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A Season to Remember?

1 year ago

A new season has just kicked off with a novel twist that our erratic Newcastle United owner has this summer decided to act with with some degree of normality in the transfer market.

This saw four proven Premier League players brought to the club who all address one of the shortcomings in the squad that were obvious to all.

This should elicit some sort of excitement for the new season, or at least not the same impending sense of doom.

The new additions have by now all lined up for their press conferences; during which they generally trotted out the kind of thing that we have come to expect from players, who have been indoctrinated into speaking entirely in PR statements and cliches of big club, fantastic stadium, hope to emulate famous names of the past etc etc.

One other common statement stood out…“can’t wait to play in front 52,000 supporters at St James Park and feel the passion and noise…” you know how it goes.

Even if that has rarely been the case in recent years, an uneasy mixture of 52,000 ranging from the malcontent to the mildly disgruntled, through to the apathetic or out of habit and still bizarrely those who would defend Ashley. Using arguments that have you walking away wondering if you’ve just encountered a board member or an actual supporter, such was their passion for all things financial and seeming disinterest that makes a football club unlike any other business whose models they base these arguments on.

These people could quite possibly save themselves a lot of time and money whilst deriving the same amount of joy by taking out a subscription to the Financial Times and attending the odd AGM.

What we all know is that what each of those new signings has expressed is that football is about us, the supporters. Each player expressed the desire to play in front of a packed SJP because that is the dream to play in front of a packed stadium in front of a passionate crowd.

I’m sure no 10 year old as ever looked up to a parent on the way home from a game and uttered the words: ‘I want to be a footballer so I can play in empty stadiums in games that have become devoid of any meaning in order that TV contracts can be fulfilled and those that run the game can continue to exploit it.’

There simply is no football without supporters, at least not at the professional level, because a large amount is not actually about what happens on the pitch or whatever qualifies as success for any given club, or even winning trophies. These things are extra things you hope for, and a part of a whole, but are not the sole reason for turning up every week (or whenever you can these days in my case).

If they were, then why would thousands of people attend games at clubs who have never won a thing and have very little hope of ever winning anything, or even troubling the top half of whatever league from the lower divisions right through to the bottom of the pyramid they play at. Because events on the pitch simply provide a focal point, a reason to gather, whether that be at St James Park or Hillheads Park, although the North East’s non-league clubs can certainly show their league counterparts a thing or 2 about picking up silverware.

We all have different reasons for being Newcastle United supporters, though I suspect for most it is simply a case of support being passed through the generations, rather than any conscious choice you could express a reason for. Then from attending that first game connections are formed, memories are made, and if in the absence of being able to attend matches, you think about all the things you miss about attending games…watching Joelinton fail to control the ball or the Colback misplaced passes to teammates who are barely the roll of a ball away. Not even the sensational goals scored by the likes of a Robert or Ginola, though I certainly remember these and I’ve seen them a hundred times after the event. What I remember most though about the ball hitting the net, is the anticipation from the crowd as the ball is picked up, the breath being drawn as the run begins or ball is won, the collective exhale as 52,000 people realise the ball is heading for the net, then the roar and chaos falling over seats, clutching at strangers, the hugs the expressions of pure unrestrained joy on faces, the surge of emotion and adrenaline through your body.

This simply does not happen, no matter how spectacular or important the goal, whilst you are sat on the coach with a bag of crisps clutching a can of whatever lager was on offer in the local supermarket. I’ve never felt the urge to to get up off the sofa and get the train to Newcastle due to an unexpected victory against Arsenal because the elation and emotion just made it feel like Newcastle was the only place you should be heading that night, even though your should be heading 70 miles in the opposite direction, you need something bigger than just the result to induce that sort of illogical decision – well to be honest a day’s drinking around the capital probably helps to ensure it seems like a great decision as well. However, we bounced and sang all the way back to the north east and I made my way back to Portsmouth the following day with no regrets, a head full of hazy memories and more confirmation of just what it is that makes supporting this Football Club great and it’s rarely the football itself.

Do I remember the game against Partizan Belgrade? I remember being there. I know we won 0-1. I know Nobby Solano scored the goal. But what I really remember is being locked in a hotel all afternoon before being bused to the ambassador’s house, who decided to host 100 or so travelling supporters in his garden and laid on beer and food for the next few hours. I’m sure anyone that was present will never forget it and I doubt any other ambassador’s residence has ever had a swimming pool full of Geordies in various states of undress.

The TV companies can pipe as much canned noise onto our screens as they desire but what they can’t recreate are the individual shouts and expressions of joy, or more of frustration, that even when watching on TV the mics sometimes pick up and transport you into the stadium, the canned noise we have been subjected to just feels like the bland sterile atmosphere that the Premier League has seemingly been trying to create in real crowds since its inception. The turning of football clubs that people feel part of, instead into corporate entities that couldn’t be further away from a club in the sense that you or I think of one.

There’s no need to quote Bobby Robson here we all know the quote but he was expressing that very thing that’s so hard to put your finger on – but a sense of belonging is certainly part of it. Without a crowd there can be no sense of belonging to anything, whilst watching from afar your just watching another form of entertainment.

Connections and friendships are only made when you’re part of that mass movement of black and white who converge on the city centre every other week, or part of the thousands that travel up and down the country who are always happy to see another wearing the black and white on a train.

The decades of memories I have of following Newcastle with my dad, who passed away suddenly seven years ago and with whom my last conversation was discussing an upcoming trip to Hamburg, to see F.C Sankt Pauli – a club who I have written about in this publication back when there actually was a (paper) publication. I had been making these trips for a couple years before and this was to be his second. Sankt Pauli isn’t a place I would have found myself going to regularly over the past decade if it wasn’t for a fellow mag who we met randomly on the train back from a game at Upton Park. A friendship was struck up and at the time, having a season ticket but living in Lincoln, regular car journeys full of discussions that have shaped my life and politics in many ways were had.

These kinds of connections are what following a football club will always be about for me. It’s not a passive experience to be had whilst sat on a sofa eating and drinking. Maybe there was a time when I looked forward to seeing great players grace the pitch at St James above anything else but those games wouldn’t have been so memorable if they were played out to echoing stands, filled with yet more sports direct hoardings in place of the thousands who love this football club. What I anticipate at the start of a season as much as anything, are the things that now seem so distant it’s hard to think they will ever be more than memories.

Approaching the pub on the day of the game far earlier than anyone should ever be approaching a pub; so early the waft of stale beer from the Friday night before still hangs in the air and you order the first round from the bleary eyed person behind the bar. Getting the train to an away game carrier bag full of beers at some time in the morning, far earlier than any sane person should ever be awake on a Saturday morning.

With no prospect of crowds returning anytime soon, what is the point of starting the season?

Will any of us remember what is likely to be another season with little to cheer, without the ability to be present to celebrate and feel the rush of emotion that only a crowd can bring in those few moments?

Without the rituals of a matchday, whether you never miss a game or only attend a few times a season, all we are left with is a corporate machine that must roll on and the people that still ensure these monoliths remain tied to the words Football Club excluded and without the collective power of a crowd unable to stop the further gentrification and corporatisation of the game.

I suppose this hasn’t really been an article of any particular flow or structure, just a loose collection of memories and thoughts and I haven’t put any times or dates on any events I’ve mentioned, though I’m sure many of you were there or know the games I’m referring to.

Football is this way though a loose collection of memories that you sometimes can place, sometimes not, and friendships that are made, some lasting, some that never cross the threshold of your pre-match boozer.

Is there really any point to starting a season without the supporters who make it what it is?

The prospect of a season without supporters certainly doesn’t fill me with the usual sense of anticipation.


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