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2000 Miles – The Newcastle United fan away at Christmas

1 month ago
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Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders in their December 1983 hit ‘2000 miles’, anointed a Christmas song thereafter with a Fenwicks window of a video.

“He’s gone two thousand miles. It’s very far. The snow came down. Gets colder day by day”

I always took it to be about Santa, others about a long distance relationship. Maybe it’s about the Newcastle United fan away over the festive period in the decade that followed. Even before fixture scheduling followed the season in becoming too commercialised.

Tacitly it wasn’t suppose to be that way. Derby games, when available, were often scheduled over Christmas – Boxing Day with the return game a few days later or on New Year’s Day, as in 1966/67. Or the next nearest thing, Leeds, the previous season. Allowing fan and player alike less travel and time away from home at such a time.

Our last such experience was on New Year’s Day 1985. A Peter Beardsley hat-trick getting rid of the mackems like so many Trivial Pursuit games, He-Man and My Little Pony toys in the weeks before.

That’s one tradition I’m happy they phased out, as it seemed like a good way to spoil the festive period to me. Even if it works out in the end, the days leading up are riddled with an increasingly pervasive concern.

I’d sampled enough on New Year’s Day 1990 against Wolves and their annoying fans, to know that even a run-of-the-mill fixture can really ruin the occasion. Two bitter ‘derby’ defeats followed and the thought of combining the two was ghastly to me. That horror lay in wait on Boxing Day 1991 with Middlesbrough visiting.

No white Christmas or subsequent postponement unfortunately but in the end it wasn’t so bad. A spirited performance and only a narrow defeat in the relative context of the sides’ differing promotion/relegation objectives. The early kick-off may have helped rather than hindered.

It was still supposed to be relatively local, at least a north/south split. In 1991/92 however we got the worst of both worlds. Boro followed the longest away trip in the league to Plymouth the day before the shortest day, feeling anything but that. The longest night was more apt with Plymouth re-arranging the fixture for a Friday night in an attempt to bolster their gate with would be Christmas shoppers before the final Saturday. The sacrifice of the travelling and ultimately soaked Toon fans was for an extra 50 fans on their previous gate.

The rain made conditions considerably worse than they would have been a few years earlier when a home game against Plymouth was called off to spare their fans a potentially needless journey. Conditions were fine by 3pm. When Bruce Willis was taken for a ride by Argyle just before Christmas it ended up being a lot more fun at Nakatomi tower than this thankless pilgrimage to Home Park when a convincing defeat to a relegation rival followed.

After beating Bristol Rovers at home on a very dark seeming afternoon, it was Happy New Year and off on a 600 mile round trip to Essex for an early kick-off against Southend, the infamous 4-0 defeat, the club’s all-time nadir and the infamous “you’re not famous anymore” chant.

It completed probably the worst fixture scheduling of all time, having been at Brighton the week before Plymouth and the FA Cup draw was no less harsh and a tour of south coastal beach resorts was completed, with an FA Cup third round tie at Bournemouth. It was over 2000 miles, even leaving Brighton and Bournemouth aside. From Brighton, 20 hours drive time for not a single goal against Plymouth, Southend or Bournemouth.

91/92: Brighton (680 miles round trip) drew 2-2, Plymouth (800) lost 2-0, Southend (600 miles) lost 4-0, Bournemouth (680 miles) drew 0-0.

Both Bristol Rovers and Plymouth were becoming Christmas traditions. Both away at the beginning of the harsh European winter of 90/91 the previous December. Decimating the fixtures in early December, blizzards left motorists stranded and forced to take shelter at the Birmingham NEC. Suitably, Ice Ice Baby was number one.

There was some respite from the weather and our vanilla season before each came back to bite in the New Year, down those modest country roads to Plymouth and then Bristol. Worse. Bristol and beyond to Bath, where Rovers were playing their home games. Plymouth this time switched the game to Sunday so as to rent the Home Park car park out as a park and ride facility for Christmas shoppers and rearranged it for a midday kick-off. A point gained at Bristol/Bath with a late goal, consolidated a win the previous Sunday where the impressive new signing Gavin Peacock, our saint and saviour in the year to come, was ordained to score the winner.

After a stormy Christmas Day in much of the UK, the hardly local Swindon came to us. Only fair as we had gone to them the previous year where a last minute equaliser denied us followed a last minute winner for Stoke days earlier, a costly Christmas we paid for in May. Punished enough in the summer, both clubs would be glad to see out 1990 and this wind affected match in which all that was similar to the previous thriller at the back end of the previous season was the draw.

90/91: Plymouth (800) won 0-1, Bristol Rovers (600) drew 1-1

89/90: Swindon (580) drew 1-1

Just the wrong side of a boringly long journey, Oxford was never a good hunting ground. Even with Keegan the player and Keegan the manager. The 4-2 loss also lost a Liam O’Brien’s piledriver to lost gem status.

Between those eras and whilst ‘A Spaceman Came Travelling’ (nearly as far as us) was contributed to the genre, we were sent down that way at Watford on the 27th in 1986.

86/87: Watford (500) lost 1-0

92/93: Oxford (500) lost 4-2

93/94 was a classic winter. Snow kissed scenery and top-flight football giving a classical look. Stretching from late November when the snow came down like magic dust over our complete outclassing of Liverpool to a depleted team’s 4-0 thrashing of Coventry in mid-Feb. The regular snow wasn’t of the heavy variety and our away trips were unhindered, by the weather at least.

Home meetings with sides from Yorkshire and Lancashire was separated by away trips to the capital and Norwich for an evening game. About as funny as all-the-rage Mr Blobby, the Christmas number one. In a season where nearly every game was tantalising, interesting, fresh, liable to result in a good game, only the journey an inconvenience, there was also Chelsea.

Horrible ground. Horrible team. Horrible fans. Horrible game. Stein, who I first encountered from the Gallowgate flying over Burridge like he was taking off for a flight with The Snowman, conning a penalty (my first dive), scored. Ticket prices artificially inflated, as were Chelsea’s gates by other clubs.

Having learned from our visit the previous season in the league cup where we doubled the 16,000 Chelsea got at home to Ipswich previously and more than doubled their next gate for Sheffield United (13,763) days later. Despite the hikes (ticket and geographical) 22,000 represented a 10,000 increase on their previous game again against Ipswich and 12,000 on Manchester City before that (10,128). Including the strangely low gate of 16,807 for an El Classico meeting with that other always gargantuan mega-club Spurs that followed, it was the biggest gate they’d get for the rest of the season. Cup finalists or not. Merry Christmas Cundy you filthy animal.

Then for something completely different. Through the sort of dark, unpopulated country roads that were ideal for alien abductions, we headed towards floodlights in the sky and Norwich for an evening kick-off. Suddenly the sweetest music filled the air “Toon Toon, black and white army”. As ever this season, plenty of black and whites revealed themselves in home sections when Beardsley got on the end of a one-two with an underrated goal, on the stretch he had to lift the ball given Gunn’s closing down of the space and did so. They played ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ after their goal, created by Ruel Fox. Touche given their poor home record. Sure enough Cole like a razor through butter from a very coolly expertly weighted through-pass by Robbie ‘I Was Born On Christmas Day’ Elliott rounded the keeper to score. With all normal folk tucked away in bed, Toon fans headed home, breathing life into the dark void of motorways at those hours along with the occasional HGV and a gritter hinting at what was to come, still processing events.

93/94 Chelsea (560) lost 1-0, Norwich (500) won 1-2

In the mild Christmas of 1994 we were trying to get our title aspirations to stay just one more day with every passing game it seemed, since our first defeat the final Saturday of October. Cole scoring a last minute penalty at Coventry the week before Christmas would have achieved that, the miss felt the opposite. No Cole in the stocking this year.

Man City, Leeds and Norwich repeated like so many films from the previous year. At Leeds this time and back to Norwich for a rare New Year’s Eve fixture, the first since 1988 and a kindly haul to Spurs. Thoughtfully rearranged for an early kick-off allowing the away fans to get back to Tyneside for New Year celebrations, as much as being up since 5am would allow for anyway.

We hadn’t woke up and were one down in just over a minute, two down in just over ten before going on to completely dominate and batter Norwich for the remainder like a prelude to next week’s FA Cup 3rd round with a Premier League club trying to get back in the game against a side from the lower leagues, laying siege to the goal. Denied time and again by the first full and best game of young keeper Andy Marshall’s career who even when utterly beaten, in true cup, not your day, cursed fashion, whilst rooted to the spot from a Beresford shot, saw the ball cannon off the post and magnetically rebound into his hands.

This early kick-off defeat festered as our rivals got results, Liverpool won at Leeds, spoiling what felt like our impressive draw there on Boxing Day. Performances were fine and that’s what hurt the most. What do you do about it? “Newcastle were sheer quality. They gave a magnificent exhibition of how to pass and keep control. But thankfully the scoreline is how the points are divided up” said Norwich manager Deehan.

All I wanted for Christmas was to be top of the league. Maybe next year.

94/95 Norwich (500) lost 2-1

88/89 Spurs (550) lost 2-0

A white Christmas followed the glorious summer, the hottest on record at the time followed by a winter recording the UKs lower temperature. Classic background stuff, I felt, for the lore of a title season. The fixture scheduling like the year before remained milder. One long journey and one fair one.

On Christmas Eve 1995 our title rivals were played off the park at Elland Road, well beaten and flattered by the 3-1 defeat against fading and average Leeds. Thoroughly contented, needn’t have bothered with a Playstation after that. With temperatures dropping further still thereafter, we were tentatively over the frozen Pennines to snow coated Old Trafford for a game that had we won – they may as well have just give us the title then and there – and that was the biggest nag for me at the time.

Our match at West Ham three days later on the day the UK recorded its then coldest ever temperature, was postponed. It was always on the cards (groan). The match that never was, seemed to bring an end to the traditional yuletide treks for your travelling Newcastle United fan.

Trips to the capital and beyond were replaced by Derby, Blackburn and Liverpool in years to come. Awful games, travesties of officiating and misfortune. Just shows that whilst some traditions fade, some – like vintage NUFC away day misery, remained strong. Something we continue to enjoy to this very day.

Perhaps the cruellest trip of all was that trip to Manchester.

Aaaal the best everyone, happy travels and thanks for your wit and entertaining comments and posts on these pages this past year and through these horrible times.

At least the miles won’t be as bad as Christmases past and we did get out of it and set alight a new era in 91/92 after all.

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