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Newcastle United – Man and Boy

8 years ago
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It was a few days after my eighth birthday that I was first exposed to the famous atmosphere of Newcastle United’s St James’ park. It was a belated birthday treat that my granddad had been promising me for weeks.

After a few days of pretty much constant nagging, I excitedly took my seat next to him on the upper deck of the Hebburn to Newcastle bus, on my way to watch the lads take on Cardiff City. Flanked by hard-looking, black and white scarf-wearing, tab-smoking men.

I recall nervously acting as though this was a journey I’d taken many times before, that I was a seasoned fan and the reason I wasn’t joining in with the songs wasn’t because I didn’t know them so much as I was saving my voice for when it was truly needed.

Though already familiar with the stars such as Beardsley, Waddle and Keegan, I owed a huge debt to the Panini brothers whose collectable stickers had given me the minutiae of knowledge required of the rest of the team, and provided me with the bare minimum to hesitantly participate in some of the discussions taking place around me. Of course my contributions amounted to little more than dropping in names such as ‘Dave McCreery’ then sagely nodding along with whatever opinion was offered about the player. It didn’t matter. I was on the right side, and I felt a part of something bigger. As we got off the bus and walked towards the ground I was dancing with excitement, while all the time maintaining a furrowed brow to feign nonchalance.

By full time I knew this was somewhere I wanted to spend a lot more time. Aside from the football, I was amongst thousands of people with a shared passion: the success of Newcastle United FC, and I was one of them; part of the family; part of the club. After Keegan had netted a couple in a 3-1 win, you could say I was hooked.

Regrettably, that day out did not lead to my regular attendance at St. James’. I had no one to take me, so it was another five years of patience, Match of the Day and Football Focus before I was allowed to regularly go and stand with my mates in the Gallowgate. Although my freedom was a blessing, I was far from flush in my early teens and cash was an issue. On the few occasions I hadn’t managed to put enough aside I could be anything up to 52p short of the £2 turnstile fee. Nonetheless, I was a cunning little git, and having taken Shanks’ Pony to the ground, I’d adopt a frantic expression and theatrically search the ground about me. Soon enough a kindly Geordie voice would ask if I was ‘areet’ and I’d explain that my mates were in but I’d dropped a few coins. Five minutes later I was in and singing (I’d picked up the words and clapping patterns by then).

A few years later, I was not only a regular at the match, but also no stranger to the pubs and clubs of Newcastle City Centre. Occasionally we’d see some of the players out and we’d chat. Usually these ‘chats’ would amount to little more than a bit of fawning on our part (I look back with acute retrospective embarrassment at an incident in The Ritzy when I told Andy Cole he was ‘the best thing to ever happen to the club’) and a few friendly words in return. This was not always the case, however, and my friends and I can count Lee Clark, Steve Howey and Paul Kitson among the players with whom we discussed poor personal performances. We can also count highly-paid, international superstars such as Les Ferdinand, Tino Asprilla and David Ginola among the players we once, um… said ‘hello’ to, and stood near…

That doesn’t matter though, because they were accessible, they socialised in the same places we did, and it was clear when Newcastle lost it hurt them. This all contributed to the feeling of being a part of that enormous family. It is this which I fear is now fast disappearing.

Concluding a woeful display for England at the 2010 World Cup, Wayne Rooney infamously whinged to the camera, citing the disloyalty of the English fans. I remember wondering what he expected. What other opportunities does he provide for fans to feed back? It was a fine example of a spoilt little demi-God forcibly exposed to people outside his group of personal sycophants, and he didn’t like it. Despite the recession families had spent thousands of hard-earned pounds and man hours on flights and tickets. They were excited to watch top players in England shirts replicate the form they regularly showed for their clubs, yet this walking ego believed he was worthy of unconditional adoration. So His performance wasn’t worthy of a pub league, He’s Wayne Rooney and He’s in Nike adverts, you know! I wonder when the last time was that He actually spoke to a fan who hadn’t won some rubbish corporate competition.

It’s probably unfair to single out Rooney; I don’t think he’s the worst example, but he does personify the decay at the top of our national sport. Our league is represented by young men, who, because of their enormous wealth have become obnoxious, arrogant and greedy, and care nothing for the shirts they should be playing for, let alone the fans.

Again, however, I may be being unfair. These young men have been, by virtue of their talent, been invited into what has become a rich man’s club and are probably only behaving in the way they believe they are expected to behave. Of course money has always been made out of the working man’s game, and I never bought into the romance of the Stanley Matthews’ generation when attendances were vast but players paid in ration vouchers and forced to walk barefooted to the ground. The corpulent club owners still amassed fortunes from exploiting the players, and it’s good that that practice has been brought to a halt. However, back then at least the alignment between the clubs and fans was correctly balanced and working classes were able to bring their children to the games, assisting clubs by hooking the next generation of supporters.

As football clubs have increasingly been run less as local institutions and more as international corporations, so the fan has become less the fan and more the consumer, and inevitably they are beginning to act like consumers. Like most corporations football clubs pay homage to their consumers telling them they are ‘the best in the world’ and that they ‘are the club’ etc. Meanwhile they set about proving their sanctimony by slapping the faces of their fans by increasing ticket prices to exploitative levels, charging astonishing prices for cheaply-made replica shirts and generally treating them with little more than contempt. It’s well-known that you don’t buy a football club as a money-making venture, and there’s no doubt the Abramovithes and the Sheikh Mansours of the league are ‘suffering’ small losses to their fortunes but that doesn’t mean already wealthy people aren’t increasing their wealth with every ticket price increase. One could argue here that if this is the case why are attendances remaining constant, and it’s a good question. No doubt people are still attracted to football clubs, and many more fans now travel greater distances to watch the teams they claim to support, but who are these fans?

I read a tweet following a dismal home defeat to Reading from a supposed Newcastle United fan that proudly claimed he was ‘sticking with Newcastle’. Had he been referring to the recent horse burger scandal and was stating his intention to continue shopping at his local Tesco regardless, I’d have understood his position, but a fan doesn’t ‘stick with’ a club! You’re meant to be a part of the club! You are a fan and that’s it. What was his alternative for God’s sake? Sit down with ‘What Club Magazine’ and assess his options? But while the children from clubs’ catchment areas are increasingly priced out by greedy club directors chasing the money, that is the new type of fan the game is attracting: fickle and passionless, detached and aloof. I’ve long argued that Manchester United fans from outside of Manchester demonstrate a personality flaw – the need to associate oneself with something successful in order to compensate for something lacking in their real lives, but it seems they are now becoming the majority and ultimately it is our game that will suffer.

The decline in atmosphere in grounds is already an established fact, and as crowds become dominated by football tourists the passion levels can only decline further. A fact about greed is it is never satiated. Theo Walcott – a good but not great Arsenal attacker – just signed a contract worth £100k per week. The next AFC player when renewing his deal will want at least the same. Arsenal fans are already among the most exploited in the Premier League, but to rich agents and their rich clients this isn’t an issue. The fans’ loyalty is what pays them their incredible salaries, so, as far as they’re concerned, long may it continue.

As this sorrowful situation continues, what will we – the bona fide football fan – be left with? An ever-increasing disconnect between us and our clubs, and dwindling opportunities to support the unfaithful mercenaries wearing our club colours, is my guess. Maybe we should hope for some kind of implosion and a mass exodus of superstars to the Spain’s La Liga. Maybe then the clubs come grovelling back to their disillusioned local fan bases. Sure we’d forfeit their skills and technique, but I don’t believe I feel any more elated watching Papiss Cissé score than I did watching Micky Quinn finish off an untidy goalmouth scramble by smashing one in from six yards.

Oliver also has his own blog which you visit here

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