My role used to be listening to the radio in the dining room alone, black and white top on, my lanky frame hunched over so that my ears were as close to the speakers as could be. Straining, as though doing so would pick up on an extra detail of sound I might otherwise have missed from a more upright position. Dad was at the match and Mam was home but, not wanting to hear me shout names and instructions that were foreign to her, ensured that the door was closed. The thick, old, wooden door provided just enough insulation to allow me to scream encouragement to the players who were anything from two miles away from my home to the other end of the country. My imagination provided the images that my eyes would later bring, as I would shut them tight and picture every cross and shot. My first role as a Newcastle United supporter was a radio fan.
My role changed in the early-mid ‘90s as double digits in age appeared to trigger a whole new world of possibilities. My first home game soon followed and my eyes and nose took over from my ears and imagination as the sensory gateways to the black and white experience. Everything I had pictured while shuffling uncomfortably on the mahogany dining chairs was wrong, this was not how I imagined it at all. My Dad had always returned home from the match with a very specific smell and one that I simply didn’t have the experience to decipher. Walking up the Gallowgate concrete and into the concourse, was like smelling a thousand Dads. An overwhelming sensation of familiarity and belonging hit me as a concoction of beer, cigarettes, aftershave and denim simmered in the air. It felt like our hallway at 8 o’clock on a Saturday night, as my Dad entered singing a favourite chant from the day. It felt like I was home. My second role as a Newcastle United supporter was a St. James’ Park fan.
My Dad worked shifts and would ensure that he had home games off in exchange for working the other Saturdays in a month. This meant that away games were a rarity, even for him, but especially for me as a non-season ticket holder. My first away game wasn’t until 2002 for an FA Cup Quarter Final replay away at Arsenal, in Highbury. I was eighteen years old and my clearest memory of the game was Edu saying ‘thank you’ as a Newcastle fan threw him the ball from the away end, before a sarcastic, high-pitched, ‘thank you’ echoed instantly back towards him from hundreds of fans in perfect unison. Bobby Robson said after the game that fans had got up at 4am to be there but the players woke up 15 minutes too late. I was a gangly 6”6 eighteen year old who had crammed in a space not meant for human occupancy in my Dad’s friend’s car for the journey down. A mix tape played punk and new wave, sausage rolls, ham and pease pudding sarnies and crisps were passed around the increasingly crumb-filled seats and cans of lager were sipped discretely down the A1. My third role as a Newcastle United supporter was a backseat away day fan.
Only 10 months later, I swapped the floor of a banged out vehicle for the seat of a plane as I got my passport and Italian phrasebook out for a trip to Milano. I didn’t have any vivid expectations of this trip as I’d never been to Italy, nor to a European away game so it was beyond my imagination to picture what awaited us. We’d been on family holidays to Spain for many years and spotting a black and white top was always greeted with slight surprise, before a knowing nod and smile or a quick, ‘Toon Army!’ depending on how many pints of Mahou we’d had at that point. What I saw by Milan’s Duomo could only be described as a Gothic Leazes End, as a sea of black and white covered the area like a beer-soaked blanket. On match day, the Milanese and the Geordies mingled amiably and as the clock ticked towards kick off there were scenes of Inter fans and Newcastle fans posing for photos together and exchanging scarves. If only the Polizia and Carabinieri had shown such civility as we entered the San Siro, as lighters and coins were taken from us and riot shields butted us towards the entry. The concrete steps became a waterfall of piss, as the sinks, fountains and floors were used as auxiliary toilets for the bladder(ed). Once standing somewhere in the region of our allocated ticket, we settled in among a tidal wave of black and white which bellowed, crashed and swayed as one. The stand moved with us and the noise was deafening as flares and bottles rained from the home fans above, apparently not deemed as dangerous as the cigarette lighter of an away fan. Shearer! Limbs. My fourth role as a Newcastle United supporter was a euphoric, European fan.
Newcastle United 2-3 Liverpool, May 4th 2019 is the last time I set foot inside St. James’ Park. I had been on the edge of protest and boycott for the majority of the Mike Ashley era and was always pulled back by the scruff of my neck just as I prepared to jump. Like many others, I had wrestled with the efficacy of protest as well as the conscience of commitment that comes as a lifelong supporter. I’d seen worse teams, I’d seen two relegations and I’d seen worse managers but the nagging feeling just wouldn’t go away that I needed to walk away for a while. Mike Ashley wouldn’t miss my money, the brand would not be damaged by my empty seat and ultimately my actions would not achieve anything. I knew all of this but I could no longer see the point in doing something I had done for 25 years. Benitez, whether it was genuine emotion or clever PR, had convinced me that there was hope and a chance of ambition being wrestled from the sweaty grip of Ashley’s palms. When he left, that hope left with him and I left with it. My fifth role as a Newcastle United supporter was an empty seat.
Furlough lasted four months for me and the initial month was spent drinking too much wine and whiskey while watching box sets I’d never had the time to indulge in. Weight was gained, brain cells were lost and hours were spent enjoying doing absolutely nothing. I eventually moved into the second phase of lockdown and bought an exercise bike, started working out at home and opened up my dusty laptop to begin writing again. I’ve been interested in writing for as long as I remember and as a teenager I would often write lyrics, poems and anything else creative while blasting Nirvana and The Smiths into my ears, through my oversized headphones which would become popular and cool many years later. Two degrees and six years of study forced me into replacing creativity with the structure of academic writing and I fell out of love with the whole process as my brain became tired of the endless research, analysis and assessment. When I returned to creative writing, it made sense that Newcastle United was to be the topic of my musings as I had spent so many years of my life engaging with it in my different roles. It was an instantly cathartic experience, allowing the freedom of expression that conversation rarely permits as others eagerly await their turn to speak. I could empty my brain onto the screen and see everything I’d pictured right there in black and white. My sixth role as a Newcastle United supporter was a writer.
I won’t return to St. James’ Park until Mike Ashley has departed and I won’t return to sitting beside strangers for two hours until COVID-19 has done likewise. My seventh role as a Newcastle United supporter will be as a returning voice to the terrace, after a self-imposed exile that has proven as ineffective as suspected in its vain hope to remove the man responsible for my angst. Each role I have experienced has contributed to who I am as a fan as well as a man and absence was a necessary step on this lifelong journey. I never walked away but I needed to take a step back in order to move forward. However, I now find myself stationary, held in position by the bureaucratic inertia of the Premier League and PIF. I remain in my sixth role, with no sign of seventh heaven and returning home to that smell of a thousand Dads. The thick, old, wooden door remains closed and my lanky frame hunches over the keyboard. Eyes shut, imagining.