My First…My Last…My Next…
Everyone remembers their first time. The nervous excitement. The anticipation. The “will it be as good as it looks on TV”. The fear that Gerry Francis will give a tactical masterclass and your side will succumb to his inferiority.
My first time was on the 4th October 1997. Tottenham Hotspur. St James’ Park.
Most of the day is a blur but I still recall some parts of the day when I attended my first Newcastle game. Travelling down in the car asking dad “are we there yet?” despite being on the road for less than 5 minutes. My dad telling me about some of the games he went to back in the day. Arriving at the park and ride and taking the Metro to the city centre. Seeing a sea of black and white out on the streets. Looking up at the cathedral on the hill. First time. Magic.
Walking up the stairs to enter the stadium for the first time. Goosebumps all over. My dad telling me to stay close to him. And then I see it. The hallowed turf. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And this sight is magnificent. Dreams coming true for an eight year old lad who worships every movement of this club from over the border.
I don’t remember much of the game though. Partly down to a) these sorts of experiences being a whirlwind, b) the game being pretty dreadful and c) I was about 2 feet shorter than the bloke infront who kept standing up. But I do remember the goal.
0–0 into the last minute. Corner. Ball swung in from the right side. Cleared. Falls to Batty. Strikes it. Drifting wide. Until the blonde-haired bombshell that is Warren Barton sticks it in from a near impossible angle. Euphoria. Lifted into the air. The noise filters through the air like a jet taking off. This is what supporting a football team should be like.
Everyone remembers their last time. There was still some nervous excitement this time too. Not so much for the football but more incase I end up in/near a brawl with a fan of the opposition as my fists are as useful as a snowman's. It was derby day.
My first time at a derby game was 21st December 2014. Sunderland. St James’ Park.
Most of this day is a blur too. Mainly drink related mind you. But I still remember some parts. The apprehension of what is to come, both in terms of the 90 minutes on the field, and the hours before and after. There is still that buzz whenever you walk into St James’ Park for me. Some of this is because I’m not there as much as I’d like to be. Most of this is because I remember what it used to be like.
For the five minutes before kick off, and the first ten minutes of the game it was like a throwback to the days of Keegan and Robson. The noise filled the ground and brought back those goosebumps. The passion was fierce. The first tackle greeted with as much excitement as a goal.
And then something changed. It could have been the emotional 17th minute applause for John Alder and Liam Sweeney. It could have been the sight of Alan Pardew in the dugout. Or it could have been the realisation that Sunderland were more up for the game than we were.
After the 17th minute, the stadium seemed to grow quieter by the minute. It felt vacant. Empty. Dead. We are playing at home in front of 50,000 of our own support against our most bitter of rivals. And the team does not seem up for it.
Of course you all know what happened next. Another game. Another last minute goal. Sadly it was not the blonde-haired Warren Barton popping up with it. It was the *this line has been deleted for legal reasons* Adam Johnson.
After the game I felt sick. And this was not the drink talking. It was from much further within me than that.
Four in a row. Four games where we have turned up and came out second best. Four games where we have not had the same amount of effort, energy or commitment as the team in red and white. Four games where we have deserved to lose. Four games where I write “we” but in truth I should write “they”. It’s not a collective anymore. It barely feels like “we” are together. There is a distance between “us” and “them” It’s a singular, not a plural. It’s United in name but not in nature.
At the time of writing this though, the feeling has become worse. Much worse. It’s no longer four in a row. It’s five. Did we deserve to lose again? Yes. Were Sunderland the better team? Yes, by far. Have we learned anything from the previous four games against the side from down the road? Yes. But only in how to play even worse than the previous occasion.
And so it comes to my next time. When will that be? Certainly not this season. Probably not next either. In fact, I’m fairly certain that the next time I enter St James’ Park for a Newcastle United game will be when Mike Ashley sells the club. In fact, let’s change that. The next time I walk into St James’ Park to watch a Newcastle United game WILL BE when Mike Ashley sells the club.
I’m not going back. There isn't any point in supporting the club in its current state. We exist to make profit. We exist to survive, not thrive, in the world’s most expensive football league. We exist to advertise the sports retail company that our owner has built up (very successfully) over a number of years. We exist to buy cheap but fairly talented players who have eyes on a bigger prize and use the club as a stepping stone to their desires. We exist to reach targets of “a minimum of 10th place” rather than striving to reach the pinnacle of sporting glory. We exist to appoint John Carver as our head coach when he has a win percentage of 27% across his career. We exist to make a mockery of domestic competitions by fielding a weakened team at every opportunity because of research showing that only one team outside the top six has won a trophy in the last five years that wasn’t relegated in the same season. We exist to record record profits of £18.7 million in the last financial year which our managing director calls “positive” whilst reflecting on “the prudent and measured manner in which we operate” despite having 23 players who start the season at the club unavailable to the manager due to suspensions, injuries, loans, being released or all of the above for the biggest game that the club has got.
We exist to exist.
“ An evil or destructive practice or phenomenon that is hard to contain or eradicate” is a quote I found recently which sums our club up wonderfully. It is not from a journalist. It is not from a blog. It is not from a supporter who has been with the club through thick and thin. It is not even a quote about Newcastle United. These words are the definition of cancer as a noun as listed in the Oxford English Dictionary.
This is what Mike Ashley is to Newcastle United Football Club. His practice is evil and destructive. His board showed that recently with the disease, rather than the noun, of the same word. One of our own players develops testicular cancer. A player who has served his time with the club. A player who, maybe is not the most gifted of talents, but played his heart out whenever he pulled on a black and white shirt. A player that could quite easily have left when we were relegated in 2009. A player that stayed with us and brought us back to the top flight at the first time of asking. A player who has played left back, left wing, centre midfield, holding midfield without so much as a whimper of a moan. Jonas Gutierrez. Testicular cancer survivor. So how does our board treat such a player when he returns to his place of work after surgery? Go and find a new club.
Go and find a new club. After all he’s given to the team, after all he’s went through physically and emotionally as he fights one of the most horrible diseases known to man, you tell him to go and play elsewhere. Heartless. Inconsiderate. Incomprehensible.
This decision was down to “footballing reasons” according to our former manager Alan Pardew. These “footballing reasons” will likely be down to the wages which Jonas was earning.
And this is the root of the problem. Money. No matter what that lass that used to be on The Voice says, to Mike Ashley it’s all about the money, money, money. If we stay in the Premier League by finishing 17th for the next 5 season would Mike be too bothered? No. If we went out of the cup competitions at the third round and finished 17th in the league I’m certain Mike Ashley would be grinning like the proverbial Cheshire cat. We’d still record “record profits”. We’d still bring in the extortionate Sky/BT TV money. We’d still exist to exist.
Long gone are the days when we tried to win something. It’s been 60 years since we won an English trophy. 46 since we won a European one. But at least in these intermittent years we've tried. The same season as I attended my first game we went to the FA Cup final. And the season after that. Sure we lost both times to the winners of the Premier League. But at least we gave it a go. Now, we’re happy to go to Leicester City or Brighton and Hove Albion or Stevenage and play a weaker team and succumb to another inevitable defeat. All we as fans ask for is that we give it a go. Is that really too much to ask for?
Will Mike Ashley give it a go this summer and appoint an up-and-coming young continental manager with tactical nous and a progressive philosophy? Will Mike Ashley give it a go this summer and sign some players who will fight for every ball in every game they play, especially in games like a derby or in the FA Cup? Will Mike Ashley give it a go this summer and show our magnificent support that he does care about us and try to put a smile on our faces?
If the answer to those three are yes, I’ll take back these words. And I will also eat a hat as there is more chance of that couple winning the Euromillions for the third time that Mike Ashley having such a big change of heart.
When the answer to those three are no, then it will be the end of the line for me and many other Newcastle United fans out there. If John Carver is appointed (as many people closely connected to the club expect) that will be the end of the line for me and many other Newcastle United fans out there.
Back in October 1997, I loved this football club. At 8 years of age it was everything to me. Black and white bedroom, black and white shirt for my birthday every summer, black and white VHS tapes on loop.
Now in April 2014, I still love this football club. At 25 years of age it still is everything to me. But we’re no longer a football club. It is a business project. We no longer strive for sporting glory. It is an offset of Sports Direct. We no longer aim to please our fans. It is a commercial vehicle driven to the tune of showcasing the trade of a popular high-street sports brand. And until we go back to existing as a football club, I can no longer support what Mike Ashley is doing.