Sunday, January 25, 2004

He's screaming and shouting and acting crazy. But at home he sits alone and he cries like a baby.

I had begun to question my dedication to Newcastle United recently.

I have been a season ticket holder for 23 years (give or take two or three) since I was nine years old. I've shed tears, downed beers and shouted myself horse for the cause.

However, I had noticed that the euphoria of a win, and the depression following a loss, was not as all encompassing as it once was.

My obsession for the team had always gone hand in hand with the pride in my city. Every game it was my city against yours and I knew even if we weren't the best team we were the most deserving in terms of history, sportsmanship and most importantly, support. Likewise in my eyes there was no city better than Newcastle upon Tyne.

I have loved many players and teams that have turned out in the black and white over the years. I remember watching Kevin Keegan's debut when I was only 10. Has there every been a bigger footballing gent than Keegan? In many ways, over the years as a player and then a manager, I identified with him. Passionate, romantic, the desire to do the "right thing". And then there was the other side of him. His pride that turned into raw emotion and hurt when things didn't go right. The occasions when he felt that the world was against him, when all the time the population of Newcastle wanted just to give him a collective hug and say thank you. There's a little bit of Kevin Keegan in all of us.

Further back there was my childhood hero Peter Withe who would throw his sweatbands into the kids' paddock where I stood. I never ever caught them but this huge striker formed a superb partnership with his diminutive sidekick Alan Shoulder. Shoulder was the last of the footballing pitmen in a line that stretched back to the likes of legend Jackie Milburn.

Then of course there was the holy trinity of Waddle, Beardsley and Gascoigne. During the heights of their careers (which unfortunately were at other clubs) they could all lay claim to be amongst the very best in the world.

Then there were honest pros like David Kelly. A player who never really hit the big time but who had a couple of magnificent seasons at St James' Park. Kelly was one of those strikers who supporters loved. He scored goals but he worked hard too and after a hellish time at West Ham you could see how much he valued the adulation from the terraces. It was his goals that got us promoted under Keegan. Tragically he was sold in the next closed season and he never did sample life with us in the top flight. He remains one of the few players who received a standing ovation despite returning in the red and white of deadly rivals Sunderland.

There was also the all-too-brief spell when we had Andy Cole with us. I remember he and Kelly knocking in a hattrick each as we celebrated Premiership promotion. Keegan had bought him for less than two million and it was that day that it dawned on the crowd that we had got ourselves a world class player. A couple of seasons later I was there when he cracked in a goal against Villa to beat the record for most goals scored in a Permiership season. I had tears of pride in my eyes and I wasn't the only one.

Later there was the elegant (Sir) Les Ferdinand whose goals nearly won us the league. A little later he was joined by mad Columbian Faustino Asprilla. I adored Tino he was a weird and wonderful player. His legend includes a hattrick against Barcelona, guns, drug allegations, mystery disappearances and a million tales from fellow Geordies who had seen him around town. Of them all Tino is my most favourite player. It was obviously a shared opinion. When we played in Monaco, several hundred fans from Palma, Tino's former club, made the trip because they loved him and never had the chance to say goodbye.

In the current team there's Nobby Solano an intelligent, unassuming, clever, slight little player. His continual spats with manager Sir Bobby Robson bemuse the crowd. His general demeanor suggests it would be almost impossible to fall out with him.

Then there is erractic genius Laurent Robert. The crowd fall in and out of love with in on a regular basis but my ardor has never cooled. I love Laurent Robert. His erracticness, if anything just makes him more mysterious. When the crowd are on his back I'm his one man PR unit. When they love him again I remind them that I never lost the faith. A friend recently took this role even further. As the crowd lauded Robert after the second of two amazing goals against Spurs - he stood up and pointed at everyone around him and sung: "where were you when HE was shit.". They were suitably shamed.

Then there is Alan Shearer. In many way's it's hard to love Shearer in the same way that I have loved mavericks like Tino and Robert. But that's also part of his charm. He reminds me of the best of Geordie men. Showing off is a very un-Geordie trait. We talk more quietly than cocknies, scousers or mancs. His quiet pride and determination is something that I associate with men formerly of shipbuilding and coalmining stock. The fact he also turned down cups, medals, and undoubtedly more money, to sign for his home town club also speaks volumes.

If I ever have a son I want to call him Alan and he could have no better role model. Even the name Alan suggests a down-to-earth bloke, no frills, old fashioned bloke. Is there a player of his stature who has been seen less in Hello, night clubs, fashion spreads and gossip columns?

So there it is a run-down of players I have loved. In the current team there are some undoubted scumbags who it's very difficult to love. Week by week there is the usual Sunday paper revelations - drunken excesses, rape allegations, driving offences, violence, racism etc etc. To add to this, we snapped up Woodgate and Bowyer from Leeds, two of football's bad boys. To be fair, however, Woodgate at least appears to be turning this reputation round.

But these antics, coupled with the growing financial gap between player and fan, and the general culture of the business of footbal,l has proved to be a turn off. The one time noise cauldron that is St James' has also become muted. Am I alone in being less than fully behind my club or does my attitude apply to many other fans? Or is it simply that the crowd, who first snapped up their tickets during the Keegan era, are getting older, more sensible and quieter together?

However, if it doesn't matter to me, how come I am still so gutted after yesterday's defeat by Liverpool that knocked us out of the FA Cup? I was shouting at the telly and chanting the mantra of "fuck fuck fuck fuck" to myself after the final whistle. Obviously while my love is dwindling it hasn't disappeared.

Like the gambler who keeps chasing his losses it would be nice just to be able to walk away while I am "up". But I'm still down 23 years of defeats and disappointments.

Next Monday I go to my interview for a two year placement abroad through the VSO scheme. That will mean no St James' Park for two seasons. The evidence suggests that they couldn't possibly get a good enough side by then to actually win something but who knows? And if they do win during the 24 months I am away what will that do to me after 23 years of unrewarded support?

I can't quite throw off the Toon addiction just yet. But will two years of footballing cold turkey do it? What's more do I want to be cured?

Love, light and peace


I saw two shooting stars last night I wished on them but they were only satellites. It's wrong to wish on space hardware. I wish, I wish, I wish you'd care.