Loony Toon?

As you may have read, Newcastle recently reappointed a former manager, to some acclaim. Harry Pearson  assesses the mood of the “Geordie Nation”

In football, “they” are often credited with saying things. Among the most popular aphorisms of this anonymous collective so frequently quoted by the pundits are “Never go back” and “Never say never”. Resolving this paradox did not delay Kevin Keegan long when he was offered the chance to manage Newcastle for the second time. “It took me about two seconds to decide,” he said, before going on to create a little conundrum of his own by declaring that returning to St James’ Park was like “coming home”, while more or less simultaneously proclaiming: “I have never really left.”

Played out to the merry sound of King Kev’s happy babbling, the Third Coming was greeted with mad hysteria on Tyneside. At least that was the impression you would have gleaned from the national media. Well, at risk of sounding like your dad, all I can say is: if they thought that was hysteria, they should have been here the last time he came back. That didn’t get quite the same blanket coverage, of course. In 1992 nobody outside a narrow band of north-east England much gave a toss who the Mags’ new manager was. The Premier League, Sky Sports News, daily sports supplements, the endless phone-ins and the desperate text-us-this-second-please appeals from presenters grown too lazy even to spout their own banalities didn’t exist. Most decent citizens still regarded football as the province of morons and psychopaths. And Newcastle were near the bottom of Division Two.

Nor, I should say, was the sort of bubbling elation witnessed that February the type so blatantly manufactured for the benefit of the TV cameras by middle-aged men who desperately want their friends and family to see them carrying on like five-year-olds. Not that there are too many of them, I should add. I’m sure I’m not the only who has noticed how often the same image crops up. From the Sun to the Guardian we see the same weeping skinhead, the same toothless baying loon, the same teenage girl with face-paint dripping from her wobbling chin. It’s like one of those video clips from a dictatorship in which the demonstration in support of the brutal autocrat is always filmed from as narrow an angle as possible in a feeble attempt to disguise the fact that only ten people have bothered turning up.

1992 was a time before the audience had become the performance. The hysteria then was heartfelt and provincial and all the more deranged for it. Saint Kevin to the Rescue bawled a local paper, Messiah in the Dugout – Pages 10-11. One paper ran a half-page cartoon in which a bubble-permed Keegan in a suit of armour was about to slay a dragon labelled “Third Division”.

The delirium of 15 years ago also owed much to something that is missing this time around. For all that his belly-wobbling antics may entertain, Mike Ashley is no John Hall. He is not offering promise of a revivified Geordie Nation. He does not see the return of the man “they” call Special K as the foundations of semi-autonomous Barcelona-upon-Tyne with its own international black-and-white brand of basketball and ice hockey teams, rugby players and racing drivers. Hall made his money in the 1980s and, like his idol Mrs Thatcher, was filled with grandiose dreams of the wonders the free market might perform if entrepreneurs such as himself were given even more of the tax-payers’ money than they’d already spent. At the time I thought it was cynical manipulation, but that was only because the alternative – that they both actually believed it – was too scary to contemplate. Ashley made his money in the 1990s. He does not regard it as magic dust. He just uses it to buy stuff.

To most Newcastle fans I know, this Keegan return is partly a dream come true and partly a nightmare waiting to happen. They are as aware as anyone that they are no longer “the Entertainers” or “everybody’s favourite other team”, any more than they are “sleeping giants” with a “great tradition in the Cup”. They know the club’s bizarre antics since the Messiah stomped off last time have made them a laughing stock. That may have hardened their attitude to the outside world and “the London-based media”, leading to ever-more-bellicose public support for whatever goes on at St James’ no matter how ludicrous (an “us against the world” attitude that helped preserve Freddy Shepherd well past the point when most Geordies could stand the sight of him), but in private they are more sanguine.

A Newcastle-supporting friend of mine sums up the ambivalence to Keegan’s return: “Heart says, ‘Yes’, head says, ‘No’. Still, it’s got to be better than the dire crap we had to put up with under Allardyce.” Then, after a moment’s pause, he adds: “Though on the evidence so far, maybe not.”

From WSC 253 March 2008