Space On Our Arms

Like most children in Newcastle, I grew up waving my Dad off as he went to the match with his mates. I’d stick the radio on in the dining room and listen to the commentary, often with my eyes closed trying to imagine the picture, and then read the programme and The Pink when he brought them home.

The first game I remember seeing on TV was the 7-1 win vs Leicester in May 1993, sitting on my Nana’s floor thinking how jealous I was of every one of the 30,000 (ish) fans inside that sun-drenched ground that day.

I didn’t have to wait long. I remember the morning my Dad gave me my first ticket; Wednesday September 22nd 1993 for Notts County at home in the Coca-Cola Cup. I was nine years old and think I told every one of the kids in my primary school at some stage during the day that I was going to the match. My Dad and his mates used to drink in The Milburn beforehand or start even earlier at someone’s flat in Queen’s Court on Barrack Road, which they nicknamed ‘The Palace’. My Dad was a nurse, as was another lad, one was a structural engineer and the other worked in TV and film. The four of them had season tickets and had been going since the 70s (they still sit together now). ‘The Palace’ was definitely far from palatial, a sofa with a missing leg propped up by a stack of books and a mannequin wearing shiny lingerie and fishnet stockings is my lasting memory of that first visit. Cans of beer, punk music and on to The Milburn. As it was an evening game, children weren’t allowed in so the doorway became a gathering of youths with their Dads inside. The excited chatter of anticipation outside the pub interrupted only by the occasional door opening to hand out half a flat coke from the smoke-filled room. Newcastle won 4-1, including a hat-trick from Andy Cole and that was it. I was hooked.

I’m 37 this year and over the 28 years since my first game, I’ve seen hundreds of games in person and hundreds more on TV. I’ve been to Wigan and Milan (where I can confirm there are no mackems) and everywhere in between. I’ve seen Cole, Ferdinand and Shearer and I’ve seen Cort, Luque and Cordone. I’ve seen the Champions League and The Championship. In other words, I’ve been there, done that, got the toon shirts (and the tattoo). My Dad got the crest on his 40th birthday and pointed below it, down his arm when he returned from Ossie’s on Byker Bridge, ‘Plenty room to add more when we win something.’ His arm has seen nothing but freckles and skin cancer since that day but I seemingly saw it as a great idea and got the same tattoo the following year as I turned 18.

As you get older, your matchday experience changes and mine went from a glass of coke to sneaking half a lager to six pints by kick off in the blink of an eye. I started to think about my Dad and his mates and how they all had professional jobs but come match day would drink, shout, laugh and swear before stumbling home ahead of another week at work. I remember him explaining to me as a kid that I would hear some words that I might not have heard before and that I’d likely hear them from him and that it was ok while at the match but not to repeat them at home or in school. I’m not sure how old I was but I’ll always remember that night, getting the ok to swear in front of my Dad. I took full advantage, of course. Swearing wasn’t the only thing we wouldn’t tell my Mam about when we got home as I remember her always asking about the other lads and their families and how people were and my Dad never having any detail to offer as he’d never asked! She’d always say, ‘How can you spend all day with them and not know anything? What do you talk about?’ To which my Dad would just shrug and say, ‘Nowt, really!’ Of course, it wasn’t ‘nowt’ but it was who we thought would play that day, our ‘expert’ analysis of the selection and tactics of the previous week, what music we’d been listening to, how quickly we fell asleep on the sofa the previous weekend and how attractive the new barmaid was. None of this was deemed appropriate to relay to our wife/Mam, so ‘nowt’ it was.

Newcastle United was the all-important Father-Son bond for me and my Dad. He liked DIY, gardening and running and I hated all of that but talking about football, watching football and going to the match was where we found our common ground. As I got older, his mates became my mates also and we’d go on weekend breaks to Barcelona, Dusseldorf and Cologne to watch football, drink and chat about ‘nowt’. I remember being on a train in Germany travelling back from watching FC Koln to find out that Cabaye had scored at Old Trafford and we’d beat Man Utd. A carriage of Geordies singing, ‘Don’t sell Cabaye…’ to bemused locals. Great memories.

A questionable tattoo wasn’t the only thing I copied from my Dad. He was also a Labour member and a union member and that political upbringing influenced my views and I too became a Labour member as an adult. I went to Durham University when I was 18 and studied politics but it was around the time of the EU referendum that I really became involved in it. The internet and social media allow you to be as immersed in a subject as you like and I became lost in politics during that period, which carried on into the recent General Election. I’d spend hours reading articles, researching statistics to back up the many arguments I’d get myself into on social media, campaigning door-to-door and generally annoying my wife with my obsession. I’d even find myself talking about it in the pub (which was now The Strawberry) on match days, to which my Dad would soon advise me to ‘leave politics out of it’ when it came to accepted topics of match day conversations.

This same advice would be repeated prior to family gatherings and I began to realise that not everyone shared my point of view and some people simply didn’t want to talk about politics. I’d become so immersed in it that I hadn’t stopped to think that maybe people just weren’t as into it as I was. At the time, I couldn’t believe that people didn’t want to know the details of EU funding or that people didn’t want to hear about the statistics around food bank use over the last decade. I’d forgotten that all important ‘nowt’ quality to match day craic. It didn’t mean that my Dad and his mates weren’t clued up on it, or interested in it just like it didn’t mean that they wouldn’t vote and care about what happened. It just meant that it wasn’t why they went to the pub on a Saturday. They were all professionals and spent the week having to act like it. Saturday was their day to be different. Lesson learned, and I continued to read, research and campaign but focused on controlling the things that I could. I stopped thinking that I had any influence over national and international politics but that I could do my bit by voting, donating to the food bank and getting as involved in local politics as time allowed. On match days, I returned to what music I was listening to, who we should be playing in midfield and whether the new barmaid was better or worse than the last. My mental health thanked me for it.

Recent weeks have seen others attempt to force politics on me and my football team and, frankly, I’m not having it. You see, with politics you can be held to account if what you vote for doesn’t work out too well and people can point to your vote as being complicit in it, ‘Hey, this is what you voted for. You asked for this.’ There’s a direct link between voter and outcome, however small it may be. Newcastle fans did not vote for our prospective new owners and there is therefore no direct link between us and their takeover. Of course, we’ve all wanted Ashley out of our club for a while now with a varying degree of intensity and animosity but none of us chose the specific replacement. We don’t have that power. However, some people seem to think we have the power to stop it and indeed that we ought to.

There are two issues with this, firstly that we have no such power. Newcastle fans are perhaps the best example you can find of how powerless a fanbase is when it comes to ownership. We have watched over 13 years of mismanagement and felt an increasing sense of impotence as protests, banners, chants, boycotts and more have failed to make the impact we wanted. To suggest that we have the power to influence the international reputation of our new owners or to derail their attempts to use Newcastle United as part of their image project is as ridiculous as pointing out that they’re using us. Yes, we know. Use away! What football club owner isn’t using the club and the fans for their own gain? It isn’t the sport of philanthropists.

The second issue is the motivation for us to act this way in the first place. A recent NUST poll showed 97% of fans who responded were in favour of the takeover. So why should it be 50,000 Geordies who act as the moral compass to guide international relations? Why should it be us who take a stand against state ownership of sports clubs? We’ve spent years asking, ‘Why Man City and not us?’ Well, now it is us and why shouldn’t we enjoy it? Has the joy of a win ever been tempered by reflection on who owns your club? As the infamous Martin Tyler scream of ‘Aguerooooo!’ signalled Man City’s final day league win after 44 years without success, did The Etihad pause to consider the intentions of Sheikh Mansour’s involvement? Being excited that our club and city might get the levels of investment and success as Man City does not mean that we are ignorant to events in Saudi Arabia, it may surprise some condescending national journalists but we do have education up here. Dreaming of Europe rather than relegations does not mean that we are complicit in human rights issues. Wanting the new owners to succeed in their takeover does not hold us responsible for the actions of their state thousands of miles away. It isn’t ignorance, it isn’t turning a blind eye, it’s accepting what you can control and what you can’t. We didn’t vote for them, so leave politics out of it.

I’ve seen suggestions that we would be losing the identity of our club as we would become nothing but a marketing tool for the owners. This made me think, what is our identity anyway? How does the country and the world see Newcastle United? Our once great stadium is dirty and neglected, our training facilities are a throwback to the old Maiden Castle days which eventually became my training facilities as I went to Durham University, our team has gone from title challengers and European regulars to perennial relegation candidates, our transfer ambitions have gone from world records to bargain loans. What is the remaining identity of the club after 13 years as the advertising branch of Mike Ashley’s empire? It is us, the fans. We represent our club and have continued to do so during the lowest spells of the Ashley era. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as proud and emotional as I did during and after the Spurs game as we went down to The Championship. Already relegated, full stadium, great atmosphere, great performance. United. The record Championship attendances, the sold-out away ends around the country, the continued support despite generations of failure, the gallows humour, the #cans. We are the identity of this club and no owners could ever change that.

The final suggestion I’ve seen is that we walk away, that no owner wants an empty stadium to be the image the world sees of their club and that would force them to leave. They must have missed the part where young kids become hooked as a nine year old, bond with their Dad, where his friends become theirs, where they travel the country and the continent, where one day a week everyone gets to be someone other than their professional self. We don’t handpick our football team up here, so keep your football craic to ‘nowt’ and let us dream. There’s space on our arms that won’t fill itself.

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