Last Thursday I returned from holiday in Spain, primarily to cast my vote in the General Election and then prepare for a weekend in London to watch North Shields’ FA Vase final at Wembley. The results of those contests signalled the polar extremes of personal emotion, but for reasons I shall get to later, neither of them came as a shock.
The eight days previous to my return to the country, I had stayed in Northern Spain; taking in the delights of Barcelona, travelling through to Pamplona, capital of Navarre and onto San Sebastian, the beautiful Basque coastal city. I had read Hemingway and Orwell and I loved the literary cultural trail, my wife and I followed.
But this trip was more than that. It was the exploration of 3 very different regional identities whose pride was matched by their hospitality. 60 days to the San Fermin Festival and the bull runs, the people of Pamplona, young and old, male and female, were out in the narrow streets singing and playing, drinking and celebrating their culture.
Football is never far from my mind and community spirit was also in abundance at the
home of Real Sociedad; San Sebastian has an understated charm and sophistication which is more attractive than the exclusivity of the French Riviera. Their football club – Real Sociedad – have a point of reference which has sustained them in times of adversity: back to back La Liga titles in 81 & 82, when this author was just starting out watching Keegan as an NUFC player.
In Barca, bar hopping down Las Ramblas brought back memories of the December night in 2002 when the heavens opened and our Champions League game was postponed for 24 hours, thus causing the vast majority of the 10000 Newcastle fans that had flown in and didn’t have flexible travel arrangements, to miss seeing Shola score an equalizer in the real Theatre of Dreams – we lost though! 5 years previously we also lost as Barca avenged (kind of) ‘that’ Tino game from September ‘97 in front of a paltry 25k.
On my obligatory tour of the Nou Camp, I looked at their plans to cover the stadium and
increase capacity to 105,000! Their ingenious plan of paying for it all is by building entertaining, winning teams, investing in players and engaging an ever wider audience and growing the brand across the world. Apart from in Newcastle, FCB is an acronym which conjures up visions of Lionel Messi skipping past world class defenders like they are stuck in slo mo. The stadium tourists admittedly are a bit like corporate cattle (it isn’t cheap to look at what appears to be from the outside an NCP carpark) – but my overriding feeling was one of easy compliance in being part of something that is mesmerising in scale and the epitome of sporting ambition and achievement.
Any NUFC fan that has walked through their trophy room will know the feeling of awe
(and slight embarrassment) and recognise that redemptive pride when you spot the Fairs Cup amongst the treasure. That little voice in the back of your head says “We’ve won that one, Mackems!”
And then out onto the pitch of the multi-tiered bowl. My Spanglish isn’t great but it isn’t difficult to translate the motto that some of those seats spell out – ‘‘Mes Que un Club’ : ‘More Than a Club’.
Those words resonate.
In the time I was away, whilst Newcastle unravelled further at Leicester, there were three
announcements about the club that stood out for me for their audacity and ironic rhetoric. Whoever in the NUFC propaganda department drafted Fabricio Coloccini’s ‘plea’ to the fans, subsequently signed by our talented but ageing pea-hearted capitano, needs to appreciate that the implication of the words printed was that it was YOU – the fans –who were really being pointed at for the team’s demise. If that wasn’t outrageous enough, the club followed it up with more double-edged pleas/accusations in the press release prior to the West Brom game, declaring “this is your club.”
Really? Apart from a romantic rallying call from the disaffected and disillusioned fans who claim an emotional ownership and monopoly on pain – we are utterly disenfranchised. As an ardent NUST member committed to the idea of a fan ownership/shareholding, I hope and pray the club are on the brink of opening up and really seeing their words through, by declaring the opportunity of a protected fan shareholding. But unless, Mr Ashley packs his Premiership money bags and leaves town, an unprecedented show of altruism and benevolence is never going to happen.
This brings me to the words of our former owner and ‘saviour’, Sir John ‘Wynyard’ Hall.
Sir John really is a man of mirrors; the great regionalist and ardent Thatcherite. The man who envisioned our club as the Barcelona of Northern England with talk of a ‘Geordie Nation’. I’ve personally met him and recognise him as one of the most charismatic people I have ever met. The ultimate salesman, Hall oozes enthusiasm and charm and can truly make you believe that black is white and chalk is cheese. Possessing hypnotic, Paul McKenna-like powers, after 10 minutes, if he had have told me to go and rob the local post office; I think I would have done it!
But it is an illusion. John Hall oversaw two share issues at the club. Whilst the first one
failed because of the lack of interest from businesses when the club was on the brink of extinction, as the Keegan era exploded the corporates came out of the woodwork, Hall accelerated the club towards plc status: the tried and tested Thatcher model for conning the average Joe into thinking he was going to influence big business. Of course, with huge blocks of shares, the Hall’s and Shepherd’s made (cough) quite a bit of money whilst destroying the foundations upon which our rapid growth had been built.
Hall is also the man who sold to Mike Ashley. I think that decision haunts him and not just because of vanity over his legacy. His pleas to the fans to back the team last week were followed by the insistence that outside of the Premiership there is “nothingness” The reaction from supporters to his words, from what I read, were probably not what he had anticipated, but nevertheless the fans backed the team – as if they have ever done anything less and made not a jot difference to a team and a club that has been on a downward spiral for years. Though I am not one of those who relishes the prospect of relegation, I would argue that the ‘nothingness’ that the Ashley model propounds for remaining IN the Premiership, is equally distasteful. Our brief sojourn in the Championship in 09-10 sparked rejuvenation in a certain part of the fanbase, though I suspect relegation this time round would not result in the same effect nor immediate promotion. The current regime needs to be overhauled from the very top to the very bottom (with the exemption of the poor tea lady who is always dragged into these matters and undoubtedly makes a lush cuppa!).
Of course, as the old Spanish saying goes, ‘Que Sera, Sera.’ If we go down, it will be exactly what the club deserve for many reasons – running ‘business cycles’ from January to January in contravention to ‘sporting seasons,’ the erosion of identity and the alienation of the fanbase are just some. We have arrived at a situation where demos and boycotts are seen as a way of at least trying to salvage something from the wreck that is NUFC. Bricking it about scraping 3 points from home fixtures against West Brom and West Ham and an away game at QPR, is a disgraceful indictment on Mike Ashley.
The ‘nothingness’ outside the Premiership is complete garbage. It is just ‘differentness’ – greed is very much abundant down there too, if only on a smaller scale. But there is also fan ownership and shareholding at clubs. Real ambition exists, as does community engagement and an understanding of what the game is really about.
An NUFC fan for 35 years, I’m not sure what it is all about . Maybe Bournemouth fans could tell me? This shouldn’t be an existential conundrum…but we have all reached, at different stages, the point where we ask ourselves two questions: “Why do I support NUFC?” and “What do I want as a fan?”
For this writer, I want to feel a part of something that espouses the true meaning of sport and tries to play the game to the highest standards possible. Converting latent potential into momentum through vision and ambition can actually expand what are accepted boundaries.
Just over a year ago, as North Shields were promoted back to the top division of the Northern League and much to my consternation, a friend of mine talked of ‘consolidation’ and playing it safe. I laughed with that very same person on Sunday evening in the Spring Gardens pub as we celebrated with the victorious FA Vase players, manager and backroom staff. Graham Fenton had completed his odyssey for redemption but it was so much more than that to me.
As someone who is immensely proud of my roots, it has taken me 5 days to digest what happened at the weekend. When my only memories as an NUFC fan were tears of sorrow on Wembley Way, I saw good friends and hardmen – many ex NUFC season ticket holders -cry tears of joy at the end of extra time. Epic tales of the journey down and tomfoolery on the tube were magnified by tangible success. It was also an immensely joyous feeling to know that, for once, my black and white brethren would recognise these tales as secondary to the actual game.
And it resulted in silverware you could actually touch – literally, as the team bus pulled into the Torch pub at Wembley and young and old went wild with emotion. I have stated in previous articles that NE29 is a microcosm of a wider issue concerning our football loving region and I see its potential to show us the way. I stick by that assertion and whilst not wanting to take anything away from the genuinely magnificent Robins fans – who made up 6000 of the attendance – I could not help but feel it was fuelled in part by the anguish and fallout generated by events at NE1. Moreover, having met Wembley travellers from all over Northumberland and Durham and London, with no direct link to North Shields – I can say it was a wider cry of rebellion and defiance from a suppressed community. At the final whistle, one of the first chants that went up as hero Kev Hughes raised the trophy, was “Are you watching Newcastle?”
That anger tells me, whilst the wheel is still in spin, NUFC are still in people’s consciousness and there is still a chance of salvaging something. But we are in grave danger of losing generations of fans for good. The state of catatonia that afflicts NUFC match goers can be broken, but much like those who failed to vote in the general election, they don’t have a right to moan if they choose to do nothing at all. The “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” – to quote Shakespeare and the great usurper, Maggie – are not beyond influencing. But so long as the politics of fear prevails, we are destined to suffer.
There are alternative ways. We may never achieve what FC Barcelona has, but NUFC did dine flittingly at the top table. It could do again. It could also wither and die, irrespective of what division it finds itself in next term.
Thanks to my experiences in the Basque country and Catalonia and most importantly, North Shields, I can see what regional pride and community spirit can achieve and what it truly means to be ‘more than a club’.
Viva La Revolucion Del Futbol,
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