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 was a 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 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. “, mate? Here, signature for wor kid.” Andersson looked even more petrified than he did at Wembley in 1998.