Saturday 9 May 2020

Football Then and Now

Another article from The Popular Side archives.  This one appeared in issue three, which came out on the day Newcastle picked up their first three points of the 2014-15 season.   The 1-0 victory over Leicester City followed seven games without a win and was in turn followed by four wins in a row.  Pardew that.  Elsewhere, David Moyes had been jettisoned after 10 months in charge at Manchester United and Nile Ranger had recently been cleared of being drunk in charge of a sports car after the police turned up to an M4 crash site and found him sleeping behind the wheel. 

Pity the cossetted modern professional footballer, so removed from real-world anxieties that they can offer up the absence of chips from a pre-match menu  as a legitimate excuse for a multi-million pound squad of internationals failing to qualify for the Champions League.   

Perhaps David Moyes – an incumbent judged “disastrous” by the same national journalist who criticised Newcastle fans for “expecting a lot” - should have provided his underachieving stars with pies and a bottle of pop instead, the 19-year-old Jackie Milburn guzzling both before scoring six times in 45 minutes during his trial game in 1943.   Heaton-born Tom Watson, the Victorian prototype of the modern manager and the Geordie who brought Sunderland their greatest period of success, was an advocate of “weak tea with chops, eggs and dry toast” as prime pre-match fodder.  A glass of beer or claret was allowed at dinner, while tobacco – taken only “sparingly” – was followed by an hour-long stroll at 7.30pm.   Half a century later, Joe Harvey skippered the Magpies to two FA Cups and fourth place in the league on a Desperate Dan diet of 12 eggs and half a dozen rashers of bacon for breakfast, two pints of Guinness before kick-off and a cigarette at half-time.  

“Football turns us into our parents and our parents into our grandparents,” wrote Harry Pearson.  “I have worked hard at avoiding the traps that plunge a supporter from youth to middle-age.”  And yet, as I find myself growing ever more distant from hollow-eyed millionaires, it’s hard to resist the pull of what the Welsh call hiraeth:  a longing for the unobtainable past.  I miss zig-zag concrete steps and the smell of hops and barley, when the club shop was a portakabin and players used to scoot about town in sponsored Rovers, their names - Peter Jackson drives Bramall Motors - gaudily emblazoned on the side.   You’d laugh at club cars nowadays – even Nile Ranger sleeps in a sixty grand Mercedes – but they were better than Jackie Milburn ever managed. Unable to scrape together the cash for a car,  he did his matchday commute from a shift at Hazelrigg Colliery by motorbike, the directors eventually forcing him on to public transport when a front wheel got stuck in a Gosforth tram track and sent Len Shackleton – his colliery assistant, strike partner and pillion passenger - careering into the road.   

Bring back fixed advertising hoardings for Auto Trader, MP Stephenson & Sons and Scorpion Dry Lager – all on display as Liam O’Brien sent his free kick over the Sunderland wall and the away end into delirium in October 1992 - Jim Smith shopping in Northumberland Street’s C&A and John Burridge combining Saturday afternoon goalkeeping duties with peddling Heart of Midlothian seconds in hotel function rooms the following day.  “You haven’t got this away top in small, have you?” my mother once asked him, which is not a question you’d ever imagine Tim Krul fielding in the overheated conference facilities of the Gateshead Swallow Hotel.  

Not that footballers didn’t have their foibles back then.  My childhood hero David Kelly once turned down a proffered free copy of a fanzine because he “only ever read Ceefax”, while Andy Cole snarled sarcastically at another fanzine seller for pointing out his picture was on the front cover.   But that was Andy Cole for you.  Just ask Teddy Sheringham.   

Cole, famously, decided to live in Crook when he first arrived at Newcastle, as improbable a choice as Andreas Andersson – an expensive signing from AC Milan – made when choosing to reside in the frozen wilds of Consett. My abiding memory of the Swedish striking flop remains him being cornered for an autograph by a cadaverous local with track marks up his arms.  “Y’alreet, mate?  Here, giz yer signature for wor kid.  Andersson looked even more petrified than he did at Wembley in 1998.   

Sunday 3 May 2020

Newcastle at the World Cup

You never forget your first World Cup.  Aztec Lightning, Josimar, Maradona and la mano de Dios. Maradona and Terry Fenwick, the Mexican wave, Danish Dynamite, Belanov and Butragueno, Gary Lineker against the Poles, Gordon Strachan against the advertising hoarding, that black spider shadow on the Azetca pitch, Captain Marvel's shoulder and Peter Beardsley sidefooting in the first goal a Newcastle player had scored in the finals since Ivor Broadis against Belgium in 1954. 

Newcastle United and World Cups haven't always mixed so well.  Jackie Milburn made just a single appearance as England exited at the group stage in 1950 and was left at home four years later.  David Batty's 1998 penalty found Carlos Roa's gloves instead of the net.  In 2006, Michael Owen's right knee made it through two starts and 51 seconds then kept him out for the next 10 months.  Even the one player who'd actually won a World Cup, future swimming pool salesman Stephane Guivarc'h, managed nothing in a Newcastle shirt besides a bobbled goal in a 4-1 home defeat. 

In total, 28 men have represented the Magpies at the world's greatest sporting event, from Milburn and George Robledo at Brazil 1950 to Aleksandar Mitrovic at Russia 2018.  Beardsley and the two-goal Broadis aside, George Robledo, Alan Shearer (2), Moussa Sissoko, Craig Moore and Mitrovic have scored World Cup goals.  The only Newcastle player to make it to more than a single tournament was David McCreery ('82 and '86) and none can match Jean-Alain Boumsong, who failed to play a single minute in 2006 but left with a runners-up medal and a move to Juventus. 

16 years after Beardsley, McCreery and Ian Stewart had represented United in Mexico, I finally made it to a World Cup myself.  In 2002,  I was living in South Korea and got to see the hosts against Italy and Spain (I know) plus La Furia Roja's narrow win against Shay Given and the Roy Keane-less Republic of Ireland.  Twelve years later, I was in Brazil together with a record half-dozen players from Alan Pardew's 10th-placed Mags...

As Francisco Ernani Lima da Silva soon discovered, it’s a long, long way from Sao Paulo to Newcastle.  It had taken me two flights, one ferry, thirty-three hours on two buses from Montevideo and another one and a half inching forward in a strike-swelled taxi queue to get to South America’s biggest city.  “Newcastle United?” the driver repeated as I finally saw the back of Tiete Bus Station. “Yes, I remember Mirandinha.  We called him the hen because he ran a lot but went nowhere. Cacapa?  Terrible.  Fumaca?  No, never heard of him.” 

My Brazil World Cup journey began in Buenos Aires in the third week of May, where a San Lorenzo-supporting cab driver eulogised Fabricio Coloccini as “a great man and a hero to everyone at our club”. “Average defender,” sniffed Aldo Baccaro, our fixer in the city, who was more impressed with the work Christian Bassedas had done since returning to Vélez Sarsfield as general manager in 2008.  Vélez, Superfinal champions in 2013 with Facundo Ferreyra in their starting eleven, had fallen behind San Lorenzo and River Plate since their star striker’s departure to Shakhtar Donetsk.  On the day before the two teams met to decide who would inherit the 2014 crown, I was taken on a nine-hour tour of River Plate’s El Monumental stadium, less a football ground than a round-the-clock community hub.  “Welcome to my home,” a River Solidario worker greeted me as we entered his office in the main entrance hall.  Part of the club’s Social Department, Solidario’s volunteers lead outreach programmes, conduct ground tours and collect donations for charity projects which promote “a fairer society” nationwide.   It was, on every level, an eye-opening experience. 

As the players ran through their final training session, the stadium was abuzz with noise from the club’s nursery school and youth sport organisations.  I spoke to a husband and wife who worked as swimming and gymnastics coaches, had an 18-month-old daughter enrolled in the club's childcare programme and a 9-year-old son training at the academy.  Together with the multi-use sports facilities – free or heavily subsidised to club members – are classrooms, a theatre, cinema and cafeteria where youth prospects eat alongside their coaches, club officials and fans.  “There’s no club without the people who support it,” a Solidario member explained. “We’re all part of the same family.” 

I spent five days in Argentina before talking the one-hour fast boat  to the Uruguayan port of Colonia del Sacramento. “Where are you from?” asked a customs officer, breaking off from rifling through the bottom of my bag. “Who do you support?” Squeezed between the behemoths of South American football, Uruguayans have a longstanding affinity with the English game and a more transient love affair with the red half of Merseyside.  “I’m a Luis Suarez fan,” one local told me. “I don’t know much about Liverpool except for him.” Minus their injured superstar striker, I watched the national team labour to a single-goal friendly win over a Northern Ireland side coached by Michael O’Neill, second highest scorer with five in the calamitous 1988-89 season that was Mirandinha’s swansong in the black-and-white stripes. “I still think about Newcastle,” English football’s first Brazilian told The Guardian earlier this year. “I was so happy there.”   

A fortnight later, there was a contemporary Magpie presence inside Porto Alegre's Beiro-Rio Stadium, Cabaye, Debuchy and Sissoko  all involved as France put three goals past a Honduras side more intent on kicking flesh than leather.  The woeful French support spent most of the ninety minutes attempting Mexican Waves while the locals – evidently still to recover from losing the ’98 final to Stéphane Guivarc'h – booed whenever anyone in blue took possession of the ball.  

Flying back to Tyneside, I managed to catch Shola Ameobi’s World Cup entrance from a TV screen in Brasilia International Airport.  “That guy needs to run more,” a North American accent boomed across the departure lounge. “What’s he doing just standing around?”   

This article first appeared in the Newcastle United fanzine The Popular Side.