I had the title and the theme of the article all planned out. It was called “Losing My Religion” after the REM song, and it was all about how my love for the club and the game had been gradually sucked out of me through Ashley’s tenure at the club. How once Newcastle had been everything to me and how I lived for the next match, and wherever I was in the world those two hours on a Saturday afternoon would define my whole week, my mood and my view on life. Define me, if I’m honest. I was going to set out step by step how this had happened, how each cynical or ham-fisted manoeuvre had chipped away at my ardour until my relationship with the club was largely loveless and in need of counselling (or at least a good cup run) to get it back on track.
But before I’d even got to the end of the first paragraph the idea began to bore and depress me. Documenting the state of Ashley’s United is not exactly a cheery way to spend a Sunday afternoon. And as I sat in the back bedroom of my flat in Kyiv, instead of looking back at all the damage done, I found myself thinking back about what I love so much about the club in the first place. As the old REM song ran through my head, I got stuck on the line “The lengths that I will go to…”, and thought back to all of the things I had to go through to watch the Toon, or even just get news about them. All the memories made me smile, and I realised while they might be different stories to those of many fans, they didn’t set me apart. Quite the opposite in fact, the lengths that we will go to is one of the things that unites us.
That’s me in the corner. Supporting Newcastle was never a doubt in my family. Although I was brought up in Durham (and occasionally further afield) I am from a Ryton family obsessed with Newcastle for as long back as anyone could remember. Although my Mum’s family were Sunderland fans from Durham, these genes completely passed me by. My parents divorced when I was young, and my Dad moved down south. I think he was worried about my footballing education, so he took me to games whenever he was back up, and whenever he could afford it he’d buy me a season ticket next to my Nanna and my Aunty Margaret, two wonderful women who deserve their own book and who played such a big part in my ongoing love of the club and the city.
When there was no season ticket on offer, I had to find a friend to go with. So for one season I stood with my friend Jeff in the corner paddock next to the Leazes, which I loved. What I hated was that Jeff’s Dad insisted that we leave 10 minutes or more before the end “to beat the traffic”. No matter what the state of the game was we’d be dragged away and made to run through town to where he’d parked his Austin Allegro. The look of satisfaction on his face as we drove out of Newcastle on clear roads has stayed with me. To this day I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone would want to leave a match early. I think it is the Schadenfreude linked to this memory that makes 4-4 Arsenal my favourite game. The second half performance was a joy, but so was the knowledge that all those fair weathers who left at half-time missed a classic. I hope that at final whistle that day Jeff’s Dad was in whatever is the modern day equivalent of an Austin Allegro driving down the A1M and regretting every minute he made me miss.
Like most Newcastle fans, I could never be accused of being a glory hunter. I left the North East in 1984, just after we had signed Keegan. And I left the country in 1994, just after Keegan had taken over as manager. I hope the great man doesn’t take it personally. Living in Birmingham wasn’t too bad for getting to away matches as me and my Dad could drive to a lot of grounds within a couple of hours. The midweek games were a challenge though, and usually involved sloping off work early, meeting my dad in a car park somewhere and finally running the last bit to make it in time for kick off. In those pre-satnav days we navigated by floodlight, which normally worked, but on one occasion left us the wrong side of the Trent with the option of watching a Notts County reserve fixture, rather than seeing us take on Cloughie’s men as we’d planned and sprinted for.
Describing how little technology there was in Slovakia on my arrival there in 1994 makes me feel like a pensioner describing the days of rationing. But there really was nothing, at least not in the small town I was living in (Martin, in the Velka Fatra mountains if you want to Google it). I’m not sure when the internet was actually invented, but like Punk to Durham I’m sure it took a few more years to arrive in Slovakia. In my first six months there I had no radio, a big black and white TV that could only pick up Slovak soaps and MTV. There was a betting shop in town called Nike (pronounced Nick-ay). They used to print up the fixtures of all Europe’s leagues and put this huge sheet up in the window so everyone could choose their bets. At 10am every Monday morning someone would come in and write all of the results up in pen. I’d be there waiting for him. After a couple of weeks he had assured himself I wasn’t a dangerous lunatic and gave me the Newcastle result first, which was a blessing particularly in the winter months when the temperatures went as low as minus 20. Of course the results were just the results. They had very little meaning without knowing what had actually happened, and for this I had to wait for ‘the clippings’ to arrive.
My wonderful Nanna, who had done so much to nurture in me a love for the club, used to faithfully cut out all of the articles and match reports from The Chronicle, The Journal, The Pink and The Sunday Sun. These would arrive a week or so later packed into one of those thin blue Airmail envelopes. These clippings would often be annotated, with the thick blue ink of Nanna’s favourite pen, with words like lacklustre underlined (twice), “I told you he was rubbish!” scribbled in the margin. I would receive those small blue envelopes each and every week of my next 8 years in Slovakia. My Nanna came out for my wedding some years later. I proudly (and stupidly) showed her how I could now get every single article on the internet, quicker than it would take her to to get to the paper shop and buy a paper. I think it may have broken her heart.
In my second year in Slovakia I was given a short wave radio. Now if ever you hear anyone waxing lyrical about the BBC World Service, saying its an institution we must protect, please feel free to shout them down. Or even shoot them down. It’s rubbish. You’d get to the second half of one of the matches on Saturday afternoon (which was rarely Newcastle). Then you’d have to listen to Alan Green whining about what a boring game it was just in the hope that they’d give you an update from St James (they rarely did). Then with 10 minutes of the match remaining they’d cut over to a report on the Angolan election. Yet despite all of this, I’d still end up glued to the radio every Saturday afternoon. It was that or wait until Monday. To allow me to have some kind of active social life, my friends came up with the idea of attaching the radio to the handlebars of my bike with gaffa tape. I got many an odd look as I passed through mountain villages shouting at the radio at some chance missed or danger unfolding, and I had a visit to the hospital once thanks to a late Rob Lee equaliser during a rapid descent.
One of the best goals I’ve ever seen was David Ginola vs Ferencvaros. Except of course I’ve never really seen it. Not properly anyway. By this time I had adorned my big black and white set with local satellite TV, where unfortunately all of the sports channels were scrambled. I didn’t let that put me off though. The chance to watch Newcastle in Europe was not going to be passed up, so I squinted my way through the game trying to cancel out the bars and squiggles that made up the TV coverage. Although there was no commentary and the picture was all ablur, I had no doubt it was Ginola. The body shape, the drop of the shoulder and the sheer audacity could only have been Ginola. My joy at that goal was in no way diminished by the poor quality of the picture. It is entirely vivid in my memory, and to this day I refuse to watch the goal on YouTube in glorious technicolour. It couldn’t get any better than I see it in my mind.
But that was just a dream. It’s these memories that keep Newcastle in my heart, even when the rational part of me wants to stop loving them. Besides, if I’m completely honest I can’t blame Ashley entirely for my current loss of love. It may be my age. It may be that I’ve lived outside the North East for 30 years and outside of the country for 20. It may be that I watch most of my football now on TV or on the internet. And we know that Sky are ruining football anyway. People say us fans are fickle. You bet we are. I know that with the excitement of a decent centre forward, a cup run and a last minute Sammy Ameobi equaliser I’ll be right back to where I was, going to any lengths to watch my team and living and breathing for the Saturday. I’ll stay off the bike this time though.