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Time To Remember Why Newcastle United Exist In The First Place

8 years ago
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Nearly two weeks ago I went to see Gateshead vs Grimsby in the Skrill Conference Play-Off Semi Final, and the more I reflect on it the more disturbing it becomes as a lifelong Newcastle fan.

Admittedly, my tenure (as far as I can actually remember) only goes back to the days of the Bald Eagle and the play-off heartbreak in 1989-90, followed by the injustice of the mackems being promoted by default, not on merit.  So to say I was with Newcastle for the glory would be misleading. No, instead it seemed I’d fallen in love with the drama.

It’s the same reason that Eastenders and Corrie are still cranking out plot-lines, (albeit often the same ones again & again) and it’s why Shakespearian tragedies continue to be re-enacted 500 years after the Bard first put quill to paper: Drama is entertaining.

I remember that I was off school sick the day that Kevin Keegan was appointed – my dad had regaled me with exploits of Keegan at Newcastle and elsewhere years before and he was truly a footballing icon returned from the wilderness. The buzz was electric and any mention of Newcastle would make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Immediately the drama started as we avoided relegation to the third division by the skin of our teeth. And then the meteoric rise began.

I was in my first year at Uni in the 1996/97 season. I recall the 5-0 Man Utd game. Coming back from 3-1 down against Leicester with 13 minutes to go to beat them 4-3. The Liverpool 4-3s (again and again). I was proud to be a Newcastle fan because we stood for everything that the game was supposed to be – entertainment. No fan that I’ve ever spoken to looks back on those days with regret. Despite letting the title slip from our grasp we laughed, we cried and we rode the rollercoaster of emotions that went with being a Newcastle fan.  It’s no wonder we were everybody else’s 2nd favourite team.

Fast forward through the dour Dalglish and Souness years, the never-quite sexy enough football of Gullit, and the resurrection, title challenges and Champions League football under Sir Bobby (lest we ever forget Bellamy’s injury time winner in Rotterdam!) through to the present day.

We’d been through the mill of a relegation season and were getting on pretty well with Chris Hughton thanks to a team of scrappers in the likes of Barton, Nolan and Carroll. There was, at the heart of the team, a never-say-die attitude that  was most prevalent when, shortly after Pardew came in, we came back from a 4-0 drubbing in one half to decimate Arsenal in the second half.  Tiote’s blaster put tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat – and I listen to that commentary over and over to this day.  Maybe this new Pardew fella did have what it takes to motivate the team and get them playing entertaining football?

Heartbreak against Blackburn in the breathless 4-3 in the league cup seemed to indicate that the fighting spirit was still with us, even when the chips are down (2-0 down in the 93rd minute to be precise). It’s games like that that remind me why I love football – despite the loss, the disappointment – you still come away exhilarated. The adrenaline has been coursing, your throat is sore from screaming and you’ve been tantalised by that wicked temptress called Hope.

Sadly though, I have to say that was probably the penultimate time I was truly entertained by Newcastle.  On Easter Monday 2012 I took my son to see his first game, as we hosted Bolton at St James’. Throughout the match I sensed a disquiet. Frankly the football was dull – there was very little to shout about, and chances were slim on the ground.

Then in the 73rd minute, when the game was looking at heading for a sedate 0-0 draw, Hatem Ben Arfa picked up the ball in his own half.  Everybody knew that he could do something special – he’d taken his own personal revenge on almost the entire Blackburn team in January. Turning brilliantly in his own half he lit up the stands, ran 70 yards carving apart the Bolton defence to have every fan standing on tip toes in anticipation, before neatly slotting away and sending the 50,000 fans into a delirium that would have been unthinkable 30 seconds previously. It’s a shame my lad was only two years old as he could never understand the magic he had witnessed that day.

And then the magician was substituted 10 minutes later.

This for me was the first symptom of the endemic rot that has sealed Newcastle’s fate, not just for the present but for the foreseeable future as well.

Pardew’s brand of football, despite his insistence that it’s attacking and forward-thinking, is actually a turgid second-rate ineffective replica of the Chelsea strategy of parking the bus and counter attacking.  Even in the season that we finished fifth, how many of those wins were barnstorming goal-fests? (None of them, to save you looking it up). And how many times were we absolutely thrashed? Fulham, City, Spurs, Wigan, Norwich to name a few.

On balance our terrific league position wasn’t down to a brand of football that worked, the reality is that a good start to the season followed by some frankly lucky results, with some outstanding individual goals (3 Goal of the Season contenders in one season) actually papering over the cracks. We had started the season as a side that set itself up to win, but following the nightmare run of 3 difficult games, Pardew’s tactics changed. The trauma of 3 heavy defeats and losing a rock in Steven Taylor had knocked Pardew’s confidence to the extent that every side he sent out was designed tactically not to win the game, but to try and make sure that the other team didn’t.

And unfortunately there’s been no change ever since. For two years now when I watch Newcastle I see a team that first and foremost tries to stop goals from being scored instead of making them. The creative players have been shipped out (or on their way) and any hope of a comeback after the first goal has gone against us, has been eradicated. This isn’t football, this isn’t entertainment. Even the satisfaction of possibly seeing a manager who has lost his way get the boot has been taken away as Pardew is now apparently bulletproof.

A number of mackems have asked if I would have swapped places with them and I have to say, on reflection, that I would. Two distinct cup runs, even if they ultimately ended in misery, and a relegation battle where all seemed lost, until the hero of the hour steps forth and saves the club from certain doom. That’s entertainment! That’s the stuff of Hollywood, and I’m sure Gus Poyet and Connor Wickham are already negotiating the screen rights.

Back to the Gateshead experience. Once again I took my son as I wanted to see a local team that had over achieved and could potentially be going to Wembley. It was a bank holiday – a day out.  With seats in the East Stand I had to walk right around the stadium to get to the turnstile, and all the way around I could hear the chants, the noise, and the anticipation.  From my first second inside the International Stadium I was hooked. Gateshead played with pride, passion and pushed forward.

Going 1-0 up (albeit thanks to a goalkeeping error) and then Grimsby returning the score set the scene for a thriller – and it was – when James Marwood (a former Newcastle Academy member) slotted home Gateshead’s second in style the crowd went wild. I was lucky enough to have been graced with front row seats and witnessed the passion, the fury and the joy etched across Marwood’s face as he ran to celebrate with the fans.

But of course 3-2 up on aggregate in a 2nd-leg semi is a precarious place to be – if Grimsby got another back dreams would be turned to nightmares in an instant. Nevertheless as the final whistle crept ever closer The Heed dared to dream. Singing “Tell me Ma, me Ma, We’re going to Wembley” and the novel experience of “When we win, we’re on the pitch” was tempting fate. And then the Hollywood ending came.

As the fans gathered at pitchside and the stewards resigned themselves to opening the gates (there’s no point trying to stand down 8,000 fans) Phil Turnbull picked out JJ O’Donnell, who left the keeper for dead and Grimsby’s dreams with it.  The Heed fans, mostly young boys, spilled onto the pitch to bask in their new-found heroes’ glory. And I couldn’t help myself – hoisting my boy in the air I told him – “Time for your first ever pitch invasion lad, make it a good one,” and ran out with him.

For the first time in years, I was in love with a club again. Only it wasn’t Newcastle.

Let’s not forget why Newcastle United exist in the first place. They are there to entertain us, the fans, the city. It’s sport – it’s a game. If they don’t entertain they cease to be relevant, not just to the people who pay to watch them, but to themselves.

And until the club understands that there role in this world is not just to balance the books, to be a billboard, or to stay in a league that has nineteen other, more interesting tales to tell – they will continue to lose the love.

And that, in itself, is heartbreaking.

You can follow Tim on Twitter @timmay2606

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