark my first return to SJP since the ill-starred Newcastle United v Huddersfield home season opener. And it was a great chance to check for myself whether there really was a Home Hoodoo for the players.
The St James Park crowd have for as long as I can remember been quick to become impatient at the slightest setback. When we’d gone 4-0 down to Arsenal I couldn’t believe the crowds pouring out and I enjoyed a certain Schadenfreude at having myself stayed to the sweet end.
But this season it’s really become a talking point with local lads Dummett and Colback sounding like they’re bearing the brunt of fans’ ire. With the Championship proving more of a slog than six years previous, the crowd’s temper sounds to be getting shorter all the time.
The story is told that teams are setting up defensively and compact against us and seeking to thwart our creativity. As irritation grows and catcalling, jeers and booing swells, the crowd becomes the opposition’s 12th man.
So the game provided the perfect chance to see whether it’s fair to blame the fans for our sub-par home record. And true to predictions, Burton set up to frustrate and provoke, continually blocking our attacks at the edge of the last third.
But then a miracle happened and something came to bring the crowd together to shout as one against a common enemy. When the referee gave an admittedly debatable penalty, Ritchie’s strike went in the goal and then an indirect free kick was awarded against us, fans’ emotions bubbled over once more.
Thankfully though the anger was not directed at the players but at a staggeringly incompetent piece of refereeing. The chorus went up of “You’re just an unfit referee” and “you don’t know what you’re doing” as players tried to make sense of a literally impossible situation.
This energized the crowd and from then on, the boos were exclusively reserved for the match officials. Although the players dipped at the end of a relentless first half, after 15 minutes of the second the foot went to the floor.
More shots came in the next five minutes than the previous 60 and finally, justice was done as Ritchie sidestepped the ‘bus’ to expertly slot one into the far corner. It was a great demonstration of what the crowd’s passion can do and a clear positive as we enter the home strait.
It’s clear that the manager and the players are giving their all, pushing themselves to the limits in a brutal and unforgiving league. Last night was a salutary message that it’s the league and the opposition that are against us, a message I hope we can all remember when we welcome Leeds!
PS I’ve got friends from Enschede attending the Leeds match so they’ll tell me whether you’ve behaved!
You can follow Paul on Twitter @heravalue
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