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Opinion

Newcastle United stripped of its greatest asset

9 months ago
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Losing my senses…

Football in NE1 has been stripped of its most valuable asset since 29 February 2020, as we are now approaching ten long months without beer-fueled optimism soaking every inch of cracked concrete and faded plastic within St. James Park.

Ten long months of adapting to this new, albeit temporary, way of supporting our football team.

No post-war generation of Newcastle United fans have experienced such a turbulent and uncertain ten months. Ethical debates, legal cases and lockdown weren’t in the terms and conditions of the season ticket application. It is doubtful, too, that televisions, streaming and subscriptions were ever considered as what we would be getting for our investment.

We are also approaching seventeen months of life with Steve Bruce as Newcastle United manager. Saturday should have seen him reach a half-century of league games in charge but the postponement of the Aston Villa game means that this milestone will instead by reached at Elland Road on Wednesday evening.

Surely no Newcastle United manager in the club’s history has overseen such a fifty game period. Piracy, politics and a pandemic probably weren’t in the job description when Bruce headed North to take over the vacant position left by Rafa Benitez. It is doubtful, too, that there was a blanked out space on his wall planner for a three and a half month gap between mid-season fixtures, or that empty stadia featured in his thoughts.

It is perhaps partly because of these unprecedented months that Newcastle fans remain anything but united on the subject of Steve Bruce, as there is no crowd to gauge a universal swell of opinion. Instead, there are those who swear that football is a results business and point to the league table and the cup quarter final as the only thing that matters. There are those who have ‘dinosaur’ appear on their screen as soon as predictive text feels their finger hit ‘d’ and end every message with #BruceOut, even to their Nana. There is also, of course, an enormous range of nuanced opinion between these two extremes.

Newcastle United were the first Premier Club to have an outbreak of COVID-19, had the training ground closed and an unspecified number of players become ill with the virus. Despite this, two games were played and six points were won. Unprecedented circumstances and challenges and yet Newcastle won consecutive league games for only the fourth time since Bruce arrived. A job well done.

Newcastle United played a West Brom team that, while Newcastle skipped a round of fixtures, lost 1-5 to Crystal Palace, who Newcastle had defeated 2-0 in their previous game. This was also a West Brom team without Matheus Pereira and coming into the game with one win from eleven. Newcastle scored in the first minute and then surrendered possession and position for large parts of the game, boring many fans viewing at home, before deservedly conceding an equaliser.

These two different ways of seeing Saturday’s game are evident across social media, as well as many fans accepting both as true and arriving somewhere in between. After all, it is possible to accept a job well done in challenging circumstances while also admitting to being bored by watching your own team. Not everything is black or white.

It is an inescapable truth that without that matchday feeling, that engagement and explosion of all five senses, football has been stripped down to nothing but sight and Newcastle United are not easy on the eye. Saturday’s game was dull and ugly but when its best moment came, it was a thing of beauty, as memories of Solano or Robert crossing to the forehead of Shearer came rushing to the frontal lobes of bored brains.

However, there was no smell of the cold North East air tinged with a cocktail of cologne and lager; there was no touch of a sea of strangers rising as one to crash together in ‘limbs’; there was no taste of your mouth being left dry as you involuntarily expectorated during a raw, primal embrace; there was no sound of victory as relief mixed with delight to produce that guttural growl, “GET IIIIIINNNN!!!”

Those four senses can mask sight and cloud memory but, without them, the ugliness is exposed and engrained. As Gayle’s header clipped the frame of the goal and nestled into the Gallowgate net, everything that went before would have been shelved as a crowd came to life. Ignited by one moment, a switch would be flicked and thousands of voices would cheer and encourage Newcastle’s players, led by Callum Wilson, ‘sh.t-housing’ their way through the final fourteen minutes. The snide fouls, kicking the ball away and the corner flag-hugging timewasting would have all been met with cheers before one final eruption at the full-time whistle.

The stands would have emptied and filed out into the city, weaving through alleys and side streets before reaching the bustling pubs. The chatter of victory filling the air as the moment was relived a hundred times, “What a goal, man!”

Yet, without this, without any of this, there is so little in victory as a text or tweet is sent into the virtual crowd before you continue with your day. When the experience of being a football supporter becomes nothing more than watching a screen, the focus is on the football. When the game ends, the sixth sense of social media is all that remains and details are picked at and argued over until the joy of the moment is gone.

We have not enjoyed entertaining football for the majority of Mike Ashley’s tenure but our five senses have always experienced so much more than that on matchdays. The 1-0 wins against Chelsea and Man Utd last season were equally ugly affairs but we remember them fondly for that explosion of emotion and everything we felt with it as we carried on into the city.

That one moment of euphoria, of being utterly lost in the moment, is what football is all about. That would have been what I took with me from Saturday. Without it, a muted and diluted home viewing experience doesn’t do enough to override the boredom of watching this team.

I have done the numbers and the analysis, and I know what my eyes tell me – Newcastle United are not a good football team to watch. However, if I was in the away end at Crystal Palace, singing beyond the final whistle into the night sky and if I woke up this morning with bruised shins from the plastic seat in front as I toppled into another row in celebration, I would have so much more to take from those games.

It is perhaps this same reason why this season’s cup run is not the sweetener it would normally be. Newcastle already had a cup run last season and the reward of the big home tie was taken away, as an empty St. James Park hosted an exhibition match for Man City. That emptiness, that feeling of an occasion lost, is fresh in the memory. Unless we win the cup, without any of those occasions to enjoy, it all seems dulled.

Until those days return, until all of our senses return, maybe there’s no sense in getting too worked up about any of this. It isn’t real. It isn’t football. It is what it is and we are what we are…Brucey’s Sh.thouse Mags on the TV, getting results.

(This article originally appeared on the excellent NE1’s Game website, you can also follow them on Twitter @game_ne1)

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