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25 Years Of Hurt – Supporting Newcastle United and England

7 months ago

It’s coming up to an anniversary for me.

I’m not sure why but I showed zero interest in football until I was eight years old.

When Euro 96 came to England, for some reason I took notice. I ended up watching all the games on TV and fell in love with a certain Geordie striker.

Previously, I had half-heartedly sworn my allegiance to Liverpool and Chelsea on the advice of my elders but that had been before I had properly engaged in the sport. That’s before I had known what true love and commitment was.

When my mum came into my bedroom waving a newspaper and stating that my new idol had signed for Newcastle United, my decision was made. Despite it being the furthest possible Premier League team from my base in the South West (not a fact I was aware of at the time), they would be the team I’d support.

And, of course, I have. Through the good times (brief as they were) and the bad (14 years and counting and a few spells prior to that).

I remember thinking many years ago, that being a Newcastle and England fan has to be one of the worst combinations when it comes to watching your team succeed and the sentiment remains. Alright, there are lots of better examples. You could be a Falkirk and Scotland fan for example, or a support a lower division English team and England.

I guess in those situations you don’t have the same level of hope (that’s HOPE not expectation). I can’t imagine many Scotland fans go into a tournament thinking there’s any chance of them winning it. This year’s tournament will only be their second since 96. Likewise, a team like Bournemouth haven’t flirted with winning the Premier League. They haven’t been in major cup finals or had multiple chances to push on and become a force again just to see them melt away due to bad decisions and/or lack of ambition.

Like England, we’ve shown so much promise at times during the quarter of a century that I’ve supported us, mainly the first decade of that period. We’ve flirted with success, we’ve had great teams but we’ve never quite made it happen. With Newcastle we’ve seen us lose two finals, three semi-finals, twelve quarter finals and enjoyed ‘the entertainers’. In twenty-five years, we’ve got to the last eight or further on seventeen occasions across three tournament formats and never lifted a trophy. With England we’ve seen two semi-finals (three if you include the Nations League), four quarter finals, qualification to every major tournament bar 2008 and a ‘golden generation’. Again though, no tangible success. No trophies to lift and parade and boast about.

Both sides seem to struggle with penalty shootouts although after our League Cup success this season and England’s Nations League and World Cup triumphs, maybe this is going to become a forgotten curse.

There are parallels between the managers of the sides too. Not just the fact they’ve each managed one of our local rivals. But I’ll come onto those similarities shortly.

I was part of the gang that committed to going if Rafa did and I’ve been true to my word. I haven’t attended a single game since Bruce took over but I’ve watched nearly all of them on TV. To ensure I still got my fix of football I decided in Rafa’s final year, when it appeared all but certain that he and I would be walking, that I would start actively following England.

A mate and I committed to going to every England game to rack up enough caps (loyalty points) to get tickets for the Euro 2020 tournament. We didn’t manage to get to every game in the end as the ones away to teams such as Kosovo and Montenegro required a lot more caps than we had to secure tickets. We made it to every home game and got out to Spain and Czech Republic away, as well as attending the inaugural Nations League finals.

We managed to get tickets for every England game at the tournament but this thing called Covid came along and put paid to those plans. With reduced capacities all fans were refunded and had tickets allocated by ballot. I was lucky enough to get tickets for the Croatia and Czech Republic games, although it had been Scotland that I had been most desperate to attend. My friend managed to get a ticket against the Auld enemy so now the two of us will be travelling to London for all three matches but won’t be attending a single game together.

Hopefully, as we progress, lockdown will ease further, and we will get tickets together in the knockout stages but is this going to be yet another tournament of disappointment?

How many years will it be before us Newcastle and England fans see any trophies lifted by the teams we support? For our domestic team it feels like it could be a lifetime away. We’ve never been further from winning a trophy. With England there is a bit more hope.

However, this is where I will come back to the comparison between Southgate and Bruce. Both are media darlings, but both have strong critics within their fanbases, although Bruce’s are more vociferous and numerous.

Both are managers that had achieved nothing before getting their respective posts and were considered underwhelming appointments. Both have had relative success in cups, in their current roles, but were assisted by kind runs. Newcastle have reached quarter finals two years running but got knocked out of the FA Cup by the first Premier League opponent they met in 19/20 and were knocked out by a Championship side in last season’s League Cup despite Brentford playing a weakened team. We didn’t face a single Premier League club in that run.

Southgate guided England to the World Cup semi finals but were beaten three times in the competition by the only top teams he came up against. Belgium beat us in the group stage and the third-place playoff, whilst Croatia dispatched us in the semi-finals. Asides from those games we defeated Tunisia and Panama in the group stage, drew with Columbia and won on penalties in the round of 16 and then beat Sweden in the quarters. Hardly sensational stuff.

Both managers, to varying degrees, are perceived by fans to be underperforming with their current crop of players. Bruce finished a respectable twelfth in the end but that doesn’t tell the story of the season. It was a hard slog of a campaign that was only salvaged by a late run of results inspired by a chap who doesn’t actually belong to us. The last six points that elevated us so greatly were against already relegated and demoralised sides that didn’t seem remotely up for it.

I believe that the head coach hasn’t got the best out of the options available to him and that with a decent tactician we could have had a much more comfortable and enjoyable season. Based on various polls run, a vast majority of the fanbase doesn’t have faith in Bruce. Part of this is due to team performances and part is because of the way he conducts himself with the media. He’s spouted a lot of nonsense that has frustrated our fanbase. The thing that has been truly unforgivable during his tenure is his accentuation of the ‘Geordies expect everything’ myth. It’s a lie that we have battled for years. One that our previous gaffer dispelled. But now we have a man that touts himself as one of our own, coming out and confirming the nonsense that the media has spun about us for decades.

With Gareth, he has one of the most exceptional forward lines that England have been blessed with in my lifetime. Not only do we have one of the world’s best strikers but the abundance of creative options we have to complement him is astonishing. There’s so much depth there that players like James Maddison didn’t make the last 33, Ward-Prowse and the in form Jess Lingard didn’t make the final 26. That other chap I mentioned, that saved our season, wasn’t even in the conversation despite scoring eight goals from midfield in half a season.

But despite this unbelievable array of options, Gareth continuously plays it safe. He flirts with different formations but in tough games his favoured system is a back five and two defensive midfielders, usually two of Rice, Henderson and Phillips. Our centre back options have been weak so it’s understandable that we’ve gone with a back five, but with that much protection surely we can afford just the one defensive midfielder. I’d personally go for the attack is the best form of defence approach, especially against lesser sides.

I would stick with the 433 and play a back four with one defensive midfielder and then a couple of number 10s with plenty of energy alongside him. Players like Mount, Grealish and Foden are best playing in advanced roles, but they can drive from deep as well. Grealish loves to get stuck in all over the pitch and has bags of energy so I think he could be effective playing in central midfield. Likewise Mount and Foden are cute players that could collect the ball deeper and play intricate pass and go moves or twist and turn their way through the midfield to link up with the forward line. That then allows you to play Kane in the centre and two of Sancho, Sterling, Rashford, Foden, Grealish and Mount either side of him. By using two of the latter three in midfield it then means you get to use four of that sensational six in the starting lineup. With that much creativity, pace and dynamism we’re going to be winning games by more than the odd goal like we witnessed in the two boring friendlies last week (granted they were with much changed teams from the ones we can draw upon for the tournament). I think we’ll approach this tournament with either a 532 or a 4231. If we do go with 433, I’d imagine that midfield three will be packed with defensive players and I truly believe this is a waste of our attacking talent.

For me, Southgate has made some poor decisions with his squad selection. Long term injured players such as Henderson and Maguire shouldn’t have been taken. We’ve done it in the past with the likes of Beckham and Rooney, but they were genuinely world class players that could come in and change a game. Henderson looked rusty in the second half against Romania and probably won’t be back to full fitness and quality at any point in this competition and Maguire still isn’t fit.

Southgate already had too many defenders selected when Alexander-Arnold was ruled out through injury. I think many expected another midfield or attacking option to be his replacement, most likely Lingard. However, Southgate brought in an untested centre back who is unlikely to get any game time whatsoever unless there is a severe injury crisis. In Lingard there is the potential for a game changing substitution. In Ward-Prowse you have a dead ball specialist that you can bring on with twenty minutes to go if you’re chasing a game. Why take a player who is extremely unlikely to play at all over someone who would have genuinely been a contender to make a difference?

I would have much preferred to have seen those two selected over Maguire and Henderson initially. I guess you could draw some similarities between that and Bruce constantly rushing players back into the first team despite them not being fully fit and, in some cases, aggravating their injuries. It is something the media are reticent to mention when bemoaning the amount of time that Bruce has been missing key players for periods of time.

In fairness to the England gaffer, he’s got an impossible job of keeping everyone happy with his squad selection. We all have our own opinions, and you can’t cater for them all. However, many others that I speak to agree that his first team selection is often too negative.

I guess the big difference between the two managers is that whilst Bruce’s spell has been mired by constant fan dissatisfaction, at least Southgate enjoyed a heady summer in 2018. I can’t remember anything like that summer in terms of fan unity. People were telling complete strangers in the street and in pubs that it was coming home. Cars were beeping horns with drivers shouting this sentiment out of their windows. It was whispered and shouted up and down the country.

It didn’t come home but this year football will certainly be popping back to visit. We play all our group games at home, the round of 16 (provided we top our group) and the semi-final and final, should we get that far. Whether football decides to stay home is another matter altogether.

I would obviously love to see us win the competition. If we don’t win though then I would prefer for us to get knocked out before the semis. Much like Bruce keeping us in the Premier League, getting to the semis again will mean that Southgate will undoubtedly remain in his position. It is conceivable that we could finish second in our group (considering our home advantage that would be disappointing in itself) and then play the round of 16 against Spain, Sweden, Poland or Slovakia. If Spain finish second in that group, then we would play one of the other three. We should progress against any of those others and then, if the quarters are kind, we could see ourselves stumbling to a semi-final in the exact fashion we did three years ago.

This would give Gareth another year and a half minimum and potentially the next three and a half years. For this crop of attacking talent to remain under-utilised would be a crime and I believe, as I do with Newcastle United, that there are many better management options out there.

Having said that, I would love to be at Wembley if England were at a semi final or final even if we lost. I would love another summer of hopes and dreams, especially after the year and a half we’ve all had to deal with. If we did get to the semis and lose, then I’d like to see Gareth say that he’s taken us as far as he can and walk away to allow a truly world class manager to step in and take the challenge on.

One final link between our domestic and National team? They’ve both called upon the services of Graeme Jones this year. Southgate must have looked on and thought, if he can turn around that bunch of mismanaged no hopers imagine what he could do for this lot!

You can follow the author on Twitter @billymerlin


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