Geordie exile didn’t believe it when a friend told him Newcastle United were coming to New Zealand.
The reality proved so much better.
Join Dale in a week’s journey that he won’t forget in a long time.
Lower Hutt AFC is a Central League team here in Wellington New Zealand. My 18 year old lad Jack plays for them. He has what they call an ‘educated left foot’ (apparently nobody has ever had an educated right one) and I love going to watch him play.
He pointed at my Newcastle top (obligatory non-work uniform) and told me “Newcastle are coming to New Zealand.”
I had heard nowt about this and thought he was a little bit mad, but he assured me a mate of his had just got a contract to make a load of scarves with Newcastle, West Ham, Sydney and Wellington Phoenix on them. I made some enquiries as quickly as I could but it seemed nobody knew anything about this. I was left in a state of excited anxiety. A couple of days passed with no more news and then the local rag the ‘Dominion Post’ announced New Zealand’s own Winston Reid was heading out here with his West Ham team plus possibly one other Premier League team rumoured to be……………………………………….NEWCASTLE UNITED!
My excitement levels now hit insane. The last time I had seen the Toon live was April 20th 2002. We were just about to move to NZ and I was at St James’ with my two lads Ryan and Jack. I knew this would be the last time we would see the Lads for a while. Alan Shearer was on 199 league goals and, if memory serves, with about 5 minutes left he had missed a chance to get his 200th. I was just telling my lads what a shame it was we wouldn’t get to see ‘Wor Al’s’ 200th before we moved to NZ when Gary Speed picked the ball up in midfield with 89 minutes on the clock. He threaded it through and big Al lashed it in! It was one of those moments when the planets aligned.
Anyway, I digress. The Toon’s participation on what was to be officially called the ‘Football United’ tour was confirmed. We would play two teams from the Australian A league. The game against Sydney FC was to take place in the South Island City of Dunedin on Tuesday 22nd July with a game against Wellington Phoenix on Saturday 26th of July in Wellington (West Ham were to play The Phoenix on the Wednesday in Auckland and Sydney on the Saturday as part of a double header). Wow! Here in little old NZ we were going to be getting 2 EPL teams! OK, so us and West Ham weren’t going to be playing each other but I was going to see the Toon live again!
Anne and Barry O’Gorman come from the sunny principality of Blyth. I met them when they worked in Wellington. They moved to Dunedin a while back and so I was straight on the phone to them scrounging a bed and a lift from the airport for me and Jack (remember him? educated left foot?). Luckily Anne and Barry were pretty excited about the whole thing too so the trip was on! It was to be Wor Jackie’s 18th birthday a couple of weeks before and my 45th in the week of the match, so we treated ourselves to a couple of flights and a couple of match tickets to the brand new roof covered Forsyth Barr stadium in Dunedin.
My wife Sarah (who is from Birmingham) just smiled and let me get on with it (Thanks Pet). There followed a call to my boss who straight away agreed to me having the week off. Anyone who knows me knows of my love for the Toon and he understood my need immediately! (Thanks Steve)
I then bought my tickets for the Wellington encounter and even had to get one for my eldest daughter Lisa-Marie (yes I’m an Elvis fan too!) who literally begged me ‘pleeeeeeeaaaaaaassseee Dad’ to let her come. Anyone with a 16 year old daughter knows that if they want something that badly and it isn’t going to result in some disaster for them, it is best to give in early!
So tickets and flights booked, all that was left to do was sit back and wait through the longest 5 weeks of my life!
Shock and Sadness
It was with some disbelief that the world learned on July 17th that Air Malaysia flight MH17 had been shot down over the Ukraine. Greater significance was placed upon it in relation to the Football United tour and Newcastle United when it was revealed that Liam Sweeney and John Alder were killed on that flight. They were two Newcastle United fans heading down here from Newcastle for the tour. It was a bit strange, a bit surreal and extremely sad.
Finally Monday 21st July 2014 arrived!
So packing done……………..
Me n ‘Wor Jackie’ went to Wellington airport…………………
After meeting up with Anne and Barry and a quiet night enjoying the delights of Barry’s home brew, we headed into Dunedin (or Toon-edin as it was to be called for the next 24 hours) early on match day (Tuesday 22nd) for a pie and a pint.
Kane Wintersgill is a 17 year old Geordie living in Auckland NZ and he runs the NZ Mags Facebook page. He had done a shedload of hard work arranging for pubs in both Wellington and Dunedin for us to meet, as well as arranging all the tributes (floral and otherwise). We started to congregate early in the Terrace Bar in the octagon in Dunedin.
Inside the terrace it started a little serenely. But a special deal on the beer and the chatter and tales of home and best Toon memories saw the noise levels start to rise. More ex-pats and Toon following locals started to flood in and excitement levels reached insane +1 when young Mr Wintersgill announced the impending arrival of a certain Mr Bobby Moncur who was over with the club as an ambassador.
TV 1 and TV3, the main channels here in NZ (equivalent to BBC1 and ITV) sent their news crews in and due to the Dutch courage and cheekiness fuelled by the $5 beers I managed to get myself interviewed and on both channels. I also got the gig of starting off the singing while they filmed us for their news shows. It was the start of the singing that was to continue for the next 9 hours until our return here after the game.
The time then arrived for the great man to come through the door. Bobby Moncur was smart, articulate and appropriate. He asked that our conversations with him were kept as they were meant to be, private, and although there was singing and frivolity in the bar, Bobby realised that as ambassador for the club it was his job to link the excitement of the occasion with the respect demanded for our two fallen brothers.
He walked the line with great skill and intelligence. He did seem genuinely excited by our new signings however. He spent more time than he needed to talking to all and was extremely obliging with the autographs and pictures.
So suitably oiled and in good voice we walked, singing and skipping, the 20 minutes or so to the beautiful new Forsyth Barr stadium. About 200 of us walked together and made a decent racket all the way there. It was magic and noisy and not a bobby to be seen the whole way. Access into the stadium was quick and easy and once inside it looks very impressive. The stadium has a roof which is handy given it was the very middle of the coldest week of the winter and the proximity of Dunedin to the Antarctic!
Two seats had been left empty for John and Liam, and Alan Pardew and Colo, came out prior to the game and laid wreaths on them. Minute’s applause during the game at 28 and 63 minutes were also observed to reflect the ages of the two lads killed. With their pictures displayed on the screen, it was a pretty emotional occasion.
The game itself was exciting because here we were watching our heroes play in their most Southerly venue ever! The Sydney keeper made a complete hash of a clearance and De Jong benefited. This lead to a full on rendition of ‘dodgy keepa’ which was repeated often during the 1st half. A fortunate deflection gave Gouffran a second chance at a cross which Riviere converted and a lucky deflection gave MYM a third, and without even trying we were 3 up at half time. A quiet 2nd half saw Adam Armstrong come on and add a very good 4th.
Jack Colback, Rolando Aarons, Siem De Jong, Gouffran and Massadio Haidara caught the eye in a not too taxing run out and then it was back to the Terrace for a last few beers before bed after a big exciting day!
After an extra day in the South to recover, it was a plane trip back up past the beautiful snow covered mountains of the South Island and back to the capital Wellington, or as now unofficially renamed Wellingtoon!
It had been my birthday while down South, so although Wor Jackie got to go to the open training session at Newtown Park and get selfies and signatures, I diplomatically took my long suffering wife (or caregiver as she calls herself) Sarah to the pictures to see Mrs Brown’s movie.
A restless excited sleep that night was followed by the dawning of a beautiful winter’s day in Wellingtoon. A quick trip to watch my youngest daughter Grace, win her netball game, then it was into the City to the Four Kings bar to meet up with some new faces and a few from the Dunedin trip. The Gaffer there is a Geordie and the pub was renamed the Strawberry for the day. The singing started very early and was non-stop all day.
The pub was packed and although I had to cover my eldest Daughter Lisa-Marie’s ears on occasion, the atmosphere was amazing and the laughs were plenty. Again though we did stop to remember Liam and John at times during the day. West Ham were playing Sydney up at the Stadium in the game immediately before ours and most of us had planned to go and watch that game, but mixed with the fact that Andy Carroll was missing from the Hammers line up, and the great time we were having in the Four Kings/Strawberry, we watched their first half on the telly. It was with some amusement we saw them getting beaten by a poor Sydney side. It wasn’t until half time in their game that we decided to start making our way to the ground
There then followed something that will live with me forever. We took the board with John and Liam’s names on and around 150 of us walked to the ground.
A walk I have done many times in 30 minutes took an hour as we sang, danced, stopped, started, sat Doon if we loved the Toon, stood up if we loved the Toon, pogoed if we loved the Toon, took our shoes off if we loved the Toon, stood and sang on the steps of the Civic Square and the local TSB arena and sang a special rendition of The Blaydon Races and displayed the two names of our brothers the whole way along. Again not a policeman in sight. No need for one. The sun was shining and we were literally passing the folks alang the road and aall the lads and lasses there aall had smiling faces. The locals and tourists alike walking beside us and videoing our group. I doubt if Wellington has ever seen the likes before. It was immense. I have done a youtube video if anyone wants to get a flavour of it.
Eventually we arrived at the Westpactrust Stadium and witnessed the last few minutes of West Ham’s 3-1 defeat to Sydney. The singing started, the Toon came out with the Wellington Phoenix and a tribute to John and Liam was performed in the shape of a Waiata (song) by a local Maori group. The Toon were then welcomed with a Haka before the match finally got underway.
I usually go and watch the Wellington Phoenix play and stand and sing with the ‘Yellow Fever’ (The Phoenix supporters group) so it was quite a change for me to be at the other end of the ground. A friend of mine, Jeremy Brockie, plays for the Phoenix and he was twice denied by very good Rob Elliott saves, otherwise Gouffran’s goal wouldn’t have been enough to win an entertaining contest in front of 30,000. Tributes were again paid on 28 and 63 minutes for John and Liam and a special mention to Wellington Phoenix and the Yellow Fever for supporting the tributes.
So that was that. Another OK performance. Colo looked classy but not too stretched. Gouffran put in another good shift. Aarons was lively and looks a prospect, Colback was my personal player of the tournament but to be honest this was real pre-season fare and you know what…….I loved it.
The crowd made its way out of the Caketin (as the stadium is affectionately known in these parts)and I stayed a while sitting next to the seats where John and Liam would have been. The wee tear I shed wasn’t just for those lads, but for the fact that after such a perfect week I really don’t know when I’ll see the lads ’live’ again. My 16 year old daughter put her arm around my shoulder and let me have my moment in silence.
Composure regained it was back off to the 4 Kings/Strawberry for a last very croaky song or two and a last cheap pint before the train home and the beginning of a very slow descent back to reality.
RIP John and Liam
Howay the Lads