Which way the Lads?

What is a club in any case? Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. It’s not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes. It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city. It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.

Bobby Robson — Newcastle: My Kind of Toon

Something I hoped for many a year might happen finally did so last week. I confess now it has happened; I am conflicted. What is it? Well, those who have read other posts of mine might guess it was the takeover of Newcastle United Football Club.

I have written, in several ‘Positives’ and ‘Reflections’ over the six years, I have posted those weekly offerings, about my long affection for NUFC. To paraphrase Nick Hornby, I fell in love with Newcastle United as I was later to fall in love with women: suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain or disruption it would bring with it.

I caught the NUFC bug on seeing them for the first time at age 11. That was with my father, and for the next two to three years we would attend some games together. I then became a regular at St James Park with my father joining me on occasion to watch a game. Those visits bought me closer to him through my teenage years. Sadly, my leaving home at 17 to live in London brought that shared experience to an end.

NUFC were a decent team through the 1970s, but I envied my father seeing them in the ‘glory’ years that set their reputation. The teams of the 30s, 40s and 50s when they were Cup winners and League winners. My father died a year or so after I moved to London, so he didn’t get to see NUFC’s more recent Wembley appearances. Not that any of them would have filled him with joy. I’ve seen them in four Wembley cup-finals since 1974. They’ve lost them all and only mustered one goal.

I am one of a diminishing group of supporters who’ve seen them win a major trophy (I do not count trophies for promotion to the Premier League). That was in 1969, and the trophy was the now-defunct Inter-City Fairs Cup (it morphed into the Europa League). Since then, the NUFC trophy cabinet has been bare.

A few weeks ago, I bought a book called, ‘Newcastle United Stole My Heart’. Written by Michael Chaplin, the playwright and screenwriter. It covers the 60 years he’s followed the club. Slightly longer than I, but every word strikes a chord with my own experience of following the Magpies. Indeed, I was at some of the games he uses to convey the agony and ecstasy of watching the team play.

Michael includes some photos in the book, and one is of his family in 1957 standing on their doorstep. I have a picture of my family from the same year where they adopt a similar pose and backdrop. Was that the fashion back then? To have the family photo literally framed within your front door.

Anyway, I digress. There have been ‘high’ points over the years for NUFC. For instance, reaching those four Wembley finals and qualifying for the European Championship and beating the likes of Barcelona. However, there have been far more disappointments, especially so in the last few years. Years when both winning a trophy seemed a long way off, and the team’s style of play was mundane, cautious, and bland. Someone once wrote that to support NUFC is not to expect the winning of trophies but to watch a team that tries. Unfortunately, for too long under the outgoing owner Mike Ashley the club seems to have stopped trying.

The new owners have the funding and desire to invest in the club. Not just the first team but also the local community. In training facilities and developing the youth squad. It was in the equivalent of that squad in which my father played just short of one hundred years ago.

So why am I conflicted? Well, I suspect I’m not the only NUFC supporter that feels that way right now. The money that supports the takeover comes from Saudi Arabia. A country with a questionable record on human rights. A challenge might be made to many owners of Premier League football clubs on how they came by their money and in their stewardship of a club. But a State is a little different to an individual.

Will I stop supporting the club? I’m going to find that a struggle after over 50 years. But the takeover has given me much pause for thought, and it reminds me of the old saying, be careful what you wish for.

This week’s music? No, it’s not Blaydon Races, although that might seem apt. Instead, I’m going for Local Hero. A piece of music played before NUFC’s home games. And music played at maximum volume whenever my son Mark (also an avid NUFC supporter) and I were in the car together in his younger days. …