Every season for the last 35 years we’ve played a simple little game in my family, before the season kicks off we all write down our predictions for what will happen with Newcastle United. We have a little system for awarding points at the end of the season, and a little trophy for the winner, good fun it is.
My old dad (God rest his soul) was the only one of us ever to actually see Newcastle win anything, having been at Wembley for the 1950s cup finals. And every season, without fail, he would predict that Newcastle would win the FA Cup. Even when the club was at its very lowest ebb, his pre-season prediction would be – FA Cup Winners, Newcastle United. “You’ve got to keep the faith”, he would say to us.
And now he’s gone, and I’m getting older – and I’m just the same.
There’s plenty of time once things get going for real for all of the optimism to leak out of our balloons. But here we are again, warming up on the starting line –everyone has the same points, and all things seem possible. No doubt, being Newcastle, it will all go wrong. But maybe not – maybe this year it won’t.
Fans of other teams get to be cheerful as the season goes on. In general, our best chance comes here and now – before things actually get started.
So in that spirit, let me give you the black-and-white optimist’s view of the coming season. A view where the glass isn’t just half-full – it has an umbrella in the top.
There are two overarching reasons why we should look to the coming season with a hat-on-the-side-of-the-head cheeriness.
Firstly, the most important person in any football club is the manager. And we have one of the best in the world. But it’s even better than that.
There are some managers out there who are undeniably good at their job – but who are just not very likeable characters (Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger, and of course the granddaddy of them all, Alex Ferguson). But Rafa isn’t just really good at his job – he also gives every impression of being a really nice bloke. He was really popular on Merseyside and he’s really popular on Tyneside. That might sound trite – but it isn’t.
Everybody loved King Kev. Everybody loved Sir Bobby. Nobody loved Dalglish or Pardew. Everybody loves our Rafa!
Secondly, anyone who has followed Newcastle United for any period of time and who knows how things go down at St James Park, will know the crucial importance of the relationship between the team and the club and the fans. And the end of last season was one of the few times when everything was lined up – it felt like everyone was pulling in the same direction.
The crowd at St James Park is perhaps the one thing more than anything else which defines the way the club is. If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Different clubs have a different vibe.
You expect Spurs to play in a certain way, and Everton in another way, and Stoke in another way, and Newcastle in another way. That’s the case over long periods of years, when all the players come and go, and managers and owners come and go – but clubs have a sort of soul of their own. And Newcastle has always had a certain set of characteristics. We recognise them from the inside. Other sets of fans see them – and often misinterpret them – from the outside.
Different people will see it in different ways, but there is a particular vibe given off by the St James Park crowd which is different to just about anywhere else. Hard to put into words, but I would characterise it as a sort of panicky hopefulness which is permanently on the edge of tipping over into despair. Other teams can calmly play out a game when they’re ahead – but not us. Oh no – we all know how it goes – two-nil up with 10 minutes to go, that’s plenty of time to throw it away; stupid mistake, 2-1, followed by 5 minutes of panicked defending with great waves of anxiety washing down from the stands, and none of our players seeming to remember how to head or kick the ball.
And there’s a perfectly good reason for our worries and anxiety – it’s because for as long as we can remember, things have almost always gone wrong in the end. It means that even when things are going well, there is a sort of half-expectation that they are just about to go t**s up. And when things start to go really badly and people lose hope, as in the few seasons leading up to relegation in 2016, St James Park can give off a particularly toxic atmosphere.
But the other side of the coin is that when things do go right – when everyone is pulling together; club, and manager, and team, and fans – then the power is unleashed!!
It doesn’t happen all that often, and at Newcastle it doesn’t tend to last that long – but on the eve of this coming season things seem to be in alignment. The Manager seems to like the club. The players seem to like and respect the Manager. The fans love the Manager. And by-and-large the fans like and respect the players. We all have players we like and dislike – but the impression is that in general the current crop are doing their best for the club, are happy to be here, and don’t have one eye on the exit door.
But is the squad strong enough? Has our transfer business this summer been good enough? Yes, and (hopefully) yes.
A team can be more or less than the sum of its parts. Our relegation team was (on paper) not one of the weaker ones in the league that year – but due to poor management and a snivelling weakness-of-spirit and lack of commitment to the cause, the team was much less than the sum of its parts. Twelve months on, we have the exact opposite. Expert tactical and man-management, plus a team who seem to be enjoying playing together.
Those attributes – Rafa’s management, and our team spirit – won us lots of points last season, and they will do in the coming season. This season we can hope that Newcastle will be the team getting the last-minute winner, rather than the team conceding it.
Add the summer transfer business? I know there has been a deal of worry and dissatisfaction with the names coming in so far. But cast your mind back 12 months. The two buys who were almost universally panned by us fans at the time were …. Dwight Gayle, and Ciaran Clark. Shows how much we know!
The truth is that until things get going we just can’t tell – none of us – whether this summer’s business has been good or bad. Jacob Murphy could turn out to be another Hatem Ben Arfa. Florian Lejeune could turn out to be another Jonathan Woodgate. Mikel Merino could turn out to be another Robert Lee.
On the eve of the season all of those things are still possible. Bring it on.
And my prediction for the season – 9th in the league; FA Cup Winners – Newcastle United.
(All contributions from Newcastle fans welcome, send articles (as well as ideas/suggestions) to [email protected])