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A fistful of nothing

6 years ago

Brought up in Newcastle (though born in London) I felt privileged in the early 70s to stand in the Leazes End and witness the occasional brilliant performance by “my team”.

There were many more lows than highs, which I soon realised was the lot of most supporters unless they followed the detested Leeds or Liverpool. In charge of Newcastle United was Joe Harvey, mythical hero of the great Cup-winning teams of the 50s, when that trophy was more important than the Football League championship.

His legend had grown anew in the 68-69 Fairs Cup campaign. Newcastle were recognised as a cup team, something of a backhanded compliment prompted by our mid-table mediocrity in the First Division. That was the context.

I would walk from Kenton across Nuns Moor and the Town Moor to arrive at Gallowgate about 1pm on Saturdays and pay 30p to breathe in the bitter smell from the brewery and soak up that indefinable atmosphere, a mixture of pride, hope and excitement mixed with a modicum of expectation (unless we were playing Leicester, whom we always seemed to thump; they say the memory plays tricks . . .).

My heroes were Irving Nattrass and Alan Kennedy, local lads who on one unforgettable afternoon combined in breathtaking style to set up a goal for Supermac that still makes my skin tingle. For some reason I was in the Gallowgate End that day, enjoying a perfect view of the move from start to thunderous finish more than 100 yards distant. How the Leazes net withstood that left-foot blockbuster I will never know. A young Mark Wallington in the Foxes goal showed his inexperience by bothering to dive, as Macdonald pointed out in his typically understated post-match comments.

From 1976. a spell at college and then the world of work reduced my attendances severely. By 1980 I was back in London, trying to build “a career” while following United’s exploits from afar with a passion reserved for those in exile. There’s no love greater for the land of his formative years than that of a Geordie in distant parts.

Television offered brief glimpses of the Mags as the 80s meandered into the 90s while I focused on marriage, family and work. Call me a glory hunter if you like, because for me, as for so many in the Toon Army, a lot changed when Keegan took over.

The promotion season, the superb debut campaign in the Premiership, the difficult second term; I was becoming a proper supporter again. In 1994 I rocked up with my 10-year-old son at Selhurst Park and saw a Beardsley wonder goal in the final few minutes defeat Palace after Chris Armstrong had squandered a load of chances.

“Please don’t sign him,” I thought, for the rumour mill was grinding out stories that he (Armstrong) would be our next big money acquisition. In those days there were far more hits than misses in our transfer dealings.

More alarming for my boy was the outpouring of unrestrained joy, followed almost immediately by too-close-for-comfort hostility as Pedro’s angled shot flew into the net. “Get in!!!” I screamed, much to the disgust of those thousands of adjacent Palace fans already staring at relegation.

A year later, again in a home supporters’ stand, we watched a breathtaking draw at White Hart Lane. Sir Les, another hero, played a blinder but missed a chance to secure all three points in the final few minutes when the ball became almost stuck between his feet.

“How important will that be at the end of the season?” I asked my fellow dads on the touchline the next morning while we watched our sons playing in the Maidstone under-11 league. “Don’t be daft, you’re gonna stroll to the title . . .” they all replied. Somehow, Newcastle supporters always know, long before anybody else, whether something is meant to be. Or not.

Up we drove to Tyneside for the Easter fixtures against Southampton and Villa a few months later.

In those days we did win 1-0, regardless of all the rubbish spewing out of the national newspapers and television pundits. Again my son was perplexed, this time because I was reduced to tears by the atmosphere and transformation of St James’ Park.

The Leazes was no longer a decrepit, stinking and dangerous terrace. The entire stadium was almost unrecognisable, as were the team compared with those who would hoof the ball from back to front with little or no finesse 25 years earlier. Hope was in the air, hope against hope that we could resist Fergie’s bully boys. Let’s not go there; instead, remember the thrill of it all.

Two more Wembley finals, two more disappointments before a couple of wonderful years under Robson. Things were looking up again, as I was.

Nearly 30 years after resisting an ambush by Leeds fans who gatecrashed a neutral replay against Bolton at Elland Road, we were being bombarded not by half-bricks but by bottles of pi** hurled into the lower tier of the San Siro from the ranks of Inter thugs.

Rarely have Newcastle ever played better than they did in that first 45 minutes. Somehow, we knew this was too good to be true. At least the 2-2 was a moral victory. How much would you give for one of those today?

Better writers have noted, with hindsight, this was a high watermark. Who would disagree with that verdict today as we survey the wasteland of the Ashley regime? The question now is how low we will sink.

Thrilling football, inspired performances, wholehearted players seem to be no more than a distant mirage (the Norwich freak excepted). The almost universal sentiment is apathy.

A man with no printable name has given us a fistful of nothing.

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