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 and listen to the commentary, with my eyes closed trying to imagine the picture. As I got older, I started to think about how they were all professionals and spent the week having to act like it, but Saturday was their day to be something else. Come match day, they would drink, shout, laugh and swear before stumbling home ahead of another week at work. The pub and the football ground strip away education, profession and upbringing and bring every corner of society together. It doesn’t matter if you’re a head teacher or a plumber, from Jesmond or Blakelaw, if you support The Toon then for those few hours you’re all the same and likely to be hugged like a long-lost relative when we score a goal. For those few hours, nothing else matters. However, recent weeks have seen others attempt to force the matter of politics on our fans and, frankly, I’m not having it.
I remember the morning my Dad gave me my first ticket in 1993 for Notts County at home in the Coca-Cola Cup. I was nine years old. My Dad and his mates used to drink in The Milburn beforehand but 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 coke from the smoke-filled room. Newcastle won 4-1, including a hat-trick from Andy Cole and that was it. I was hooked.
In the 27 years since that night, I’ve seen hundreds of games in person and hundreds more on TV. I’ve been to Wigan and Milan 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 cancer since that day, but I seemingly saw it as a great idea and got the same tattoo the following year.
My Mam would always ask about the other lads when we returned but we never had detail to offer as we’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 last game, what music we’d been listening to and how quickly we’d fallen asleep on the sofa the previous weekend. None of this was deemed appropriate to relay to our wife/Mam, so ‘nowt’ it was.
A questionable tattoo wasn’t the only thing I copied from my Dad. He was also a Labour member and that political upbringing influenced my views as I too became a Labour member. I went to Durham University when I was 18 and studied politics but it was around the time of the EU referendum and general election that I really became involved. The internet allows you to be as immersed in a subject as you like and I became lost in politics during that period. I’d spend hours reading and researching 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 soon advised me to ‘leave politics out of it’ when it came to accepted topics of match day conversations.
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 statistics about food bank use. I’d forgotten that all important ‘nowt’ quality to match day craic. It didn’t mean that they weren’t clued up on it or interested in it, just like it didn’t mean that they didn’t care about what happened. It simply meant that it wasn’t why they went to the match on a Saturday. I learned to focus on controlling the things that I could and stopped thinking that I had any influence over national and international politics. On match days, I returned to what music I was listening to, who we should be playing in midfield and whose round it was. My mental health thanked me for it.
You see, with politics you can be held to account if what you vote for doesn’t work out and people can point to your vote as being complicit in it. There’s a direct link between voter and outcome, however small it may be. Newcastle fans didn’t 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 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 an example 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 and boycotts have failed to make the desired impact. 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. What football club owner isn’t using the club and the fans for their own gain? Football club ownership is not the pursuit of philanthropists.
The second issue is the motivation for us to act this way in the first place. 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 reflecting on who owns your club? As the infamous Martin Tyler scream of ‘Aguerooooo!’ signaled 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 receive the levels of investment and success as Man City does not mean that we are ignorant to events in Saudi Arabia. Dreaming of Europe rather than relegation does not mean that we are complicit in human rights atrocities. 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’re about to lose the identity of our club as we become a marketing tool for the owners. This made me think, what is our identity? How does the world see Newcastle United? Our once great stadium is neglected, our training facilities are a throwback to the old Maiden Castle days, 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. The record Championship attendances, the sold-out away ends around the country, the continued support despite generations of failure, the gallows humour, the #cans. United. We are the identity of this club and no owners could ever change that. We don’t handpick our football team up here, we’re born into it, so keep your football craic to ‘nowt’ and let us dream. There’s space on our arms that won’t fill itself.