Now that we have a new manager and are waiting for the potential new signings, let's go back to one of the better times in the 2014-15 season, last December. Newcastle handed then-undefeated Chelsea their first defeat and were challenging for a Europa Cup spot heading into the Emirates. Newcastle was down to their third choice goalkeeper, with injuries to Tim Krul and Rob Elliot giving Jak Alnwick his first start at the Emirates.
It was also my first trip to see Newcastle United play in person. Brian, one of Toon Army Chicago's founding members, works for a major international airline. He set me up with a direct flight from Chicago to Heathrow. I could not join him on an earlier flight due to work, so I was on the last flight of the night.
Since I was flying standby, I was at the mercy of availability. This meant I was stuck in a middle seat for 8 hours overnight. I tried and failed miserably to sleep on the plane. Despite the lack of sleep, I had no problem with this. I was seeing the Toon play in person in 36 hours!
Pre-Match - The Day Before
After getting through customs and arriving at the hotel, Brian and I wandered around west London. We had our first pint after my arrival near Stamford Bridge. We walked around in search of a place to eat, other football grounds, and more pubs to explore.
After visiting the Bridge, we took the short walk over to Fulham's Craven Cottage. Located on the River Thames, Craven Cottage was at different times the home to US internationals Kasey Keller, Clint Dempsey, and Carlos Bocanegra. The size of the ground and close proximity to Stamford Bridge and QPR's Loftus Road still left me in awe of how close three high level professional football clubs can be to each other and develop their fan bases domestically.
We ended the night checking out the London parks near Craven Cottage and the River Thames before heading to bed in order to be ready for match day.
Pre-Match - Matchday Pub Crawl
There are 3 lessons I learned on this trip:
1) Do not try to match a Geordie beer for beer
2) England is not the best place for beer if you like hoppy ales
3) Do not try to match a Geordie beer for beer
Our day started around 10am as we took the Tube from our hotel, near Heathrow, to Kings Cross. Brian and I wandered around the corner to Millers Pub, the same pub that would later see Newcastle fans attacked after the QPR match. The pub is a popular first (and last) pub for football fans traveling to London due to its close proximity to Kings Cross and St. Pancreas train stations.
We waited for our friends to all join us. Danny and his friend Andrew were coming in from Newcastle. Jonty, whose family lives in London, brought along his brother David for the journey. While we waited, we talked with other Newcastle fans who took earlier trains that morning.
There was plenty of banter between us and the Geordies at the pub. We shared stories of matches of years past, our fans back in Chicago, and the rise of Premier League popularity in the USA. Brian also talked a lot about about the many matches he has attended in the past year, where he was called "crazy" many times. The conversations got especially interesting when we showed them the Toon Army Chicago flag and our business cards. They were instantly excited both about the design and the fact that there are more than just us back in the States.
Our friends arrived with the tickets, and we enjoyed a couple more pints. Danny was able to secure an extra ticket for David, and he was eager to go with us. We talked about our travels and the day before. After saying hello and catching up, the conversations' focus turned to the match. We were all buzzing after beating Chelsea the week before, yet none of us were expecting lightning to strike twice. We highly suspected Jak Alnwick's debut performance the week before was a one-off, and we did not expect much from again. Conversations quickly turned back to how crazy Brian and I were flying over solely for the match.
After settling up and grabbing food along the way, we ended up at a couple pubs a long walk from the Emirates. The first place was the King's Head Theatre. There was a piano in the middle of the pub at which people were singing Christmas carols.
After a couple more pints we headed closer to the stadium and popped into the White Swan. There were still a few lingering Arsenal fans and a few other Toon fans shoved off into a corner near the front of the place. We were able to get drinks, but it involved people going to the bar one by one.
Our final watering hole was Drayton Park, located directly across the street from the away fans entrance. The Premier League Away Days app recommends it, presumably due to its proximity to the away fans entrance. We were barely allowed in the place because it was already packed to the brim with Geordies. Naturally the singing started early.
And there were the beer showers. Lots and lots of beer showers.
The singing didn't stop at the pub, either. The Emirates is not only across the street, but the away end entrance is right there, too!
Another foreign fan attempted to take our picture outside the Emirates. He was equally inebriated as the rest of us, so this was the best we could do.
Once on the concourse, the singing continued...all the way to our seats.
Along with the singing came...you guessed it, more beer showers. This time it rained lagers instead of ale like at Drayton Park. Eventually we made it to our seats. I promise!
I got lost in the crowd and ended up on the wrong side of the away end. Eventually I got to my seat and was greeted by this magnificent view!
My first impression of the Emirates crowd was...holy crap this place is quiet! I heard about the "Library at Highbury" before, but I was not expecting it to be this quiet! How can a 60,000+ seat stadium be devoid of cheering of any home crowd cheering?
Fortunately, Newcastle's fans were eager to pick up the slack. We filled the grounds with singing and jumping the entire 90 minutes. Our serenading of the Emirates alternated between cheering on our lads and goading the Emirates faithful to sing, shout, or do something other than sit there in silence!
...And then Arsenal scored. And again. And again. And again. We all know the scoreline (4-1). Even after the cheering for goals (and the stupid gunner flags you expect NFL cheerleaders to run with in the end zone) died down, the Toon Army kept on singing. Regardless of the temperature, the score, or the home support, Newcastle fans cheer on their lads.
Post-Match - Mostly A Blur
After the loss, we had our heart set on drinking, so drink we did. We also met up with Danny's cousin Shane, Danny's friend Brodie, and Sass. Sass is a Geordie living in London whose nickname is "The Growler". More on that later.
Where did we go? I have to be honest and say that I don't have a clue. I recently asked Danny where we went, and all he can remember was we doubled back to Islington High Street where we were earlier. I remember one stop where a bar had a double IPA in a bottle. I screamed "HOPS!!!" and thoroughly enjoyed it. Looking back on it, a double IPA after a steady stream of ales and lagers was not my finest choice. Regardless, I enjoyed it and we moved on.
There was a stop for Five Guys for some reason along the way, and then we went back to another bar. The last bar of the night had American craft beers, and it was something I was craving once again. Unfortunately, I had my first ever encounter of being cut off in an establishment. Someone bought me a round anyway, and I enjoyed it.
Remember how I mentioned Sass and his nickname of "The Growler"? I found out way very quickly. Anytime he gets drunk, he loses the ability to speak and only growl. The growls got longer and lower-pitched until he passed out on a full beer, dumping it all over the table and everyone around us. Brian and I took this as our signal to head back to the hotel.
We also received a little bit of verbal abuse on the Tube ride back to Heathrow. There were a couple rather snotty female Arsenal supporters sitting across from us. Without any hesitation, they repeatedly called us stupid for coming all the way to London just for a football match. She also wished she had her scarf in her oversized handbag to "rub it in our faces". The smack talk stopped when I called her a glory hunter and challenged her to name 5 players in the squad. She argued instead of proving me, and they got off the train long before we did. Brian and I had a long laugh after that.
We took the first bus we saw after leaving the Heathrow Tube stop. When we got off the bus, we saw our final photo op to for our trip. Despite the snow flurries, we took quick pictures in front of this pub and called it a night. We both were pretty disgusted with the match, and we were eager to take an early flight back to Chicago.
The Way Home
The following morning we took the short bus ride from our hotel to Heathrow, got on the plane, and flew home. The time back gave me some time to reflect and try and piece together the pubs after the match. I never did piece together that night, but the reflections were good.
I could not have been more proud to be a Newcastle fan after being a part of a crowd that cheered on the lads for the entire 90 minutes. It gave me a better appreciation for their dedication to the Toon and how much fun away days really are!
I also watched the matches when I got home a little bit differently. It was easier to pick out songs sung in the away end or the Strawberry Corner when at home matches. When a home side's fans are completely silent, you can hear the fans goading them on to cheer their home side (this typically happens in London).
I implore each and every single one of you who reads this: If you get the chance to see the Toon in England, do anything possible to do it. The trip reinforced how incredible its supporters are and how welcoming they are to anyone who joins them in a black and white shirt, enjoys a pint of their favorite beverage, and cheers on their beloved Newcastle United.
This trip also checked off a list of football stadiums I wanted to visit for a match. The Emirates is a gorgeous stadium with excellent sight lines. It's a damn shame the Arsenal fans couldn't be bothered to show some enthusiasm.
The trip made me even more excited for my next trip over to England. That trip fulfilled a dream I've had since I started following Newcastle United: A trip to Newcastle and a match at St. James's Park!