Regions to be cheerful

Harry Pearson ponders whether there really is a collective football sensibility in the north-east and concludes that there probably isn’t

A dozen or so years ago I was sitting on a plane at Brussels airport. Our departure had been slightly delayed to allow passengers from a connecting flight to join us. Eventually they arrived and marched down the aisle to the rear of ­standard class, an elderly couple trailing the scent of sun tan oil and eau de cologne. Nothing unusual in that except that on closer inspection the pair turned out to be Newcastle United chairman Sir John Hall and his wife, Lady May.

“Hey, did you see who that was?” the man sitting next to me asked in astonishment, “You’d have thought he’d have sprung for business fares, wouldn’t you, the mean old sod?” I agreed. “Still,” I said, “as a Middlesbrough fan I can at least now enjoy the flight content in the knowledge that, should the plane crash, I will at least have the consolation of taking that bastard with me.”

Possibly I said this with a bit too much fanaticism, or maybe the man next to me was just a nervous flyer. Whatever, he went quite white and spent the rest of the flight eyeing me nervously and mumbling what sounded like Hail Marys.

With Boro, Newcastle and Sunderland all flapping ineffectively in a bid to fend off relegation, the bitter solace of dragging an old enemy down with you when you go has been preoccupying many minds in the north-east over the past month. With the Magpies due to entertain Middlesbrough at St James’ in a couple of weeks there may even be some romantics who envisage a future that will see them dramatically leap from the pit they are currently in using Alan Shearer and/or Steve Gibson’s head as a springboard.

For myself, I can’t quite work up the required venom. Whenever I look at the Premier League table I find myself humming the theme from High School Musical, “We’re All In This Together”. Perhaps the former is a sign of getting old, certainly the latter is evidence of having a load of ten-year-old girls hanging around the house.

What the redoubtable crapness of the region’s “Big Three” (largeness in this case being somewhat a matter of who you happen to be standing next to, admittedly) means, if anything, is another matter. Addressing the topic in the Guardian, Tyne Valley resident and Sunderland fan Steve Cram claimed that the rest of nation was laughing at the north-east because of the situation. I admit I don’t get out and about as much as Steve, but I find it hard to believe this is the case. Maybe it is just the way people in the BBC sports department carry on? Do they get the league tables out on a Monday, point at the lower reaches of the Championship and have a good old chuckle at the expense of the East Midlands? With Sue Barker around I suppose anything is possible.

The fact is that relegation is no real novelty for Sunderland or Middlesbrough. When we stare the drop in the face I imagine the drop stares right back with a look of weary recognition and mumbles: “Oh, these again.” For Newcastle it is a different matter, but that is only because they have maintained a level of self-confidence that borders on the perverse, and because 15 years of ­relative success have made a lot of post-­Premier League commentators forget the dumb horror of what went before.

In the past two seasons even Tyneside’s apparently inexhaustible supply of optimism seems to have trickled gradually away. Though many in the media continue to ­peddle a Ceausescu-like vision of a Geordie Nation following the latest Messiah singing cheery songs about a sunlit future, the truth is somewhat different. Except possibly among the rent-a-gadgies who seem to have nothing better to do than hang about outside the ground on weekday mornings cheering or weeping as required in return for a brief moment on Sky News, the modern equivalent of a penny bun.

When Alan Shearer gave his first press conference at St James’ Park, Radio 5 Live’s reporter on the spot kept insisting that “the sense of excitement and belief here is palpable”, yet every fan she interviewed sounded resolutely gloomy. “It’s come too late,” one after another pronounced. “So there you have it,” the reporter signed off. “The Toon Army ecstatic…”

That is what the world has come to expect of the Toon Army. Which may explain why the reaction among sportswriters to the distinctly downbeat atmosphere at Shearer’s first home game in charge was puzzlement mixed with indignation at being so cruelly let down. Though as a friend of mine remarked afterwards: “If they thought that atmosphere was poor they should have come here when Jim Smith was in charge.”

Shortly after I shared the plane with Sir John Hall, I was standing in the away section at St James’. Boro had just lost to Newcastle, but the supporters around me remained grumpily defiant. “You’ll win nowt, yous,” a big man in a replica shirt with a voice that sounded like gravel in a blender yelled over the line of stewards at a mighty Geordie. “Well, yees’ll win nowt neither,” the Geordie bellowed back. “Aye,” the Middlesbrough fan replied with a hint of pride, “but we’re the Boro. We don’t expect to win owt.”

At times like these I often think of that line and wonder at how often football life in the north-east has so fully lived up to our expectations.

From WSC 268 June 2009