Today marks exactly one year since I was last inside a pub, as I joined two friends in an eerily quiet Town Wall for a few afternoon pints before the impending lockdown. With the place to ourselves, elbow bumps for greetings and farewells book-ended echoed conversations - none of us knowing just how long it would be until we could meet again.
Although it wasn’t a match day, this macabre milestone made me think about how this time away from taprooms has impacted the lives of football supporters such as myself. Of course, this net could be cast over a wider section of society but there is something different about this city, this club, this pastime and how they intrinsically link with the many drinking establishments.
Newcastle has a uniquely symbiotic relationship between city and football club, with the stadium in the heart of a bustling city centre. When it is a city centre that includes around two-hundred pubs, match days elevate this relationship to another level. It becomes more than a pub.
The pub has been part of my match day experience for as long as I can remember and, although the pubs of choice have changed over the years, the event of pre-match and post-match drinking has not. It is a ritual, practiced and perfected over decades of devotion to the black and white (and amber nectar).
I love the early buzz around the city pre-match as the streets start to fill with fans - that short journey down Barrack Road from Fenham and the crowd around the ground of television crews, away coaches and the mingling of fans around Shearer and Sir Bobby sets the hairs on edge, even after all this time.
Pre-match is the time for optimism after a long week at work and, for me, drinking is always for a minimum of two hours, depending on the antics of the night before. I have been known to nurse a single pint for this entire duration, while contemplating my life decisions, but generally it involves around five continental beers of around 5% strength.
This quantity has been well-researched and established as a sufficient level of inebriation to remember the entirety of the game but have my senses dulled just enough to get through what is more often that not, absolute torture. It is also a well-practiced routine which has led to the ability of my bladder to stretch sufficiently to survive exactly 45 minutes before a run down the concrete steps of The Leazes End to the overcrowded urinal.
The hours spent in the pub pre-match is the time to catch up on what music everyone’s been listening to, perhaps even sharing an ear bud as you enthusiastically describe the track over the increasingly-loud hustle and bustle of the bar. Other topics of conversation include how drunk everyone was after the last game (very), where everyone disappeared to (no idea), how they got home (bus, maybe?), which takeaway they got (Chinese, washed down with four more cans) and how hungover they were the following day (surprisingly fresh).
Pre-match is also the time for limitless positivity and predictions, for picking your starting eleven and for pointing at league tables in the morning's papers before imprinting your ink-stained fingers around your pint glass. It is a time to leave behind whatever has been bothering you in the real world all week. That is all forgotten for one afternoon and whatever happened the previous match is history, you’ve pressed the reset button and anything is possible. Pre-match pub is always, always, great.
Post-match pub is a different experience. For a start, on a practical level, your usual pre-match spot has been taken by someone who was willing to risk missing Gouffran and Gayle beating Norwich in stoppage time because they wanted a seat and a table. You know who you are.
You also don’t necessarily have everyone from your group who was there pre-match as people head home straight after the game for a variety of reasons I’ve yet to comprehend. The way the matchday traffic is in town, you might make it half a mile away from the ground as the rest of us move onto post-match pint number two so what's the point? Whatever you need to do to convince yourself or your partner that you're not an alcoholic degenerate is none of my business, though, I guess.
Most importantly, post-match is dependent on the two hours during which you left the limitless positivity of the pub for the reality of the football pitch. It can be a very different environment if those two things didn’t match up and anger and disappointment can make the beer taste different and a big night out becomes a last bus home, as the collective mood shifts.
That time to get it off your chest and argue with each other about how shit players are or how the manager hasn’t got a clue is important because, let’s face it, whoever is waiting for you at home doesn’t want to hear about it. The post-match pub is your free therapy when a result hasn’t gone your way, a chance to decompress while you drown your sorrows.
Conversely, when you win (try hard to remember what that feels like) it’s an extension of the party you’ve been on since you left the house. The pre-match positivity is enhanced by the result and suddenly you’re getting an extra round in, thinking shots are a good idea and riding the alcoholic wave up the league table. Get in!
Without it, without all of this, the experience of being a football supporter has completely changed. The pub's multiple roles as a social hub offering a familiar welcome, a party atmosphere and a complimentary therapy session have had no alternatives suitable to replace them. Even if they did, it would involve several different venues to do so, for the pub is the one-stop shop for all of your emotional needs.
It is bad enough that our match experience has been stripped back to turning on a television but the removal of the pub has taken away our mental safe place during unsafe times. Right when we could all use the certainty and reliability of what those hours in the pub pre- and post-match provide, we have been left to deal with the most uncertain of times without it.
If the pub was the place we went to escape the reality of the working week and those few hours were when we ranted and reset, then how could we possibly replicate such an effective therapy from our isolated homes?
If the pub was a place we felt welcomed by familiar faces and strangers alike, where we became part of a community and connected to something bigger than ourselves, how could that possibly be found in quarantine or socially-distanced lockdown?
If the pub was where our opinions on the football, as well as societal or political issues, were questioned, corrected or reinforced, how could this be replaced by the minefield that is the virtual alternative?
I can drink at home before and after the game, I can ring a mate or text my Dad but it just isn't the same. Football matches without the pub are like funerals without a wake. I experienced the latter for the first time last month and didn't know how to process, decompress or find closure without it.
I drank at home, I chatted with family on the phone but it didn't do what a wake has always done for me. Those hours drinking, chatting, reminiscing, telling funny stories and getting out whatever needs to come out is how I've always moved on. The family unit, the belonging, the embrace or the simple hand on a shoulder can not be provided by the digital replacement.
When those infrequent wins do come, or those last-minute equalisers are scored, there is no strut down the crowded cobbles towards The Strawberry. There is no clashing together of cigarette-scented jackets in a celebratory hug at the bar and no laughter echoing from every wall and pint glass. Instead, post-match leaves a silent, solitary, empty feeling of satisfaction - a shadow of its former glorious self. Nothing feels like it used to feel.
If anyone ever thought that the pub was just about drinking beer and chatting with your mates then this year has proven them wrong. I've drank beer, I've rang or texted my mates but, one year on, I still haven't adjusted to the loss of my ritual - nor have I replaced it. My relationship statuses with both Twitter and my local off license have gone from casual to serious but no number of tweets, crates or podcasts can replace that cocktail of beer, belonging and bonding in the brisk NE1 air.
Get me back on the roof of the 'berry. It's time gentlemen, please!