So this year it's Darius Vassel's turn to make me miserable. At least he thought of a novel approach, looping the ball over the hapless Harper with what looked to me like his arse. Mind you for novelty value he had a lot to live up to. Take Trelford Mills in '83 v Brighton, disallowing not one but two perfectly valid injury time equalisers. Or Stuart Boam two years previously, choosing for reasons I'm sure entirely explicable to himself to prostrate himself on the edge of his own goalmouth and play onside the entire Exeter City frontline. Or Ian Woan in '97, arrowing the winner over Srniceck and into the roof of the net from somewhere near the bastard corner flag. And I've not even mentioned the Ian Rush-inflicted defeat of 1980 -- that's Ian Rush of Chester, by the way-- or the Wembley finals of 1998 and '99, gruesome moments from which can still flash unbid into my mind with awful clarity at any moment of the waking day.
What am I on about? The 'Magic of the FA Cup' of course. A two-foot high, unlikely-shaped tin pot, the vain and hopeless pursuit of which has been making me miserable now for the best part of 25 years.
It all started so hopefully. But then, in 1977/78, I was 10 years old and a lot more innocent. I was also, for the duration of the winter, a Blyth Spartans fan. Weren't we all, as the team of plucky Northern Leaguers somehow battled through to a 5th round replay against 2nd division Wrexham, played in front of 42,000 at St. James', with 6,000 more locked out, and a quarter final v Arsenal on offer for the victors. Arsenal? Never mind them, I had it on good authority (my uncle Mike from Cowpen) that the Cup had Spartans' name on it already. The local heroes had been fitted out for their Wembley suits. Little surprise that at the final whistle, Wrexham having scraped through 2-1, I was in tears. I've been close to them ever since.
The green and white Spartans having returned to non-league obscurity, Newcastle quickly regained their rightful status as the unrivaled object of my affections. Of course, my experience with the plucky Northumbrian pitmen had taught me nothing about the dangers of placing blind, pitiful faith in lost causes -- and so I fully expected my glorious cup-fighting Magpies (I had it on even better authority -- me dad -- that we were glorious and nationally feared cup-fighters) to launch a determined yearly assault on Wembley's twin towers. Then, of course, Ian Rush came along. Then Stuart Boam. Then Trelford bleeding bastard Mills. By 1983, I was no longer innocent, I was scarred. And bitter. And at a worldly 15 years of age, a bit too wise to be taken in by the 'Magic of the FA Cup.'
Except of course, we never get wise, do we? Which is why we always believe, come the first weekend in January, that this could be our year. That Newcastle United can suddenly transform themselves from the useless bunch of goal-shy laggards they reveal themselves to be weekly in the League, and become all-conquering cup heroes. After all, you only have to win 6 games to lift the damn thing. The apparent surmountability of the task, of course, is what takes us in. Really, we know Imre Varadi (or Mark McGhee, or Shola Amoebi) isn't going to win us the League -- that's only for the elite. But the magical FA Cup? Maybe, just maybe.
Maybe. And -- to look on the bright side for a minute -- there have been games when the heightened intensity of the knockout cup-tie has seemed to bring out the best in both the players and the fans; heart-lifting games which help you to understand why you put yourself through all the misery. I'm thinking of the three 1990s victories at Blackburn, each featuring massive traveling support in full song. Or Shearer's thunderous strike to end Spurs resistance in the 2nd Old Trafford semi. Or back in the '80s, the Gascoigne-inspired 5-0 routing of Swindon.
Yes, there've been a few glorious triumphs. But never those six together that bring the glory. In each of the last three years, of course, we've come very, very close. And I have to admit, this near-but-oh-so-far stuff is getting a little too heartbreaking for me. Which is why, in a strange way, I feel almost grateful to Darius Vassel. Because I don't think I could stand another year of Wembley torment. Another sunny train ride North from my Manchester exile on the Saturday morning, 'just to be there for the celebrations.' Another Sunday afternoon standing in the pouring rain outside the Civic Centre, waving my overpriced black and white flag at the likes of Alessandro Pistone and feeling wretched for even being there at all.
No, call me defeatist, but just for one year, if we're going to get knocked out, let's get it over with, as big Ron might say, early doors. For God's sake, after 23 years I need a rest from this demonic 'Magic of the Cup.' Next year I'll come back stronger, I promise. And, as if it needs saying, with the same entirely illogical conviction as ever that this year is the year when really, our name is on the Cup. Darius Vassel's arse permitting, of course.
International footballing bar-room generalisations have always been with us -- but some stand the test of time better than others. Teams from the former Soviet Bloc, no matter how shambolic their performance, will always be described as 'well-drilled.' Mediterranean national teams have talent to spare, but suffer from that footballing affliction, the 'Latin Temperament.' Africans are 'defensively naive.' But what about the English?
Well, until a few years ago, that one was easy. The English were unburdened by false modesty. We had the 'best league, the best referees, and the best goalkeepers in the world.' Yes, strange as it may seem today, that's right. And in the days of the flapping David Seamans and James it may seem scarcely credible, but it was the third of the common bar-room claims to global domination which rang the truest. In Clemence, Shilton, and Corrigan, the English really did boast the most able set of custodians anywhere. Which brings me to the point of this tale, for at Newcastle, we had to be different. We had Stevie Hardwick.
Actually, even that four-word statement doesn't sum up our woeful inadequacy between the sticks as the eighties dawned. One useless goalie wasn't enough for Newcastle, we had to have Kevin Carr as well. Between them the one-time Chesterfield custodian Hardwick (yes, the stable of Banks, Shilton, and Ogrizovic) and the future Northumbrian copper Carr (let's hope he catches villains more confidently than footballs) flapped and fumbled their way through five seasons of second division futility. In retrospect, perhaps an adequate goalie could have been manufactured by a combination of the pair's assets. Hardwick could be a brilliant shot-stopper, but was often likened to Dracula (that's right, scared of crosses). The taller Carr dealt better with the high stuff, but had a crazy tendency to dash thirty yards off his line with all the composure of a man being chased by lions. The Gallowgate faithful were kept on their toes by these two, right enough.
Hardwick and Carr set something of a precedent on Tyneside. Where other clubs have bothered to obtain one decent goalie at a time and stick with their choice through thick and thin, Newcastle managers have tended to sign up pairs of custodians and proceeded to chop and change between them almost on a whim. What this approach does for the confidence of the catlike figures condemned to a weekly cat-fight for the number one jersey is open to debate. Witness Keegan's pair, Srniceck and Hislop. For this observer, the Czech, after some early calamities under Ardiles, was at his most proficient before the arrival of the Trinidadian. Hislop's arrival seemed to sow doubt in the mind of Srniceck, who knew any error would lead to the drop. And of course Hislop, brilliant before at Reading and again now at West Ham, never really fulfilled his potential up here, perhaps for similar reasons.
Big name, big money arrivals not really living up to their billing (and of course, 'failing to settle up North') is another Gallowgate specialty. Between the sticks we've had our share of expensive flops. Remember when Dave Beasant played for the Toon? I bet you do. The curly-topped Cockney arrived fresh from Cup heroics at Wimbledon only to flounder in the North East like a beached whale. A 4-0 reversal at Goodison was a poor start, and it didn't get much better. The overriding memory of Beasant has him stranded helpless off his line as another speculative lob drops into the net.
If Beasant was a comparative youngster, John Burridge was just about pensionable by the time he arrived at St. James'. 'Budgie' has been a great goalie in his day, as the endlessly repeated penalty stop for Blackpool testifies, but at Newcastle he was, well, a bit shaky. My strongest recollection of him was the 1-4 home defeat by Wolves on New Year's Day (remember the one-incensed-man pitch invasion?). Old Budgie was caught and rounded by the same sucker punch Stevie Bull step-over not once or twice but three times as the Tipton terror bagged all four. And God knows the bulldozer-like Bull was no Maradona (or even Roeder!) when it came to the likes of step-overs.
So we've had the lot defending our black and white striped net on Tyneside these past twenty years (what's happened to those nets by the way?). We've had bright-eyed rookies, grizzled veterans, pairs of exotic and more home-grown number ones vying for the spot. A rich history, and I've not mentioned Mike Hooper even once (there's kids read this Mag, after all), or the infamous 1-8 reversal at West Ham when Martin Thomas went off injured, Peter Beardsley went in goal and got injured himself, and young defender Chris Hedworth stepped in to concede the last four or so. And now, we have another pair of likely lads -- the identical goalies, Harper and Given. So what line to take on these two, which number one should be the Number One?
You know what, I'm going to sit on the fence. Or stay on my line like Hardwick faced with a dangerous cross.
Ever been accused of stating the obvious? My mate's uncle hasn't -- it's the very thing he tries to avoid. And with some success -- his pronouncements, particularly when football related, never fail to raise an eyebrow -- and occasionally the odd heckle or two. How does this gentleman maintain such an impressive aura of unpredictability? Simple -- he's been talking pure bollocks now for the best part of forty years.
Take Waddle for example -- he could never play. Beardsley -- workshy. Jackie Milburn? Should have stayed down the pit. Nonsense? Of course. And harmless enough, in it's own way. After all, it's only my mate's uncle broadcasting his idiosyncratic views across the bar-room. As long as this idiosyncrasy doesn't become accepted wisdom -- and that could never happen, right?
Right. Except, no-one likes to be accused of stating the obvious. And in an area like Tyneside, where everyone, even the grannies on the bus, seems to have an opinion on the game, original statements can be hard to come up with. You have to be outrageous to stand out -- and how better to outrage a devout community than by taking the name of the Saviour in vain?
Which brings me to Kevin Keegan. He was our savior, right? Not wishing to state the obvious of course, but didn't the bloke propel us from the doldrums to the big time, disappear from the centre circle in a helicopter for God's sake, then return and save us from extinction and take us to the very top of the League, before being forced out on the verge of ultimate glory by nameless, faceless, City executives? Well of course he did -- it's bleedin' obvious!
Not though, obvious enough for some. Among the lads in the pubs and the grannies on the bus, hell, even among the contributors to The Mag, some dissenting voices are beginning to be heard. Their arguments against the Messiah appear to be threefold. Let's look at them one by one.
Firstly, say the courters of controversy, Keegan's teams couldn't defend. Now I really think, and you may be surprised here, that this is the easiest argument to counter. For sure, the Keegan era had its fair share of 3-3, 4-3, even 5-4 scorelines -- matches that stick in the memory. But games like the Anfield 4-3 classic, which ended with the manager slumped over the hoardings in apparent emotional exhaustion, were the exception. In fact, during the 95-96 season, when it is commonly held we lost the title through over-exuberance, just 36 goals were conceded in 38 League games -- a ratio bettered only once since the war (69-70, if you're interested). And Pavel kept no less than 10 clean sheets. We may never have sung '1-0 to the Geordie Boys,' but we could have done -- against Boro, Blackburn, Everton, Coventry, Villa, Southampton, and Leeds. No, the 'leaky Newcastle defence' was strictly a media invention.
Secondly, insist the doubters, anyone could have done it with the money Keegan had. This is an argument which, it seems to me, rests on two assumptions. The first, that big money signings always succeed, can be easily countered. Have they succeeded for Wolves, Blackburn, Middlesborough? The second assumption -- that Keegan himself specialised in obvious, big-money signings, needs a little more investigation.
Let's start with Wor Kev's first three signings of note: Kilcline, Venison, and Bracewell. Obvious? Well, Kilcline was held to be a lower league hoofer, Bracewell past it, and Venison both past it and a bad-hair Mackem. Big money? They came for £750,000 the lot. Inspired? Absolutely. The unlikely trio, as we know, formed an integral part of the great renaissance. They were soon joined by bigger names, but even these -- with the exception of Shearer -- rarely broke the bank. Ginola? A paltry £2.5 million. Beardsley? A million less. Keegan could look after the purse strings all right.
But finally, insist the unbelievers, Keegan was, and is an over-emotional bottler. This, I'll admit, is the hardest one to argue against. After all, the Keegan rant of '96 -- 'I'd love it if we beat 'em -- just love it!' has passed into the folklore along side 'there's some people on the pitch' uttered 30 years earlier. But hasn't Keegan's quite understandable reaction to Alex Ferguson's indefensible allegation (that the Leeds players might relax and give Newcastle an easy ride in a vital game) been blown quite out of proportion? Wasn't KK -- not for the first time -- voicing the exact thoughts of the fans -- and making it clear to the players it was a case of 'us against the world, lads'? Finally, wasn't the man's passionate approach a great part of his strength? We should hardly complain if under extreme provocation that passion ran overboard.
So to conclude: Sure, KK never quite brought us the Holy Grail. But hell, he came pretty damn close. Along the way, the man brought us an attacking team that could also defend, made astute, imaginative signings, and showed a great passion for the club. Sure, he showed some very human weaknesses too -- who wouldn't have done at the helm of that rollercoaster ride? But most importantly, between February 1992 and January 1997 this native of Armthorpe near Doncaster brought us fans more straightforward, uncomplicated, good old-fashioned joy than any other figure associated with the club in living memory. For that alone, the man should be held in eternal reverence. Sorry (to me mate's uncle and everyone else) for stating the obvious -- but Kevin Keegan was, and is, our Messiah.
Shock, horror -- hooliganism is back! Well, it had to happen sooner or later. And sure enough, fully 10 years since the advent of all-seater stadia brought about the gentrification of the working man's game and the long-overdue consignment of the multi-scarved boot-boy into the dustbin of 70's nostalgia, that vile creature has raised its ugly head again.
It happened during the Leeds game. Just before half-time. The signs of impending 'bother,' familiar to any veteran of the dark days. A heated exchange of words. A sharp movement in the crowd. A flurry of fists separating alarmed bystanders. The whole thing over with in seconds, but a bitter taste left in the mouth. A full page editorial in the following morning's Sunday Express.
Recognisable enough? Well, of course, this sort of thing was until recently a weekly occurrence at any ground in the country. But hold on a minute -- these hooligans differed from the tired stereotype. They weren't skinheads for a start, even if they were receding a bit on top. And they were members of no 'firms,' unless you count their respectable city-centre workplaces. Last but not least, they were wearing no opposing colours -- the fighters were two slightly out-of-shape, forty-something season-ticket holders, and -- wait for it -- supporters of the same team! Our team, to be precise.
Now I've no idea what difference of opinion brought about this sudden loss of decorum among my near-neighbours in the Sir John Hall stand. It may have been about the selection of Acuna, or over whose turn it was to get the half-time pies in. That's not the point. The point is -- in the supposedly dark days of the Seventies and Eighties, this never used to happen. It was the away crew you had to look out for at St. James, not the mild-mannered looking fellow in the checked cardigan in the seat behind you. So what's going on?
Well, I've a theory, and it's to do with the advent of the sold-out all-seater stadium. For, as most of you will remember, when you used to be able to stand, you could stand exactly where you liked. And by exercising that freedom of choice, supporters of a feather tended to flock together, if you like. So the West Centre Paddock was the domain of pipe-smoking schoolteacher fathers and their programme-wielding pre-adolescent offspring, while the Gallowgate East Corner was -- well, let's say it wasn't for the faint-hearted, especially when Sunderland came to town. Between these two extremes, you could make your stand among those closest to your own breed of supporter. Myself, I was a Gallowgate scoreboard man. In among the noise and the crack, but not too close to the cracking of knuckles, if you catch my drift.
Anyway, back to the theory. Sometimes a particularly obnoxious individual would come and share your Gallowgate scoreboard crash-barrier. A pissed racist, maybe. Or just a wannabe Jimmy Hill, all pontification and wisdom after the event. What did you do? Well, you turned round, made yourself a gap in the crowd, and walked away. Not too far, either -- you didn't have to. The noise of the crowd in those days would drown out the loudest of individual loudmouths at five paces.
Fast forward 15 years or so. The obnoxious neighbour is no temporary problem. Thanks to his season ticket, he's moved in next-door for good. And thanks to your season ticket, you can't turn and walk away. And thanks to the funereal silence pervading the modern-day ground, you can't help but listen to him droning/ranting on. For season after season after thankless bleeding season.
So what happens? Well, it's clear enough. One day, mild-mannered though you are, you snap. You target the individual with a few choice words, and the next thing you know, you're flinging fists, maybe for the first time since Secondary School. It's all a bit embarrassing, and it's only ended when some bloke next to you both -- the author of this here article, if you care to know -- steps in and asks the two of you to stop being so bleeding daft.
Of course, if all-seater stadiums were fine apart from the occasional outburst of male-menopausal fisticuffs, maybe they wouldn't be so bad. But we all know that with the loss of standing areas we've really lost much more than the freedom to move about. The anonymity of the terrace has been replaced by a stifling familiarity more akin to the suburban street, the variety and spontaneity of the crowd lost among sullen rows of identically clad, stressed-out strangers. Blimey, half the time at the game, I feel like I'm at work.
So -- a return to terraces it's to be then? Well, don't hold your breath. Our Minister for Sport is pretty much in a minority of one in favouring, or even daring to mention, that possibility -- that much was made clear by the knee-jerk 'seats are safe, terraces are for hooligans' response of the clubs, the Premier League, and the rest of government to Kate Hoey's perfectly sensible if fairly half-hearted recent murmurings.
The good old days, meanwhile, will remain just a memory. Getting in at half-past one to book your crash-barrier. Soaked to the skin by five-to-three, not seeing half the game, fifteen thousand of you squeezing out of a five-foot wide gap at twenty-to-five -- fond recollections all.
On second thought, maybe the seats aren't so bad, eh?
Bonkworld is proud to present The Geordie Chronicles by Jonathan, hilarious yet compelling tales of heartache, misery, absurdity, and yes, occasionally, a bit of glory as well. Tales, in other words, of the Newcastle United Football Club, steeped in rich history and soaked in lager, all astutely observed and meticulously documented. These articles have all been published by NUFC's premiere fan magazine, The Mag, but we had them first. Or possibly second. In any case, we present for your reading pleasure, with summary descriptions by Joanthan himself:
Between the Sticks: Recalling the succession of feckless individuals with the gall to call themselves 'goalkeepers' to have donned the famous Newcastle number 1 jersey in the last 20 years. These bastards are collectively responsible for taking approximately 15 years off my life. So far.
The Bovver Boys: About, well, bovver boys. Aging and not very hard ones, who are old enough to know better, really, and who sit beside me at the match. This article is the result of five years' silent seething on my part, and the distillation of five years' worth of my drunken post-match rants. Maybe some people will get what I've been going on about for all this time now. Maybe.
Up for the Cup: Newcastle United have a proud cup-fighting tradition, allegedly, although no-one of our generation has seen any evidence. There is a photo somewhere of Wor Grandad Baker setting off to Wembley in a 1950s charabang with a cigar, a black and white rosette, and a cheeky grin. Come to think of it, I used to have the rosette. They're knocking Wembley down this year, and playing the Cup final in Cardiff. Will this change Newcastle's luck? What do you think?
In Defence of the Messiah: An impassioned defence of former Newcastle coach Kevin Keegan. Essentially about revisionism, a beautiful word that never quite made it into the article, in much the same unfathomable way that the genius midfielder Lee Clark could never quite make Kenny Dalglish's first team, although I digress. Hopefully this piece will become the standard bar-room defence of the Messiah for years to come. Keegan supporters could whip it out of their breast pockets at the outset of a brawl, and miniature versions could perhaps be printed on beermats. But for now this and the Mag will have to do.