It was around 1999 and I was walking down Newgate Street about half an hour or so after a home game ended, Duncan Ferguson had been playing, and was substituted in the second half. Even with an early finish on the pitch Duncan had performed miracles in getting changed, out of the ground and into the town by twenty past five.
Like most fans, I thought Ferguson was a great player and for the eighteen months he was with us he put in some brilliant performances. This day, however, had not been one of his best in a Newcastle shirt.
I was determined to tell him what I thought, so I crossed the road and confronted him. “You are not fit to wear the black and white shirt!” I shouted. “You are utterly useless and I never want to see you playing for Newcastle again. Get yourself back to the ground, pack your bags and make your way back to Merseyside.”
Ferguson responded timidly (I’m calling him by his second name as you can see, that’s how angry I was) “Oh! I see. I guess you’re right. I’ll go back for my stuff and head off. Thanks for the advice.”
And off he headed, back up Gallowgate, with his tail between his legs.
Now, as some may have already guessed, not all of this story is true. Yes, we did bump into him in town about twenty past five. He had been playing. He had performed a quick-change miracle, but the confrontation….? Nah! It didn’t happen.
How many people would slag off a six foot odd centre forward to his face? Not very many. No matter how unhappy they were, even after repeatedly bad performances by the player (not that Duncan Ferguson fell into that category), they would pass the player by with nothing more than a smile, an “alreet” and a possible “can I have your autograph?”
So how can we explain the online abuse some of our players got after the Burnley game on Wednesday night? I don’t mean indirect comment, in conversation, I’m talking about straight forward insults direct into the player’s timeline.
Would those same people have given the player a piece of their mind face to face? No they wouldn’t. Well the odd one might, but overwhelmingly, fans would pass up on the opportunity to directly insult a player immediately after a game.
What makes people think they can hurl abuse online and say stuff they wouldn’t dream of saying face to face?
And by the way, this isn’t about people talking post-match about how bad somebody played, or that they should never have been signed. That’s part of being a fan. I’m talking about the online version of the Duncan Ferguson ‘confrontation’. The in your face, direct, finger jabbing attack.
‘But you can’t compare some of our current Newcastle players with the great Duncan Ferguson’, some will say. Fair enough – but that’s not the point.
It’s about supporting players who wear the black and white shirt. Treating them as human beings. That’s the support Rafa Benitez is asking for. He chooses who is in the team, every week he asks the fans to support the team. He knows he gets more out of the players when they feel the fans support behind them on and off the pitch.
It’s the support Sir Bobby Robson and Kevin Keegan asked for.
Not blind, unqualified support, devoid of any criticism, but the kind of support that draws the line at targeted online abuse.