THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

It’s 23 years since the “Hadrian’s Wall derby” was played in league or cup, but luckily hostilities can be renewed in a pre-season friendly staged in high summer – at least that’s what the calendar claims. Pete Green writes

It’s the odd-numbered summers that get to you. The close seasons unrelieved by World Cups or European Championships. As much as we feel sick at the corruption of our game; as much as we feel jaded and excluded by the Premier League’s closed shop – and the impenetrable play-within-a-play that is the top four – we still need football like we need air. We believe the game can overcome the choreography of balance sheets, can still depart from the script. This is why we still feel itchy and restless in these alternate summers, when the grandest international tournaments aren’t ­available to tide us through. This is why 12,346 people have left dry and comfortable homes to watch Carlisle and Newcastle play out a tame and inconsequential draw on the wettest and dankest of summer days.

So if most of us end the season watching “meaningless” games as our clubs play on with neither relegation nor promotion in prospect, many of us are happy to turn out again for friendlies in July that are equally lacking in importance. And all the while we’re curiously unwilling to allow any game its insignificance. Against our better judgment, we make those April and May games, and these July warm-ups, into signifiers of the season to come. “There’ll be people moaning if we get beat,” says a Carlisle fan. “Pre-season friendly against a Premiership club, but there’ll still be people moaning.”

Clubs’ commercial staff have lately come to join fans in prizing friendlies beyond their worth. Kickabouts in high summer are often now arranged and marketed with the same ambition and gusto that professional club operations bring to bear on big cup games, and on the face of it today’s meeting with Newcastle has been arranged as much to put bums on seats as to loosen tendons. But this may be to reckon without the difficulties of getting a ticket. Carlisle’s “buy online” facility throws up server errors with the unerring regularity of Joey ­Barton generating scandalised headlines, and the phone loops maddeningly for 15 minutes between a menu and “that extension is busy”. At £12 a throw, though, the commercial potential of the fixture has clearly not eluded the Cumbrians’ bean-counters.

Another reason Newcastle are here is that there just aren’t that many clubs on each other’s doorsteps. Carlisle fans hate the “football outpost” cliche, but as the train races against a belt of flood clouds up the spine of Britain there’s plenty of time to ponder the great questions thrown up by the long journey north, such as “Why do Virgin Trains always run two carriages fewer than they need and then act all surprised when they’re apologising for the severe overcrowding?”

Carlisle, when it arrives, is suspended in an eerie half-light, and people seem slightly on edge and cranky from being shuttered up against the rain all these weeks. Yellow-green fluorescent police jackets cut through the grey air and drizzle. A vague sense of menace hangs damply over the walkways as desultory street chants rise and fall and rumours of trashed pubs flash between mobiles. The odd racist aside can be heard from the home fans and the latitude of these two clubs offers strangers a peculiar sight in the almost total whiteness of the crowd: when the game kicks off there seem to be more black faces on the pitch than in all four stands.

Obafemi Martins is dispossessed in midfield by Zigor Aranalde. A minute later the Newcastle striker fails to reach an overhit pass, which goes out for a throw. Both times the home fans roar gleefully, but Brunton Park is surprisingly quiet given the near‑ capacity crowd. “Your support is fucking shit,” sing some Newcastle fans for a few seconds, almost apologetically. These two clubs probably have more mutual respect than the chanting suggests – there is no ready-made melody for “Your support is not too bad, actually, and held up impressively during your struggles in the Conference and lower reaches of the fourth division” – but even home fans who acknowledge the unimportance of today’s result grin: “It’d be nice to get one over on these bastards!”

Carlisle’s players, too, are the ones who look more concerned about the outcome and nip about gamely, while the visitors maintain a more stately pace. Given the absence through injury of Michael Owen, Emre and Shola Ameobi, not to mention the slippery pitch, you wouldn’t blame Sam Allardyce if, as seems the case, the entirety of his team talk was “don’t get injured”. Newcastle’s performance is scarcely more insipid than many recent showings in the league, though, so who can tell? Not that they need to try too hard: Carlisle’s full-backs sit very narrow, allowing Charles N’Zogbia and Martins, who enjoys a lot of positional freedom today, to roam expansively down the flanks. Keiren Westwood saves well and the visitors squander an unmarked corner.

While Newcastle’s chances are crafted by Martins’ clever touches and movement, their defence is opened up by the home side’s greater purpose and energy. Though his tendency to over-elaborate would sometimes frustrate fans during his years at Walsall, Aranalde remains one of the lower divisions’ most accomplished full-backs. In him and Simon Hackney, Carlisle boast one of the strongest left sides in the third flight and both players link well with Jeff Smith in midfield. Both teams’ attacking play remains pretty disjointed and speculative, though. Aranalde sends a cross high and wide; around the­ half‑hour Kevin Gall breaks down the right channel on to a long, high ball and his shot is deflected for a corner. Both times the crowd applaud slightly louder and longer than the play really deserves, just to break the lull.

It is a handsome old ground, with a lot of nooks and crannies and half-decent bars tucked away, and Carlisle deserve tremendous credit for building up the flood defences rather than fleeing to a higher, cheaper and duller ground on the outskirts of the city. You don’t know what you’ve got until you’ve been down to the Conference and back – and Cumbrians seem unanimous in having enjoyed their paddle in non-League waters. “I still read the Non-League Paper,” says one fan, two promotions later.

The rain is back and heavy after half-time but, perhaps surprisingly, no bare-chested Newcastle fans are bouncing any huge man-boobs around the ground. Maybe they save it for UEFA Cup games in Estonia in December when the cameras are there. The play is still patternless and Carlisle’s fans are as surprised as David Rozehnal when Danny Livesey beats him to a lofted free-kick and heads in well from 12 yards or so. The atmosphere lifts, even as the sky darkens further, but a great swathe of substitutions on both sides holds back the rhythm of the game from rising to the mood of the fans. Newcastle’s Paul Huntington comes on to a great reception, as befits a lad who went to school less than a mile from here.

The game opens up at last and another goal seems likely. Steve Harper rushes out to deny Danny Graham and Westwood again reacts well to turn a Geremi free-kick round the post. The goal has mingled with a kind of rain-induced delirium, like in those Southern Comfort adverts where the whole of New Orleans is having a party and it’s pissing it down. Except here a giddy Cumbrian vaults the advertising hoardings and gets clattered by eight or nine police.

Newcastle find more subs from somewhere, and their back four now numbers 43, 42, 31, 41 (“We need more players,” Allardyce tells reporters afterwards). The last 15 minutes see more efforts on goal than the first 75. Graham is thwarted by an outrushing keeper again, this time one of the obscure subs, while Livesey literally puts his arse on the line to block N’Zogbia’s effort. An injury-time cross finds Nobby Solano – probably the best of Newcastle’s 19 players today – in just enough space to bring the ball down and guide it expertly into the top corner. The trickle of visiting fans who made an early exit hurry back to the gates.

The city still hunches under the weird sooty twilight that has lasted all day, as if a solar eclipse got stuck, and leaving fans mingle with young drinkers beginning to flow into town, anticipating downpours and danger. Police throng the railway station, which reverses the tepid acoustics of the modern football stadium in making 20 Geordies sound like 20,000. There will be a dozen arrests. What is arguably ­Carlisle’s biggest game of the season is over, three weeks before the season really begins.

So why were today’s biggest cheers, after Livesey’s goal, for the misfortunes of Obafemi Martins? It’s clearly nothing personal: he was subbed off to loud applause. The clue is in the new context of all games between lower- and top-division sides, and in the £26m Newcastle wrote off on ­Boumsong, Luque and Viana as much as the £10m they then spent signing him. If the Premier League has slammed the trapdoor shut, then the Championship’s increasing share of what wealth and power remain is pulling the ladder up behind it, leaving the lifelong fans of Carlisle and so many others with little left to hope for but to be noticed occasionally, for something to happen that entitles them to say: “Look – we’re still here.” Carlisle fans whose mobile phones carry footage of Richard Prokas’s infamous two-footed lunge on Patrick Vieira in 2001 are largely just combining a modern medium with a very ancient bloodlust, but, like those who celebrated Martins’ mishaps today, they are also waging a playful, tokenistic insurgency against the power that has trashed the dreams they dreamt on childhood terraces.

And if football has shed the very qualities that drew us to it, why are we still here? We don’t know. We just know that we still need football like we need air, and we’ll come out in our thousands to pointless games, and we’ll keep on coming, resiliently as flooded villagers waiting for the sun to come back.

From WSC 247 September 2007

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