This is the best thing you will read about Newcastle United today
This is a brilliant Newcastle United read.
Here at The Mag we love to hear tales of how people got into supporting NUFC.
For most of us it is a typical tale of your dad and/or other older relatives desperate to take you as soon as possible, ensuring that at the earliest possible age you are addicted to supporting our ridiculous but brilliant football club.
However, for others it is a different story and this account by Rex Winter of how he joined the black and white ranks is a classic.
(Anybody else out there who would like to share their typical or non-typical path to following Newcastle United, we would love to hear it, send them and any other articles to [email protected])
A Touch of Class – Rex Winter
If you haven’t already seen it, you need to stop what you are doing immediately and watch ‘The English Game’ on Netflix.
As you would expect from the title there is a fair bit of football in it but its real theme is a bit deeper.
It’s an engaging mash-up of ‘Downton Abbey’, ‘Kes’, and ‘When Saturday Comes’. It’s about football, class, elitism, working class oppression, working class grit, and a lot more.
Set in the 1880s, we are introduced to the birth of the modern game , and the fledgling Football Association. The two protagonists could not be more different. One is an Eton educated banker, living in Mayfair, dressing in tails for dinner every night with his wife and cronies. The other is a northern mill worker living in poverty, desperate to earn enough money to rescue his mother and sisters from their even worse predicament. Both characters play football because they love the game but the mill worker’s motives run deeper. For fear of a spoiler I won’t say much about the plot but the six episodes in Season One follow an ultimately satisfying, although slightly predictable path, both on and off the field.
In the period 1870-80 there was a certain faction of the upper classes, indeed a majority at one stage, that believed that football was a game that should be reserved only for gentlemen. By ‘gentlemen’ I don’t mean the mildly-wiffy middle class and I definitely don’t mean the sweaty unwashed working class. In terms of a gentleman’s pastimes, football ranked alongside polo, hunting, shooting, cricket and shagging the servants. They learned their game on the pitches of Eton, Rugby, Charterhouse and Harrow.
Meanwhile, a different form of football was being played by some of the unwashed and the lesser-washed. That was the medieval football still seen today in Alnwick and some other market towns on Shrove Tuesday – a roving half-day punch-up along with loads of ale and ambulances; with a football occasionally spotted in the melee. Much like a Millwall game today.
What changed everything was the codification of the rules of football by the FA in 1863. You could buy that Rule Book and if you could read, you could explain those rules to your mates. Unlike polo and shooting and the like, playing football needed minimal investment in kit. All you needed was the boots that you wore for work, a football, and of course four jumpers. The working class could now take on the toffs at their own game and win! After some early struggles, the FA opened the game to teams from all backgrounds; professional, amateur and otherwise, and the rest is history.
Watching The English Game got me thinking.
A funny thing happened to me in the early 70s. I was privately educated and attended the Royal Grammar School (RGS) in Newcastle. Although it had a free scholarship scheme, 95% of the pupils were fee-paying, and were therefore from well-to-do backgrounds. I was one of the latter.
It was, and still is, a great school and I loved every minute of my time there and made many lifelong friends. Sport was an important part of the curriculum, with rugby being top of the pile. Football was not on the sporting agenda and I don’t think that the school even owned a football in those days! We hardly ever played football; not because it was banned or discouraged, but simply because neither teachers nor pupils were interested in the game.
Football simply wasn’t for the likes of me and my schoolmates but a neutral observer might struggle to identify the reason why that was the case. The RGS ‘rugby only’ attitude certainly wouldn’t have helped, but with the benefit of hindsight, I think there was a fairly simple reason why none of us followed the game.
My own perception of football, and that of my peers and parents, was garnered from the media. As is still the case with today’s media, in the 70s the media only focused on the bad news, and with football they had plenty of ammunition. Riots, pitch invasions, trains getting vandalised, huge punch-ups in service stations on the motorway, pitched battles between fans on the terraces and outside the grounds. There was even fighting between fans of the same team, with rival gangs using the match as a venue to invent, and settle, old scores. Many city centres, including Newcastle, were no-go areas on match day. Nothing was off limits and the Police were attacked and injured every weekend. On the plus side, no Police horses were lamped until many decades later.
The overriding impression in my 14 year old mind was that being a football fan had nothing to do with the game itself and the score, but that it was all about a vicious tribal culture, perpetrated by a violent underclass. It was for gangs of skinheads and suedeheads. It was for racial chants. It was for getting p.ssed, smashing shop windows, terrorising shoppers, and kicking a few heeds in. Why on earth would I want to go to a match and get involved in any of that? It looked terrifying. I wasn’t even in a gang; unless the RGS Model Railway Society counted as one.
And yet, for reasons that escape me, I started to follow the Toon. At that stage I simply followed the team, but had no comprehension of the Toon culture. It was a very rare event when there was a Toon game on the TV but I could usually listen on the radio. And then on Grandstand there was the teleprinter on the screen at 5pm printing that day’s results. I would wait for the Toon result with fingers crossed and chart their progress up and down the league table. I still remember the bemusement of my rugby-fanatic dad when I put up a poster of the Toon squad on my bedroom wall. I think the poster came free with The Chronicle. That poster took pride of place alongside those of Slade, T Rex, and The Stones.
I knew that I had to go to a match. Unlike generations of other Toon fans, there was no prospect of my dad taking me, and in fact going with my dad would probably have proved fatal. On special outings dad liked to wear his favourite bowler hat and black topcoat, and he had an alarming habit of barking instructions at underlings and other riff-raff that got in his way. I doubt that we would have made it out of The Haymarket before an ambulance was required. Although dad is now long buried, his bowler hat still gets dusted-off for fancy dress parties.
Sounding out a few pals at school, they all refused point-blank to come to a match with me. Their excuse wasn’t just that they didn’t like football, it was also emphatically about: “Not wanting to get duffed-up.” What was a young football-mad toff to do?
I don’t remember the exact date but I’m sure that it was 1974 and I was 14. I don’t remember who we were playing but I do remember that Supermac was in his prime. He may have even scored a hat-trick but I might have just invented that. I was on my own. A 50 minute bus-ride into the Toon from the family pile in Northumberland. I spent my pocket money on a scarf from a stall in the Haymarket and wrapped it round my wrist just like everybody else. I tried my best to look geet hard but at the time remain completely invisible.
I didn’t know where to go, or what part of the ground to sit (or stand) in. I didn’t know if there were any special posh seats reserved for toffs. I knew nobody that I could ask and I couldn’t Google it. I just followed the crowd and queued up for my ticket. I was trying to hear what the other fans asked for at the turnstile and was rehearsing my best Geordie accent to mimic them. I was terrified in case I was ‘found-out’, and the crowd would turn on the imposter in their midst. In later years I realised that the proper expression was probably ‘Bricking it’.
I was surrounded by jostling, shouting, swearing, spitting, chanting Toon fans all smelling of Broon and BO, and smoking tabs. These were the very people that I normally crossed the road to avoid and I was deliberately going to spend my afternoon with them! There was a real risk that I might even accidentally make eye contact with one of them. This couldn’t end well.
And then I was on the terraces – standing in a big puddle of steaming p.ss which was full of dog-ends and bits of pie. My smart school shoes were besieged by 18 hole Doc Martens and Riders with segs in the heels. Suddenly the Toon scored and I was swept down 10 steps and pinned against a barrier with a 1000 or more of my new friends. A terrifying moment later, I was swept back up to a new p.ss-puddle, with shoving and pushing and swearing and a fair bit of good-natured violence and banter. I was hugged by sweaty, beery strangers, and was elbowed sharply in the ear for standing on somebody’s DMs. I learned a lot of new words to add to my privately educated vocabulary. I nearly lost my specs.
And the songs! I finally realised that I was in the Leazes End because where I was standing in my puddle of p.ss was apparently: “… where Geordies never end … until the Chelsea fans lie dead at our feet!” Then there was the uplifting and moving: “You’re gonna get your f.ckin’ heads kicked-in!” which was probably my favourite. It put me in mind of the RGS school song and its raucous edgy chorus that we sang at prize-giving and rugger matches: “Fortiter defendit, fortiter defendit, fortiter defendit, triumphans!” I was still bricking it, but I was hooked.
But that was then and I lived to tell the tale. When my kids were 14 and younger, they went to matches with their mates, and my wife and I didn’t even bat an eyelid, or give their safety a moment’s thought. I knew that even though my kids were little toffs too, they would actually get looked after by the other fans, rather than get mugged. That’s not because today’s Toon fans are toffs; its because they are good people.
Nowadays I go to four or five games a season. I don’t brick it these days. In fact, surrounded by the tribe of Toon fans as we all walk towards SJP I feel safe, cocooned, and part of something very special. The only skinheads that I see at the match these days are baldy old blokes like me wearing Barbour jackets and nice comfy shoes; most of us wondering if we can make it to half-time without needing another wee.
Things have moved on for the better in other ways too. Both of my boys played for Heaton Hawks FC, with their dad taking his turn to set up the goalposts at Manor Park every Sunday morning in the p.ssing-down rain. I was proud to be elected as the HHFC Dog Sh.t Warden and would patrol the pitch with my poo bags before every match. And then one day in 2014 there was an extra special moment. There was a very proud dad on the touchline when my eldest son ran on to the pitch as (Acting) captain of the RGS First XI football team.
Its been nearly 160 years since the Rule Book got written. The fortunes of football, the toffs, and the unwashed, have ebbed and flowed over the generations. Some of the fans of course have changed too. As I understand it, its only now at Arsenal where all the fans are bankers – but maybe I have just misheard the lyrics.
Just got time for a quick G&T before I change for dinner.
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