During a recent opinion piece on Joelinton, I pondered whether, without being at football matches, fans were playing out their usual Saturday afternoon roles via their social media accounts. It was a fleeting thought and, as it wasn't the focus of the piece, it was shelved as a discussion for another day. Well, as there's no football to write about for two weeks, today is that day.
Since writing that piece, I have seen a number of comments on social media from Newcastle United fans calling for more positivity, support and encouragement from their keyboards. The implication being that the virtual negativity, pessimism and criticism coming from their peers is contributing towards player performance, team results and general feeling of rebellion and rejection within the fanbase.
"Do your job as a supporter and support the lads!"
As a local member of the Newcastle United fanbase, I'm no stranger to the role of match-attending supporter. I have made the five mile roundtrip to St. James' Park on countless occasions during my thirty-six years. I put on the black and white, arrange time off work and head to The Strawberry for pre-match libations. I support the team from my grey plastic seat, with now-perfected control over the volume of my bladder, so as not to disturb my ninety minute neighbours. I rise from my seat, I punch the air, I hug a stranger to communicate my emotions and I go back to the pub. Is this my job as a supporter?
As a long-distance member of the Green Bay Packers fanbase, I'm no stranger to the role of non-attending supporter. Although I have made the 7338 mile roundtrip on a couple of occasions, the majority of my ten years in green and gold have involved donning my jersey, arranging time off work and adapting my sleep pattern for late night / early morning television viewing. I support the team from my living room, with now-perfected control over the volume of my shouts, so as not to disturb my neighbours. I rise from the sofa, I punch the air, I send a Tweet to communicate my emotions and I go to bed. Is this my job as a supporter?
COVID-19 and the UK Government's insistence that open-air stadiums are far greater transmission risks than an indoor pub, restaurant or cinema has made all of us non-attending supporters. We have no choice in the matter and now I support Newcastle United at home to Burnley in the exact same way that I support Green Bay at home to Atlanta. 2.5 miles may as well be 3669 miles.
The players can no longer hear our encouragement and the usual exchange of adrenaline stimuli is postponed: their tempo is no longer influenced by our actions as we have all been reduced to long-distance supporters, out of audible range. They can not see the team colours on our bodies just as they can not feel the breeze of fifty-thousand punches of the NE1 air. The internal level of our support has not altered but its external influence has been rendered impotent.
Anything we do on match days now is for our ourselves, not the team. Putting on our black and white is to make us feel normal, relevant, united and part of something outside of our four walls. It has been repeated many times recently that football without fans is nothing. Well, perhaps fans without football are nothing: lost wandering around living rooms with a can in hand, muttering about formations to the cat.
Social media is different things to different people but it has become a temporary refuge for those who are currently nothing in the world of Newcastle United. Of course, for those who are full-time long-distance supporters, social media is how they connect with a fanbase they rarely have the chance to interact with in person. It is their 'berry, their concrete concourse, their plastic seat.
What of the temporary refugees, though? Those who are usually found inside football grounds for nine months of the year, yet have not been allowed to enter one for seven long months. These are the people experiencing the biggest culture shock and struggling to find their role in this temporary version of football.
Football grounds and matchday pubs are filled with eternal optimists, curmudgeonly critics and every blend of the between and it is in these buildings where they play out their roles. The people around them, whether lifelong friends or someone who happened to take the adjacent seat, are their sounding board.
It is here where their views are agreed with, countered and adjusted over hours, weeks and months of discussion and debate. It is here where the unreasonable is introduced to reason, as real life is rarely the echo chamber experienced in virtual reality. It is here where alternative views are offered, argued, accepted and rejected within the arena of face-to-face civility and decency. I've never received a death threat in The Trent.
So why, then, does the online version of our black and white lives often reject this nuanced middle ground of opinion in favour of polemics? The initial inspiration for this piece, Joelinton, has become almost a taboo word within the NUFC hashtag as the very mention of his name is tracked down by the 'every little thing he does is magic' police. You either show your undying support for him, review his every touch as excellent and defend him to the hilt or you are not a supporter! But...what if I think he was just decent? 'It's people like you who are the problem, Andy!'
It appears that you are either all in or all out on every topic as the social media ultras have drawn their virtual battle lines. You are with me or against me, pro or anti, there is no room for the in between as your job as a supporter is to support and if you aren't doing that in the way that I define it, then you are not a supporter.
Progressing to the quarter final of the cup via penalties against a fourth division team is something you will celebrate unreservedly or find yourself another club, mate! But...what if I have concerns about the performance? 'It's people like you who are the problem, Andy!'
Newcastle United sits in 9th position in the Premier League and has only lost one game all season, you will acknowledge the brilliance of Bruce, the players, the transfer policy and all who sail in St. James' Park or you must be a mackem! But...what if I am worried about the tactics and sustainability of luck? 'It's people like you...' You get the picture.
Has our justifiable belief as football fans that we matter and that we genuinely influence performances and results spilled over into our online lives and we haven't yet accepted the new reality we find ourselves in?
Do we really think that a blog review, a Tweet or a comment that is, or isn't, 100% positive is having an impact on what happens on a Saturday or Sunday? What exactly is our job as a supporter when our place of work is closed? Perhaps people like me would be the problem if this is how I acted in the Leazes End but what does it matter how I act in my home?
No Green Bay Packers result has ever been influenced by a daft Geordie awake at 3 am in Fenham, however much he cares about it all. The same applies for Newcastle United.
Adjusting to this reality as a Newcastle fan is a different experience when it is not the one I have grown up with but perhaps my experience with Green Bay has eased the adjustment. I know what I am and I know that, personally, my job as a supporter is to maintain sufficient interest and sanity during my enforced absence from real life, so that I am able to return to it when permitted.
This interest and sanity is maintained in the middle ground of debate, disagreement and discussion. An extreme viewpoint is rarely a place you will find the sane and you only need to look around Twitter's cult leaders and their followers to realise this. Nothing about football is real right now and I'm neither all in, nor all out. Not everything is black and white and it's the grey area that is keeping my grey matter going. I support the lads but I'm really not sure what my job is.