Life has, as ever, been stranger than fiction on Tyneside this season, to the dismay of the fans, but Harry Pearson wonders if their loyalty is part of the problem
“Patrick Kluivert was in the other night,” an employee at one of Newcastle’s most salubrious bars told me a few months ago. “By the time he’d walked from the door to the table he had the Jesmond wives stuck all over him like Elastoplast.”
The image of the Holland striker struggling gamely to get across the room with half-a-dozen gym-toned, salon-bronzed blondes stuck to his limbs and torso came back to me as I listened to the commentary on Newcastle United’s disastrous FA Cup semi-final. In a game in which their team were thrashed – to borrow a fine simile from the late Hunter S Thompson – like a red-headed stepchild, the Toon Army would not be quelled. On and on they sang as the supporters of Man Utd slipped away to avoid the traffic. “Surely,” Alan Green declaimed in his most exasperated gargle, “these fans deserve better than this?”
Even by the standards of St James’ Park – indeed even by the standards of Tennessee Williams – this has been a melodramatic season. It culminated (or at least you’d think it had, though you wouldn’t bet your house on something even more ludicrous happening before May 15) with the allegations against Craig Bellamy of sending abusive text messages to Alan Shearer, something that perfectly summed up a fractious period characterised by door slamming, pouting, flouncing and posturing – not so much Toon Army as Teen Army. Yet despite all that; despite the arrival of a manager whose appointment if not quite as downright off-the-wall as that of Howard Wilkinson at Sunderland was unexpected and hardly welcomed; despite form that is on the balding side of patchy; St James’ Park has been full as always, the travelling support still massive and vocal.
As a result I’m certain most of the nation agreed with Green’s view – that this extraordinary loyalty merited something better than front-page headlines and a 4-1 hammering. Part of me did, too. Newcastle’s fans are so perennially optimistic they make Little Orphan Annie look like Marvin the Paranoid Android. My next-door neighbour, a Sunderland supporter of 50 years’ service, always jokes that at the start of the season Magpies think they will win “everything going, including the Boat Race and the Grand National”. If Newcastle were successful this would come across as arrogance, but since they aren’t it seems more like the wide-eyed innocence of childhood. You can’t help keeping your fingers crossed that just once their crazy dreams don’t end up cruelly mangled by bitter reality.
The other part of me – the part that supports Middlesbrough and is therefore cynical and twisted and regards hope as the province of the very young or the terminally stupid – thought about Patrick Kluivert. Because to be frank if this overpaid, lazy bull’s knacker is being chased around Tyneside by BMW-driving trophy brides instead of an angry mob brandishing burning torches, then maybe, just maybe, this actually is what Newcastle fans deserve. If you celebrate mediocrity then that is what you end up with.
“So why do you think it is Newcastle always seem to just implode?” a Geordie taxi driver asked the other night. I said I could give him an answer in five words. When I did he nodded his head and then said: “I know what you’re saying, but at least they’re better than the last lot.”
I’ve heard this often. Just as the exterior threat of western imperialists and capitalist exploiters tightened Josef Stalin’s grip on the USSR, so the eerie shadows of Stan Seymour and Gordon McKeag continually creep to the rescue of Freddy Shepherd and Douglas Hall (for those were the five words). “At least they’re not as bad as the last lot,” the fans say as Freddy (“I’m a Geordie, me”) entertains the nation with another hilarious pronouncement, or gives a manager millions to spend over the summer then sacks him two games into the season, or as Sir John Hall’s boy Douglas trousers what to most would be 20 years’ wages for the sheer bloody hard work of turning up at St James’ half-a-dozen times a season.
The club is undoubtedly in a better state than it was under previous regimes, but how long will that hold up as an argument? The conditions of the British working class were by no means as bad in 1990 as they had been when the Duke of Wellington was prime minister, but that hardly seemed much reason to hang on to Margaret Thatcher. Don’t like Tony Blair? Yeah, but at least he’s not Lord Castlereagh.
Prior events play a part in the apparent acceptance of the status quo, so too does fierce regional pride. “There’s a sense of closing ranks and sticking two fingers up at the rest of the rest of the country,” a season-ticket holding friend says when I question him on the clearly audible if by no means universal applause that greeted Lee Bowyer’s appearance as sub against Sporting Lisbon. When I ask him if that also applies to Shepherd he shakes his head. “That I don’t know about,” he says. “I find that bewildering, really. But what can you do?”
Newcastle fans grumble about the club’s rulers and the underachieving players, but when matchday comes it’s all forgotten in the frenzy of devotion that has come to be a major part of the city’s identity. They continue to pump money into the club as surely as the club pump bullets into their own feet. And the clock ticks on. The fans’ loyalty does deserve more, but as the situation stands at the moment it is a major factor in ensuring that they receive less.
From WSC 220 June 2005. What was happening this month