It’s FA Cup weekend! Newcastle United are just six wins away from a trophy! Or, as the Mike Ashley era would suggest - six immediate exits, six at the next round and one quarter-final in an empty stadium. Remember when we used to reach semi-finals and finals?
I can almost hear every black and white soul born into this millennium cry, ‘What is this final thing, you speak of?’ It is one of many sad indictments of the Mike Ashley era that, as their peers from Portsmouth, Cardiff, Stoke, Wigan, Hull and other seemingly lesser clubs have enjoyed the ultimate stage of a Wembley final, an entire generation of Newcastle United fans have never experienced such an event. Cheers, Mike.
My first memory of Newcastle United and the FA Cup Final is the 1997-98 season, against Arsenal. It was our first appearance in this tournament’s final in twenty-four years, since losing to Liverpool in 1974. It's hard to believe now but, at this time, Arsenal and Newcastle were tied on six FA Cup wins each as Arsenal made their thirteenth appearance in the final, to Newcastle’s eleventh. Since that day, Arsenal have played in eight more finals and won seven of them. Newcastle have, well, we'll come to that.
(My Dad and my Uncle in 1974)
We had already lost twice to Arsenal during that season as they went on to win the Premier League but as a fourteen-year-old, I had drawn out the perfect plan to prevent them winning the double. It didn’t matter that we had struggled all season in the league after the loss of Shearer to injury and the sales of David Ginola and Sir Les. It didn’t matter that we finished 13th with John Barnes as our top Premier League scorer. We beat Barcelona 3-2, so surely anything was possible (although we did also sell Tino that January!).
I spent every school day between Shearer’s winner against Sheffield United and the final, drawing out formations, selections and tactics during lessons. Like all my classmates at that time, I was obsessed with Championship Manager so felt it was my duty as a recent treble winner to figure out how we beat the league winners. It wasn’t my fault that the mighty Ian Rush wasn’t available, that Dabizas hit the bar and that Shearer hit the post. I had it all worked out man, Kenny!
Some might say that it was typical Newcastle United fortune to eventually reach an FA Cup Final and face the Premier League and subsequent double winners. That the very next season saw us face the Premier League and subsequent treble winners reinforced the belief that we are a cursed club. Once again, it was a Shearer semi-final goal that kickstarted my Championship Manager analysis of the key to victory.
The belief you have as a fifteen-year-old is truly unshakable and despite once again finishing 13th in the Premier League, I convinced myself that the legendary midfield of Beckham, Scholes, Keane and Giggs was no match for Lee, Speed, Hamann and Nobby. Shearer and the mad Georgian could bully May and Johnsen and Dabizas and Charvet could handle Cole and Solskjaer (this last part may have been an error on my part).
This was it, we were winning this one! It wasn’t my fault that Roy Keane’s ankle was softer than Gary Speed’s boot, triggering Sheringham to come on and score 96 seconds later. I had it all worked out man, Ruud!
To the younger generation, it must be inconceivable that we reached two successive finals. To sixteen year old me, it seemed perfectly natural that we had the opportunity to reach a third. This time we had Sir Bobby, we had a fully fit Shearer scoring 23 league goals and, most importantly, we had the chance to face Aston Villa or Bolton in the final. There was no Premier League winner awaiting us this time!
(My Dad at Wembley)
That semi-final against Chelsea is probably the Newcastle United game that hurt me the most in my life. They say it’s the hope that kills you and this year offered genuine hope when Rob Lee leapt like the beautiful salmon that he is to score our first Wembley goal in a generation to equalise Poyet’s opener. 66 minutes gone, 1-1. This was our year.
Apparently it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all and for five minutes I was lost in love with every positive emotion there is, before the Uruguayan mackem brought me crashing back down to earth. It’s a cruel, cruel game and many fans list that day alongside the 'lost title' as the biggest heartache in their black and white lives.
Those three consecutive years came at an age before I started travelling to away games but London became the Toon Army’s home from home in Spring. For me, it was a family gathering in the living room with my Mam, younger brother and Grandparents. Except it wasn’t the living room as we knew it, as I meticulously covered every chair with a Newcastle flag, every hanging frame with a black and white scarf and hung every spare Toon shirt from every inch of the picture rail. The Match and Shoot pullouts were blu-tacked to the wall as the cardboard and foil FA Cup sat proudly alongside the bulky, low definition TV on the mahogany cabinet. No streams back then, lads.
My spare Newcastle t-shirts and sweatshirts were handed out to those who had failed to grasp the theme of the day when getting dressed that morning, as I buzzed with a nervous anticipation. In the days before social media, the build-up came from ringing mates on the landline and watching terrestrial television’s lengthy schedule.
I’ve heard it said that cup final day in the '70s and '80s rivalled Christmas Day as an event in the calendar and, although it had lost some of that by the late '90s, it remained a special day. Build-up ranged from team hotel interviews with cutting edge questions about breakfast menu options to guides on face painting and, of course, the cringeworthy tradition of the FA Cup Final songs.
My Grandparents were usually asleep by kick-off and my Mam and brother would soon depart, after losing the little interest they had feigned to that point. I was the lone magpie ranger, pacing out the four cans my Dad had bought me for the occasion. I do wonder what age I was when I lost that ability to pace myself.
For three consecutive years I was the definition of teenage angst post-match, as my pubescent hormones were incapable of perspective or reasoning. I did not have sufficient alcohol to drown my sorrows and I did not have social media to vent cathartically into an echo chamber.
The familial attendees were more spectator than fan and the only person who was capable of consoling me on those occasions, the only person who understood why I was upset at a game of football, was hundreds of miles away.
(My Dad and his mates in London)
On each occasion, he rang me that evening and reassured me that it just wasn’t our year and that we would get back there soon for another chance. He was right in 1998 and he was right in 1999. Two out of three ain’t bad, Dad.
As we tune in from home on Saturday tea-time, I’ll remember those days in the family living room. I have my own children now but they are too young to even feign interest and my wife has long given up that charade. My Dad isn’t hundreds of miles away this time but pandemic precautions are this year’s A1 and M1, keeping us apart.
As unlikely as it is, some might say that it would be typical Newcastle United fortune to eventually reach another FA Cup Final in its second season without fans. It is over twenty years since that last visit to Wembley and none of us are getting any younger.
Though I have since been everywhere from Blackburn to Milan with the old man, I always assumed that I’d get a chance in adulthood to accompany him and his mates down to London for some overpriced lager and another shot at the trophy. Although my Championship Manager days are long gone, I had it all worked out man!
Howay the lads.