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Amazed to see half dozen NUFC fans in local Wawa – 30 mile drive home after Newcastle 3 Aston Villa 3

7 months ago
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In anticipation of what turned out to be the Newcastle 3 Aston Villa 3 match, I decided to break my 40+ year rule of only wearing jerseys of retired players. And, wanting to do my part for mitigating FFP, I decided to order my jersey directly from the club rather than a US site.

Knowing that my wife had surprised me with excellent seats, I told myself that it was possible that the player I chose could actually see me wearing his jersey 3,400 miles from SJP.

However, who’s jersey do I buy?

Based on my retirement rule, I had a natural bias toward the players that are later in their careers. For me, this meant there were only two choices: Tripps or BDB.

Approaching two years ago, our new owners promised to build something special. Financial resources were clearly in abundance, yet there was no assurance that the new ownership would invest to the extent required or invest wisely. From a distance, it also appeared that the new owners could only attract their 2nd or 3rd choice coach who, at the time, looked like he was destined to be a career journeyman.

Facing relegation, the club needed to go into that January transfer window and bring in a proven leader and winner who could look other players in the eyes and say “Trust me. He knows what he’s doing. Follow him and we will win together.” I’m convinced that had Kieran Trippier not signed in that window, the success we enjoyed last season would not have come so quickly. Clearly, he did not do it alone, having spent much of that spring leading from the sideline recovering from injury. However, it’s not impossible to think that last year could have been spent earning promotion rather than a birth in Champions League had Trippier not been the first to sign on.

In addition to the immensely talented Bruno G and several other reinforcements, that transfer window also brought home Big Dan Burn. A dedicated player who bleeds black and white. You can see in his smile the boy who watched from the stands, like millions of other boys around the world, dreaming about scoring for his team and making his family and friends proud. I imagine someday he will return to the stands (likely better seats) and root for the Toon, just as he had done as a kid. There is no substitute for passion, which Big Dan delivers in an oversize package every match. It’s that passion and all the virtues that accompany it, which allowed him to have a remarkable season, a comeback of sorts, for his childhood club that had released him as a youth player.

The tie-breaker was my attendance at the Brighton match at the end of last season and watching BDB head home his first league goal in the Black and White. With my #33 on order for the last several weeks, I thought for sure I would have it for Sunday’s match. In the two days leading up to the match, my lovely wife received five packages from online stores, all for the dog she claimed, but DHL never showed. Insanely, I was only 20 yards from the pitch and could have easily accomplished my goal, but it was not to be. Fortunately, my 1996 throwback jersey was washed and at the ready.

Lincoln Financial Field (the “Linc”) has an amusement park feel. America has the historic stadiums that are a part of a city’s fabric, much like SJP, but the Linc is not one of them. There is a sea of asphalt parking surrounding the Linc and two other arenas (baseball and hockey / basketball). It holds about 70,000 people and what must be a billion pixels of video screens and ribbons.

The attendance was around 40,000, which is double the MLS Philly Union stadium capacity 13 miles down the Delaware River, but the empty seats created that inevitable and unfulfilling pre-season atmosphere that is prevalent, at least in the States.

Fortunately, the match was a double header so one ticket also got you into the earlier Brentford / Fulham match. The temperatures were 30-31 degrees all afternoon, so the beer was flowing. Not so much so that that Philly’s one-of-a-kind in-stadium courthouse and jail needed to be reopened but enough to notice that some fans had been out in the sun a little too long.

About half the crowd was evenly split between Villains and the Toon Army, but I have never seen a broader array of jerseys, including in Premier League commercials.

It was comical, until you realised that about a quarter of the crowd loves EPL football and decided to come out to see a few decent matches regardless of which clubs were playing. As for the last quarter of the crowd, who really knows? Perhaps they wandered into the stadium to see what was going on.

I spent as much time explaining the rules as I did watching the match. However, I’m proud to report that the while the Villains were better organised and weirdly better dressed, The Toon Army was much louder and clearly having more fun despite a dismal start to the match.

Unai Emery clearly came to Philly for a win. Eddie, on the other hand, came to evaluate his team / squad. I appreciated Eddie’s approach to minutes, but I admit I almost blacked out when Paul Dummett lined up in midfield for what ended up being only the first 30 seconds of the second half. Sunday’s Villa line-up could easily be what we see the first match of the season. It was my first professional match at eye-level and I must say, I could not help but be impressed at the size, speed and poise of Tyrone Mings and Buendía’s scoring line speaks for itself.

As is typical in the pre-season, the match was chaotic at times, officiating was lax, and mass substitutions contributed to Villa’s third goal. The field was also a factor. For July, I thought the surface looked great and performed well, but American football fields are too narrow for a proper match. This made Eddie’s formation even more curious. He went out with what looked like a 3-5-2 but because the field was at least 20 yards narrower than SJP, the wingers could not find open space and immediately fell into what become an unbalanced 4-2-3-1 with Trippier playing more defensively after Villa’s opening goals, Miggy wandering into midfield behind Isak and Murphy drifting out wide. However, neither Murphy or Miggy seemed committed to the midfield, leaving Bruno and Tonali overmatched in the first half.

I was once told there is nothing friendly about a friendly. Maybe this holds true in the US and the UK but not in Italy. I’m certain Tonali was a strong signing and that, like Barnes, will develop into a top player under Eddie, but he looked a little overmatched on Sunday. The first two goals were directly a result of him being out of position and pushed aside as Villa played quickly and physically though the middle. Pre-season or not, at least one of those goals should have been eliminated by a tactical foul from our new holding midfielder. However, with his size and touch, I’m looking forward to seeing how he develops this season.

Anderson missed out on what should have been a tap in early in the first half, but to his credit, he recovered nicely and finished with a solid shift, scoring one goal with a composed finish and creating the second with a superb defensive stop, followed by a well taken shot which led to a simple stoppage-time finish by Isak. It felt like an experience he could build on. Murphy, on the other hand, looked second best the entire half. He spent more time pandering to the sideline judge than defending. I was pleased to hear Trippier giving him unvarnished feedback during the half. Villa’s second goal saw Trippier pushing Buendía wide but getting beaten by a half step, resulting in a slight deflection that was too much for Dubravka to handle. I felt like Dubravka should have been able to close down his near post better, given the angle. Although Dubravka had two quality saves later in the match, I look forward to seeing Pope between the sticks before too long.

I enjoyed seeing Ritchie get minutes in the second half. I will never tire of passion for the game. With Trippier subbed off, it was Richie calling for calm after Buendía’s second goal then barking instructions throughout the second half. I don’t expect to see him getting many league minutes this year, but I will not be surprised to see him following Eddie Howe’s footsteps into the coaching ranks someday soon. I also enjoyed being about 70 feet from Barnes as he made his debut. Given the distance, I let him know that that our expectations are high and that we need a big season from him. I’m hoping that Eddie can put a few more tools in his tool bag as I saw the exact same capable but predictable Barnes at eye-level that I watched from the very corner of the East Stand during the final home match of last season.

My second half standouts were Joelinton and Miley. This morning I read some criticism of Joelinton’s fouling. I don’t think it was rust or timing. We struggled on both sides of the ball in midfield. Not only did Joelinton need to take control of the middle in Sunday’s second half, he also needed to remind Villa that he will be prowling the midfield at the start of our next meeting. Clearly, our shared view of a friendly extends down the western Atlantic coast to Brazil. The big second half surprise for me was Miley. He looked composed on and off the ball, admittedly making low risk passes but no mistakes. I look forward to watching his progression this year and hope that Eddie finds opportunities to get him minutes.

My final match experience was a silent and amusing one. For those of you not old enough to remember the 1979 song ”Escape” (AKA “the pina colada song”), it’s a about a wife in an unhappy marriage that puts a personal ad in the local paper soliciting anyone who enjoys pina coladas and having more fun than she is apparently having with her husband. As the song continues, the husband unknowingly answers the ad and agrees to meet a mystery woman who shares his same secret passions. When they see each other at the planned meeting place, the wife says “I never knew” and the song goes on to a happy ending with the couple reconnecting over pina coladas in the rain.

So how does this little ballad relate to a pre-season football match? My wife and I have discovered and enjoyed football together over the last 20 years. I can’t get her to wear an official jersey, but she was decked out in black and white from head to toe on Sunday, meaning that my connection to the song is not a romantic one.

I had about a 30-mile drive home after the match. Once near home, we stopped into a Wawa, our local convenience store. Until that moment, I had never seen another Newcastle United jersey in my town. To my amazement, there were half a dozen vaguely recognisable people standing in the Wawa wearing black and white, looking at each other thinking “I never knew.”

HTL

Newcastle 3 Aston Villa 3 –  Sunday 23 July 2023 7pm (UK time 12 midnight)

Goals:

Newcastle: Anderson 28, Isak 45+2, Wilson 55

Villa: Watkins 7, Buendia 11, 48

Newcastle team v Villa:

Dubravka, Trippier (Manquillo 46), Schar (Botman 46), Dummett (Lascelles 46), Targett (Barnes 70), Bruno (Joelinton 46), Tonali (L.Miley 46), Anderson (Burn 46), Almiron (Gordon 46), Murphy (Ritchie 46), Isak (Wilson 46)

Unused Subs:

Karius, Darlow, Ashby, Turner-Cooke, Parkinson

Players in the travelling party who went to the USA but weren’t named in the matchday squad v Villa:

Pope, Gillespie, Krafth, Willock, Lewis, Longstaff, A.Murphy, Savage, J.Miley, White

(ED: Frank earlier did a guide for anybody heading to Philadelphia for the Villa match (read here), whilst with the help of a friend, he also sent us this for any supporters heading to see the Magpies pre-season match against Chelsea in Atlanta, as well as this one ahead of playing Brighton in New Jersey, also with the help of a friend)

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