Over ten years ago I spent a summer looking for an English football club. The month or so I spent researching was largely pointless. I always knew which club I wanted to fall in love with, which club I wanted to make or (usually) break my weekends, and which club I wanted to be a part of me with no connection other than a screen.
It was always Newcastle United. There were so many reasons it’s hard to answer when people ask why I chose Newcastle. The stadium, the shirts, the history, and that ever present hope that the club could become something even better. I had little knowledge of Newcastle as a city outside of a scenes from the movie Goal, which for better or worse, acts as a brilliant advertisement for the city and club.
I’ve followed ten seasons of Newcastle now. I don’t need to tell you how those ten seasons have gone. I vividly remember the pain of selling Andy Carroll on deadline day just as much as the elation after that Papiss Cisse goal against Chelsea. I remember a warm Saturday morning in August 2007 when I groggily walked downstairs to my computer and found a stream for what would be my first match. It was sunny in Bolton that day, I could hardly make out the ball as the pixels seemed to just go wherever they pleased. In the 21st minute a blurry figure I knew to be Obafemi Martins scored an overhead kick to make it 2-0. It was a perfect goal in a perfect game that would offer no hint as to what was coming.
The next ten years came with so many lows, but enough highs for me to ignore what this club does to my mental health. It was the first season down in the Championship which created a real connection that wouldn’t go away unless the world ended. When you’re spending most of your weekend mornings listening to an illegal radio stream from the northernmost region of England, there’s hardly any going back.
There have been so many defining moments besides those. Celebrating like mad during the 4-4 against Arsenal, watching Ben Arfa at any point, finishing 5th, playing Benfica in the Europa League, two Championship titles, and stuffing Sunderland 5-1. I even made the front cover of The Chronicle during our darker days.
Since that first game I have woken up far too early almost every weekend between August and May. There have been so many days spent thinking about the upcoming match, scribbling out my ideal starting eleven while in class, singing songs about Cisse in my head, and daydreaming about finally making it to a match.
For all I knew the club or the city didn’t really exist. My only link with both was on screens, whether I was watching a match or reading a forum or newspaper, the stadium and city were both beautiful yet unattainable. St. James’ Park was essentially Hogwarts to me. Newcastle was simply a fantasy and a (poor) attempt at escapism.
My patience, excruciating as it was, paid off after a decade. Last autumn my girlfriend Antoinetta and I bought the cheapest plane tickets we could find to London. It lined up perfectly for a trip to Newcastle the weekend we played Arsenal. I had accepted my first in-person match (this is if you ignore two friendlies in America) would be a loss, but I was too excited to care. Thanks to ten years of entrenching myself on a Newcastle forum I was able to find a fellow supporter who could help me get tickets, and he did. (Thanks again, Paul)
After a few days of sight seeing in London we boarded a train at Kings Cross terminating in Inverness, calling at Newcastle. Knowing what was on the other side of the journey was surreal. I’ll always remember the train gliding above Durham, spotting the Angel of the North, and my first sight of the Tyne Bridge. This place that had for so long seemed made up was right in front of me.
We got in the day before the match, we went to the BALTIC, we walked through winding streets with no real destination, we sampled the nightlife (which I promise you is as crazy as its reputation). I knew I loved the city immediately. The architecture captured me instantly, so much old and so much new reaching above and around each other. I knew I wanted to visit and explore this place over and over again for the rest of my life.
We left our hotel two hours before kickoff and started the winding walk up from the River Tyne to St. James’ Park. It was a dreamlike journey surrounded by people who had made the same walk so many times. Little did they know there was an outsider doing for the first time what they have done their whole lives.
Outside of a few glimpses of the roof I hadn’t actually seen St. James’ Park yet. When we followed the bend of St. Andrews Street and I saw the back of the Gallowgate I grabbed Antoinetta’s wrist far too tightly. There I was just steps from something I wasn’t sure was real a few weeks before.
We grabbed in a drink in the Strawberry and stood in the middle of the pub. I spent the time drinking my pint of Brown Ale and turning my head in every direction to see the history on the walls. The physical evidence that this place existed and has existed for over a century. We left with about an hour until kickoff, I bought a program and we found the statues for photo ops. Some of the more surreal things to see were the ones I don’t really think about much, like walking through the club shop or going under the stadium near the player’s entrance.
Eventually, I squeezed my way through an impossibly small turnstile, ate a horrific hot dog, and headed to the pitch. The first thing I noticed was the smell of fresh cut grass, out of all the stadiums I’ve been to in the US I had never smelled it at a game. It lingered all match and I loved it. My first sight of green was overwhelming and unforgettable. At that point I was simply the boy in Sir Bobby’s famous quote.
We walked pitch-side, the sun was shining, the players were warming up, it was perfectly routine for most everyone but me. I tried to soak in every sense I could. We climbed to the top of the Gallowgate to claim our seats against the back wall, which was draped with a large black and white cloth I had never known was there. To my surprise I held back any tears until right before kickoff. The players walked out to Local Hero and the ten years of anticipation finally hit me all at once. Everyone took their place, I wiped away some water from my eyes, Ayoze took the kick off, the crowd roared, and that was it. I had made it.
As you know, the match went perfectly. All I wanted was to celebrate a goal, In the end I got two goals and three points. Ayoze scored the first, I could tell it was going in before it had and jumped up earlier than those around me. My fingers went through the netting above me and I wondered how many others had done the same before me during moments of elation.
The Sunday hangovers seemed to waning in the second half and the atmosphere got electric. It was pretty clear Arsenal were not at it, we looked much more dangerous and I started to realize this thousand mile journey was going to work out. Then of course there was Slimani’s header, Ayoze’s brilliant flick, and Ritchie’s finish. A game winning goal directly in front of me was the last thing I expected. The next 20 minutes I spent anxiously waiting for the final whistle and hoping somehow it would never come. I wanted a win, but I also wanted to never leave.
Eventually it did blow, we had three points and all but confirmed a place in the Premier League next season. I stood and belted Rafa Benitez’ name, applauded the players, then walked down the steps singing Blaydon Races. Soon enough we were on the concourse and at the top of stairway looking down on the city and the droves of fans heading to celebrate. It was bittersweet to leave, but it was everything I wanted. I had finally found the place I’d been looking for, I found a mass of smiling people in black and white, born an ocean away, yet I was one of them.