In our personal lives we often struggle to live up to the expectations of others and ourselves. We often transpose our hopes into a sporting team; a place where we feel we can escape and be part of the crowd, be safe in numbers and united in a shared identity and a common cause. For me, supporting Newcastle United – as it was for generations of Tyneside folk – encapsulated all that need for a sense of community and hope. If it was about winning trophies we would have all wrapped in years ago.
However, I did walk away some time ago. I have not returned to St James’s since August 2008. Nothing that has happened since has convinced me that I was wrong to vow never to return there under Ashley. Indeed, the continued corrosion of the club’s sporting integrity is so obvious to all now, that the corporate anaemia is looking terminal. I take no solace in the fact that I walked away when many of my friends chose to endure. My exile merely dulled the pain and left a hole in my heart. Fortunately, I was born in North Shields, NE29.
You may be aware that North Shields FC play the second leg of their FA Vase semi-final this Saturday against Highworth Town. The Robins hold a slender 1-0 lead from their trip to Wiltshire, where I was lucky enough to join 249 other Shieldsmen in cheering them to victory last Saturday.
That day will live long in my memory as one of the greatest away days I’ve experienced at any level of football- up there with the Magpies in the San Siro and the Nou Camp.
A 5am departure from the Spring Gardens pub was just the tonic for the Ultras who all seemed mightily chipper on the buses; given that soft drinks, rather than beer, seemed to be the tipple for the early part of the day (those fizzy pop manufacturers really must cut down on those radgy ‘e’ number ingredients). Given the length of the journey, it also seemed wise that no wags brought any fresh fish with them to bribe a linesman this time; we had to be content with an inflatable clown fish, a shark and a dolphin. I blew the dolphin up! (Before you start… NO, I am not that diver from Amble who was on ‘friendly terms’ with Freddie the Dolphin back in ’91).
Upon arrival in Highworth we were greeted by the stewards and the local constabulary who really couldn’t have been more accommodating. Looks of puzzlement from some of the local bar staff were quickly replaced by gleeful smiles as the clatter of cash registers made a decent go of countering the pre match chants from the travellers. When my friends and I were looking for the next pub, I asked a local – a man of about 80 I reckon – who’d lived in the town for 50 years and had never lost his Geordie brogue. I knew then it was going to be a good day. And so it proved.
I have too much respect for Highworth Town to say the pitch was a great leveller. But the pitch was certainly not level. It sloped both ways: from post to post and from corner flag to corner flag. It was more like a 60’s episode of Batman. I half expected Adam West and Burt Ward to be throwing a grappling hook to reach the clubhouse at half time. But if Highworth were at an advantage, it didn’t show. The game was a nervy, scrappy affair and Shields pinched it with a Dean Holmes tap in after a nice move down the left flank. Cue delirious scenes from which the day accelerated into a blur of hugs and handshakes and the repetition by so many people (and variations of) this phrase: “It’s just like it used to be following Newcastle United.” That sentiment has played over in my mind these last few days.
Some may dismiss it as a middle aged hankering for an imagined past but I don’t think so (though I can’t remember in my time, a Newcastle manager and some of his players coming back in the early hours after an away trip and joining the fans for a lock in – Graham Fenton and his staff did exactly that). What I have witnessed in the town in the last few days is quite staggering. The pride and excitement is very real in NE29 and it has captured the whole community. It’s such a shame that the local council have restricted the capacity to 1600 -I’m quite sure there could have been twice that number judging by the disappointed faces outside the ground on Tuesday morning and the howls of derision from the ticketless online since.
Of course, I am biased. I grew up in this curious little fishing port with an interesting history. Its ethnic mix reflects that past and I won’t have anyone cast aspersions that it is anything other than a hard, working class area struggling on in difficult times.
Those who follow the team reflect the diversity. I have sat and mixed with the Ultras; those bad boys who raised over £1000 for Kacie Martin’s wheelchair, those hard hearted lads who funded the purchase of a new mountain bike for a mother who had had her son’s old one stolen within 3 days of buying it. Those bad’uns who have shown such compassion in the wake of Byron’s tragic loss. Those ‘Geordie Boot Boys’ who will pass the bucket round for the RVI’s Children’s Kidney Fund this Saturday.
I have talked to the father of Andy Bowman (Assistant Manager) who had a tear in his eye when talking of his son’s association with the club. I have witnessed Steve Brown – the non-league Chronicle reporter – trying to remain objective when his affection for the club is achingly obvious. I have seen Club President, Malcolm MacDonald’s chest puff out (ala Burnley in ’74) as he tries to explain what it will mean to the players if they can reach Wembley. I have had Paul Cannell – a man who captained Johan Cruyff in America and played against Pele and Beckenbauer – badger me for tickets to see these local amateurs play. I have had the civil engineer who worked on the London Olympics and designer for the Qatar World Cup – who so desperately wanted to revamp the rather drab and unappealing Shields town centre – declare how proud he was of the town of his birth. I think he spoke for all of us.
Excitement is in the air. Pre match Saturday, an operatically trained local singer from the neighbouring Little Rock Café will boom out ‘Nessun Dorma’ in the Spring Gardens to add to the theatre. What other song associated with footballing triumph (and disaster) could be more fitting, I ask?
This is football. It is also business. I have no doubt that it will be more than the club committee’s coffers and the local hostelries who will benefit from Shields’ FA Vase run. There will be a residual effect on all businesses in the town – it is hard to quantify but it is something that University boffins tried to estimate when Newcastle United was soaring in the 90s and early 2000’s. Most of us call it the ‘feel good factor’.
But this is NE29; a tiny part of the Tyneside conurbation. It is a microcosm of what was and what could still be for our city’s professional club. But the clock is ticking at NE1.
There is a reason why so many other people from different postcodes are looking in on North Shields. With all due respect to the rest of the Northern League teams and their magnificent Vase history – particularly the achievements of Whitley Bay (sorry Ultras but I had to mention them) – it seems the final ebbing away of any sort of hope at the Magpies has propelled North Shields to a higher level of interest.
And that’s where we began; talking of community. There are values that come with community which in turn breed spirit and hope. People talk of a ‘broken society’ but there are many things that unite us. Those bonds are seen most often in times of tragedy and adversity but it exists in sport – and is the very essence of football.
There is a piece of wood that hangs above my bedroom door with the legend “If your dreams don’t scare you they aren’t big enough” written upon it. If North Shields chairman, Alan Matthews, reads this, I hope the words on that piece of wood resonate and he has – for all the right reasons – some restless nights and wakes up with some big ideas in the morning.
Sporting ambition is the fuel for football fans and it is something that no longer exists at NE1. At grassroots level, there are obvious limits given the relative size and demographic appeal of the clubs but the dream of Wembley – to players and fans – is something that is never spurned.
Wooden plaque or not, I bet Mr Ashley sleeps like the dead – his interest in Newcastle United extends no further than how many cheap replica kits he can peddle and how many free adverts he can plaster around St James’s Park.
No matter who you support, your footballing life will be mostly filled with disappointment: the ‘what might have beens’ and the ‘if onlys’ far outweigh the glory. That is the nature of the game. But it is the hope that one day that potential can be fulfilled and that previous historical heights can be attained again or even surpassed by a new generation, that make us persevere.
Of course, nothing can or will be taken for granted this Saturday – Mr Fenton assured me of that. Undoubtedly, Highworth Town will share similar dreams of glory. The long, winding road back from the brink of despair for a club like North Shields has no room on it for complacency. Take note those who do Ashley’s dirty work and take his shilling up at Gallowgate!
North Shields last won a trophy in May 1969, the same month as Newcastle United won the Fairs Cup. There are a few other historical links between the clubs despite the modern day divergence of ambition, so I hope many of you from across the region will lend your support to the Robins and keep all your fingers and toes crossed that they overcome Highworth at the weekend. You never know, you could even choose to join us on Wembley Way in May, where there will be a few more available tickets than there is this Saturday.
We all deserve the chance to try and realise our dreams.
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