Jonathan Baker explains why he is turning his back on the Premiership in general and Newcastle in particular
Now, I’m something of a Newcastle United fan. In fact, I’m one of the club’s top, ooh, 50,000 or so supporters. A bold claim? Well, not really. You see, for the past season or three, I’ve been one of the elite. One of the lucky few with a share in a season ticket for St James’ Park – an item so sought-after that a Hollywood film (the mysteriously entitled Purely Belter) has been made based on the epic quest to obtain one by a pair of loveable scallies from deepest Gateshead.
Yes, for the past few years people like me, in possession of a passport to Magpie heaven, have been the envy, not just of teenage rogues in Dunston, but of thousands more otherwise well adjusted and mature folks of a black and white persuasion located all over the planet. Not for me the phone call to the arrogant Ticketline employee, the off-chance of a 70 quid corporate admission, the huddled transaction with the grubby tout outside the pub on Strawberry Lane at 2.45pm. No, I’m one of the chosen, and as such can roll out of the pub at a quarter to three, stroll through the inviting turnstiles, and take my place among fellow members of the elect, ready to cheer on the Mags to ever and greater glory.
Not any more I can’t. I’m choosing not to be chosen, ruling myself out of a walk-on part in any upcoming big screen sequels set in Dunston, Tyne and Wear. When Newcastle United kick off season 2001-02, for the first time in a long time, I won’t be there. And I’m by no means alone. The fanzines are full of the tales of ex-hardcore Mags suddenly finding something better to do with 300 or so quid come June than chuck it at this year’s version of the Great John Hall Vision. Next year there may even be match day tickets freely available. It’s certainly a far cry from the glory days of Keegan, when the entire north east, and plenty more whose Geordie connections extended to having seen a few repeats of The Likely Lads, seemed to be queuing up to enlist in the self-styled Toon Army, made up, of course, of “the most loyal fans in the world”.
So what’s with the sudden mass desertion? I can’t speak for all those going AWOL, but for me there’s the careless arrogance of seemingly every club employee from director level downwards and the rip-off tactics exemplified by the 70 quid corporate ticket, both symptoms of the decline of a sporting institution into a money-grabbing, faceless plc. And then there’s the sullen atmosphere in the stands – my neighbours may be fellow members of the elect, but too many of them are also self-righteous, loud-mouthed little bleeders seemingly intent on preventing anyone, including themselves, from enjoying a moment of the game. But mostly, of course, there’s the football, which for the past three long, hard seasons has been absolutely and irredeemably bloody diabolical.
So yes, I’m taking the decision to walk away. But not without a little soul-searching. It was with something of a heavy heart that I rolled out of Rosie’s pub on Stowell Street at 2.45 and headed for the Leazes Stand and the final home game of the season. This meaningless fixture was not the last I would ever attend at the Theatre of Geordie Dreams but certainly the last time l’d arrive as a card-carrying part owner of the dream itself.
Still, not to worry, I consoled myself, taking my place in the middle tier of the elect (between the boys who never speak and the miserable fat bloke, behind the dangerous looking individual who likes to referee the match from 70ft up), Newcastle United are not about to let me down. No, I will be vindicated. They will start off inept and, after a brief flirtation with mediocrity, go 1-0 down to a scrappy effort on the stroke of half-time. The second half will be a tale of mounting desperation on the pitch, accompanied in the stands by derision bordering on outright loathing. And what’s more, the half-time pie will be a distinct disappointment. Three-one to the Villa, our only goal a wrongly awarded late spot-kick, and the final whistle met with hearty jeers from the by-then half-deserted stands.
Well, that’s what it said in the script. And if this was indeed a Hollywood sequel (Mike Leigh’s I Will Be Vindicated, perhaps, starring Ricky Tomlinson as the miserable bloke and, ahem, Robert Carlisle as myself), then that would be exactly how events unfolded. But guess what, they didn’t. Newcastle United dug deep, and found, heaped upon the sundry humiliating cup exits, gutless away capitulations and dodgy signings they’ve visited on me these past 20 years, yet another way of letting me down.
Yes, the one time I needed them to be their usual hapless selves, they came over all Brazil 1970. Started off scintillating and, after a brief flirtation with Total Football, went swiftly 2-0 (2-0!) up on the stroke of half-time. The second half was one-way black and white traffic, accompanied from the stands by oohs and aahs of admiration bordering on the purest adulation. Three-nil to the Toon, and our heroes leave the pitch to a standing ovation, returning to perform a valedictory lap of honour before the enraptured faithful.
Well, what bastards, is all I can say. They can’t even be shite properly. I’m off. God alone knows where to. I’m trying to develop a flirtatious interest in Stockport County (well, they do play just outside my house) and am following with an avidity bordering on the downright cranky the fortunes of Real Betis.
It’s all a bit odd, really. But hell, now I’ve experienced Christian Bassedas’s unlikely, wholly unexpected, for-90-minutes-only impersonation of Johan Cruyff circa 1974, I’m ready for anything. Now, has anyone got Mike Leigh’s phone number? I’ve got a great idea for a script.
From WSC 174 August 2001. What was happening this month