Who was the best player on your school team?
Was your goalie tall, quick and athletic, gloves coated in glue?
Was your centre forward born in the penalty box, always in on the near post, no matter how much the parents on the touchline instructed their kids to snap him?
Did you have a midfield dynamo who could pick out a pass through a mud bath after winning the ball with heroic ingenuity?
I bet whoever it was found it, well, I hate to say easy, but it was.
I bet they had kicked a ball all day, wowed the other kids in the street with tricks they had perfected after hours in the garden or playing against a wall, and loved every minute of it. And on the big day, they could perform. This was their time, and yes, Mr Scout, they’d love to come to a trial.
Everyone was willing them on, looking to the future because the now was electric.
Did they make it? Did they get as far as an Academy, or did they go all the way? There’s a good career to be had in the lower leagues and non-league, and all the promise of glory.
Did they cope with the setbacks on the way? Injuries, competition from increasingly better players in the same teams, loss of form.
I ask, because last season, Newcastle United looked like a bunch of players who had never been the best in their street, school or even in their own heads.
Self-Doubt 1, Confidence 0.
In that movie champion of the underdog, Goal!, former NUFC player Glen tells his protégé that most players play within themselves. They don’t take risks.
Well, last season, Newcastle United didn’t even do that.
Ian la Frenais wrote the screenplay to Goal! and borrowed one of his own lines from the Porridge movie:
“Don’t let them panic you into playing football.”
Last year we were panicked into nothing approaching football, neither parking the bus nor going for it. That confident kid from the school team was gone, substituted with the kid who hated PE.
Against Manchester United, there were glimpses of improvements at the back, but Watford –that’s Watford, mind, not Bayern Munich or Juventus- scored goals that you’d feel bad about conceding on FIFA.
We’re prone to conceding the first goal. That’s a huge problem for us, because if there are goals in a league match, we’re not scoring them. And then the confidence leaks.
Confidence is precious. It is elusive. It is based on success. Yet when doubt creeps in, that incisive pass between the midfield and back four lines becomes a safe, square ball that just gave the other team time to get organised.
You can see the players thinking in little clouds above their heads: better not lose the ball or take risks, I’ll let down the lads, the fans, the city. Or maybe I’ll just look rubbish. Maybe I am. I remember when I was the best player on the school team.
Of course, they might be under orders to be so slow to build up to an attack. I can’t see why, though, because so far it has created approximately nowt.
There isn’t an easy answer.
It takes a few games to gather momentum, and if the belief of the players turns into a couple of wins, that confidence can breed around the ground. We’ll start to think, hey, we could be OK in the league, we could win a pot.
This isn’t an unrealistic expectation from a deluded fan, living in the haze of 1996. It’s the unambitious hope that this season is better than the last.
In the absence of confidence, blind hope that we will be panicked into playing football, I’m afraid, is the best I can do.
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