The referee may blow his whistle after ninety minutes, but that isn't how long football lasts. My Newcastle United initiation was in 1996 after being brainwashed by my Father for the first four years of my life. When most bairns would opt for a more colourfully decorated bedroom... Mine was black and white. As soon as I could walk, there was a football placed in front of me, in the hope I would become the next Kevin Keegan. For most Geordie bairns to don the famous black and white striped shirt was the ultimate dream, I was no different.
"It's time you came inside now" My Mam would often shout each night, as she could still hear the thudding of the football against the wall. Left-foot, right-foot and off my head, I'd practice every chance I could. Staying out late, playing on the cobbled backstreets in Scotswood, waiting for my Father to finish graft so I could play with him... Never complaining how shattered he was from a long and hard day at work, he'd not even set foot in the house before joining me and we'd talk about and play football. "C'mon, lad. You're Mam will kill me if we stay out much longer!" I would always begrudgingly agree, so my Father could avoid a telling off when he eventually got his foot through the door.
Poster upon poster plastered on my bedroom walls, all Newcastle United related. That's all I would think about and it's how me and my Father forged such a close relationship. It wasn't in school where I'd learn, it was attending games with my Father, whether it was the long talks on the way into town or during the lengthy car journeys to away games.
I remember my first trip to the magnificent cathedral on the hill, not for a game, just to walk around. It was something me and my Father would do regularly until a few years ago. I was in complete awe of the stadium, the feeling was unique. Butterflies were forming in my stomach "This is home," my Father said as he looked down at the beaming smile on my face. I was fortunate enough that my first game was the famous 3-2 victory over Barcelona in the Champions League. I was completely hooked, the emotions during ninety minutes of football are astonishing.
Those inside our beautiful cathedral on the hill have become like an extended family over the years. Often bumping into the same characters, we wouldn't talk about the stresses and strains in our lives, just about football. In these awful COVID-19 times, football may have continued but the life and soul has been sucked out of it. Celebrating a winning goal doesn't have the same unique feel when you're falling over the bairns' toys. If this last year or so has taught me anything, it's that football is so much more than a game. I miss the god awful playlists when travelling hundreds of miles for an away game. Cheesy pop music which is suddenly deemed more than acceptable, especially on an away day, the stench of the toilets on the coach or in the services, that one bloke who always fails to return to the coach after a stop off... It is all greatly missed.
Football isn't just a sport it's a sense of identity and belonging. Whether you wear black and white or any other colour, that's your identity and you are on the that rollercoaster ride of emotions with thousands of others in your extended family. There's nothing like arriving at your grey seat inside St James' Park and hearing Blaydon Races thundering out of the speakers. It is a special place, 52,000 people bursting into a crescendo of noise driving our black and white heroes on. The banging of the Gallowgate stand wall as another song travels around the ground, others banging their seats or stomping their feet, creating a truly unique noise.
The players can feel the noise, the energy created by that black and white wall adds an extra few percent. I miss the buzz of the city after a win, if anyone wants to know what happiness sounds and looks like - That is it, the unbridled joy, the thousands of smiling faces huddled together as they exit St James' Park and the laughter in the countless Newcastle bars. All this because of a game of football, the effect it has on your mood is extraordinary.
We live for a match day, some may not understand why we do it, why on earth do we travel thousands of miles each year to watch eleven people kick a ball? I do it for an escape, to set my mind free of the stresses and strains of life. I do it for the enjoyment, the sense of belonging and being a part of something incredibly special. For that sense of belonging and identity to be taken away from us over the last year, has been truly devastating. Seeing those lifeless, soulless and depressingly quiet stadiums tugs at the heartstrings, we cannot make a difference in the way we're so used to.
Football and specifically Newcastle United have been with me for the majority of my life, not being able to see the extended St James Park family has been difficult to stomach. We have an incredibly special day to look forward to, when we can all be a part of a full St. James' Park again, the noise and the black and white wall will return once again, along with the life and soul of the beautiful cathedral on the hill.