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Opinion

Must Read: ‘It’s time to grasp the turf again…at St James Park’

4 years ago
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I was 9 years old when I started supporting Newcastle United, by supporting I mean going to games, I’ve been a NUFC fan for as long as I can remember.

I’d been to a handful of reserve games before my first league game at St James Park on 29th August 1992; we played West Ham at home, winning 2-0 with Gavin Peacock and Ned Kelly scoring at the Gallowgate End, in which I was sitting on the concrete crush barrier.

I recently watched a YouTube clip of Kelly’s goal via Twitter, as much as I enjoyed seeing the ball go in the net, the crowd behind the goal is just mesmerising, I had to watch it another dozen times. I’m in there somewhere; my nine year old self is in amongst that mayhem, great scenes!

During that season me and few of my mates would go up to St James Park mid-week for the reserve games, my mate’s Mam took us along. I don’t know how it came about but we ended up being ball boys for about half a dozen games.

I remember the first time we ‘ball-boyed’. I was just in awe of the place, we got to go through the players entrance, taken through into our own changing rooms and given these grey tracksuits to wear. I was ready pretty quick and headed out to the top of the steps that take you down to the tunnel. I stood staring at the black & white ‘Howay the Lads’ sign, as I looked to my right there stood Kevin Keegan – my jaw dropped, totally starstruck.

We took our position at the side of the pitch, I remember being in front of the Milburn Paddock, Gallowgate side. The players were out warming up on the pitch and just before kick-off Steve Watson approached where I was positioned and said “Cold isn’t it?” I just nodded and wished I had something cool to say back.

The game kicked off and once I had stopped staring at my surroundings I crouched down and grabbed the turf at St James Park and came up with a fistful of grass. I stuffed it into my tracksuit pants pocket which was underneath the grey tracksuit bottoms given to me to wear. I got home and immediately showed my parents, “look Ma, actual St James Park grass”, amazing!

It might have been a daft thing to do but I didn’t know whether I was ever going to get the chance again, it didn’t do any harm to anyone and I was proper chuffed!

At that time, little did I know that the Club was about to come to life and take on the elite of English football, I was a NUFC fan regardless – just wanting to be part of it. So much has happened since then, it’s easy to lose sight of the reason you started going to the match in the first place.

I was making the most of my time at the match, just like I was as a ball boy at the side of the St James Park pitch. No season ticket at the beginning of that season, I was paying at the turnstile, me in one queue my Dad in another to get into the Gallowgate End. For all I knew at the time that West Ham match was my one & only match, unbeknownst to me that I’d barely miss a home game for the next 20-odd years…

I recently finished reading Martin Hardy’s Tunnel of Love, firstly can I say that it’s a great book, it highlights what went on in the background to some pretty monumental events in the history of NUFC, essential reading for any NUFC fan (also see Touching Distance).

It really captures how crazy the period between 1997 – 2009 was, one disaster was quickly followed by another, juxtaposed by a Cup semi final or going for the title no less, it was a roller coaster going 100 mile per hour. At the time I didn’t fully comprehend it, it all just became the norm for NUFC fans, but to be able to look back, take stock of what went on I was reminded of events that had become lost in the turbulence of the time.

I remember during that time discussing the desire for just a standard, comfortable 2-0 home win, the kind of result that allows you to get your breath back. NUFC just didn’t seem capable of that, enter Rafa, nowadays that is generally what we get.

The book mentions Bobby’s team being dead on their feet after the famous 3-1 win at Highbury, similarly when we had two Semi finals under Souness the team just had nothing left to give at those points.

I’m enjoying this season; we’re winning games without breaking our necks to do so. If our current run of form continues, this team will still have plenty left in the tank at the business end of the season where other teams may well be faltering.

Yes we are playing Championship opposition, but we’re doing the minimum it takes to win games and winning. I don’t think I have ever seen this level of control in games, yes I’ve seen us wallop a few teams and the game peter out into “Olés”, but we look calm, collected and unfazed by the clear task in hand to win the game.

The fans at home games are also doing the minimum in terms of atmosphere, bar the Gallowgate Flags initiative. I especially enjoyed the legends day display, to see those flags along with David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ played over the tannoy brought a lump to my throat, fantastic. Having said that I’m sure if we find ourselves up against it on the pitch then the team will be roared on. And if our form keeps up it won’t be long before there’s a party atmosphere in and around the ground and the City.

In the past it seemed to be the ‘NUFC way’ to burn brightly like a Catherine Wheel, only to eventually burn out. At the end of successful periods under Keegan and Bobby there was no continuation of the good work they had done. Tunnel of Love highlights that the decision making and lack of control of events at board level made it look from the outside that ‘rip it up and start again’ was the mantra for many years. It seems it wasn’t the intention of the NUFC board to be constantly starting afresh.

The relentless pace in which events unfurled throughout the book left me breathless at times. There were events that would represent big news at most clubs up and down the country but became just another day to NUFC fans. Write them down and you’d think you were reading the contents of a Roy of the Rovers annual.

The Cup runs represent some of the best times of my life! Being there for Alan Shearer’s 2nd v Spurs at Old Trafford, Rob Lee’s header at Wembley I wouldn’t swap for the world. But on the other side, the treatment of Kevin Keegan and the events that have led to fan protests are real low points.

The book Tunnel of Love acts as a timely reminder of just what we’ve been through to land where we are now. It has been a tough old ride which shouldn’t be forgotten and it has certainly stirred a nagging doubt of mine that the owner could pull the plug on Rafa’s project any time he likes. Rafa’s introduction has so far given us the chance to breathe, to regroup, hopefully in long-term for the fight at the top end of English football.

It certainly feels like we’re at the beginning of another upward trajectory in the history of NUFC. The difference between the past and now, it feels like progress is more calculated, slow and steady rather than caution to the wind. It’s an approach that requires a bit of patience. I’d imagine there will be a time when risks will be taken but they will be taken on a firm footing.

Maybe it’s the hopeless football romantic in me that has kept me going, I don’t know. I’ve gone from wondering why I bother, to feeling lucky that I’m around to witness, in my opinion, the rebuilding of our Club as a force.

The future is unknown, but I think we’re now in the best position to go on do something great in a long time, once we get going again we’ll take off! I feel it, I believe it!

You never know, this time around we might see black & white ribbons tied to a silver pot. It’s time to grasp the turf again…

Howay me bonny lads!!!

You can follow the author on Twitter @lyon1892

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