Taking time out from our plight for all but a brief moment, you can’t help but do what most fans do at this time of year when things aren’t as smooth as they could be…look to the past.
Newcastle fans always seem to hark back to days gone by, primarily because the present (and future) seem as grim and mundane as a new signing from some continental backwater.
On matchdays, the routine is simple…
Get off the train or bus, head to Central Station around lunchtime for a couple of bottles of Brown ale, call in at another watering hole around 1:30 and then head off up to St James Park for the mixture of entertainment, excitement and (usually) disappointment.
It’s not uncommon, in fact it’s a routine taken in by 50,000+ every other weekend. Yes, there are the odd high points to be found in the drudge, the spark can be spotted from time to time, but failure and defeat can often seem like the norm around these parts. Nothing much changes, it’s a simple enough premise. Newcastle United don’t do winning trophies, so have to make do with little nuggets of delight whenever they do appear, because we don’t know when the next one may come along.
The day in question was this very date ten years ago. Waking up on this particular morning was nothing unusual, after all, there wasn’t a competitive game on as the season had finished. Newcastle had qualified for Europe, as they had done for most of the seasons over the previous 10 years.
European qualification wasn’t a right in 2006, it wasn’t even expected, but it WAS aimed for and it was classed by me as a perfect chance to at least get near winning one of the tin pot thingys.
Fast forward ten years and the same applies, the Europa League or whatever it wants to be called, is still Newcastle United’s best chance of winning a trophy, something which should be aimed for. If you simply aim for fourth bottom, you can’t be surprised the one time you fail to achieve it and end up falling flat on your Championship face.
But I digress, back to 2006. It was a glorious day, certainly out of the ordinary for the middle of May, positively tropical. The morning was unremarkable, but there WAS a match on and didn’t we all know it. Breakfast had been had and after lunch buses were caught and the city centre was gradually filling up with a mixture of people who were off work and getting the beers in early, as well as normal everyday workers bemused by what the hell was going on of a Thursday afternoon.
As we all know, it was the evening belonging to a certain Alan Shearer.
As I met up with three friends who wanted to join me for the day, the sun continued to heat up, ales were continuing to be drunk and the world seemed a more serene and happy place. The toon hadn’t won anything, except the european qualification, but people were smiling, enjoying the sun (and alcohol) – but more importantly the sense of occasion.
The pre-match meet up was a little different and elongated somewhat, jibes were thrown around amongst the group in Wetherspoons and after a particular joke went down like a lead balloon, yours truly took a hissy fit and the perpetrator had his coat thrown from the upstairs window – to the hilarity of all concerned.
The match started as a calm but jovial affair, helped by the amount of Newcastle’s finest consumed through what must have been hours and hours of pre-match build up but also as the players took their positions and the game kicked off, the man of the hour departed having nursed an injury since the game away against the unwashed a few weeks earlier.
As the game went on, the conversation turned to more nostalgia, memories of the last ten years were aired, stand-out moments were acknowledged and punctuated with events on the field.
Star players came and went to sound of rapturous applause, as they do in all testimonial games. Former players Rob Lee and Gary Speed were welcomed back as though they’d won something in our colours.
In the second half, Sir Les was afforded a roar like no other, a reward for only two years service, but two years where the title was nearly achieved and for a player who (along with Lee) makes a mockery of the common misconception that folk up here don’t like them ‘daarn sarf’.
As the game came to its conclusion, the gesture that was afforded at the start of the game (a free commemorative scarf) was used to its full potential in a sight that will linger on in the minds of everyone who attended. I’ve still got mine and it’s a pity that in the bleak mid-winter such things can’t be seen twirling around the heads of 52,000 Geordies more often. Having said that, it’s been a long time since we’ve had anything to really get excited about.
With the match over and the local hero off on his lap of honour, applause was prolonged and eyes were misty (maybe it was the ale) as thoughts inevitably turned to who on earth could possibly take over as number 9, or even talisman, for the next generation. As Alan Shearer made his speech alongside Ant and Dec, I turned to the company present and said ‘You simply can’t replace this guy!’. You can try, you can point to each individual that has played up front over the last decade since that night – and none will match.
There has been players with pace in the form of Obafemi Martins who was tasked with the immediate takeover and I have to say he was a decent player. There was carthorse Mark Viduka and fellow perma-crock Michael Owen and then there were players that shouldn’t have been signed in the first place in the form of Antoine Sibierski, Shefki Kuqi and later on Emmanuel Riviere.
Good players were signed to provide us with goals, certainly Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse had their moments and could have been regarded as Newcastle legends in their own right IF the club had built an atmosphere and a team around them. Only Andy Carroll had the stature and the ability to take on what his fellow local lad did before him, but nobody would say that he was worth £32m. The main trouble is, these players, of which Loic Remy was another, were never likely to stick around long enough to become legends, never mind aim for the amount of goals our former number nine scored.
So for now we yearn for the comparative ‘glory’ of years gone by, certainly if you look back at the ten years that the sheet metal workers son was firing the goals in, we had relative ‘success’. We had 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th place finishes in the league, made it to the quarter and semi finals of the Uefa Cup, an epic Champions League campaign, 2 finals at Wembley and a pair of semi finals in the FA cup.
It’s a damning indictment of the way the club has been run over the subsequent 10 years, that all we have to look back on are a stand-out 5th place fluke and a Europa league season, which is more than offset with multi-seasonal fights (term used loosely) with relegation, two of which look to have been successfully achieved.
We cling to the past as it offers a bit of light relief, be it a Belgian chip over the ‘keeper, or in this case a thunderbolt from 30 yards, to older folk it may be another local hero lifting an FA Cup but either way it’s a distraction from the depressing state we find ourselves in at present. Through no fault of the supporters other than for their loyalty to be abused and milked for all it’s worth.
I’ll keep nights like Thursday 11th May 2006 in my mind forever, an occasion I wouldn’t have missed for anything, as nostalgia is pretty much all we have to fall back on.