‘What is a club in any case? Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. It’s not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes. It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city. It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.’
Sir Bobby’s immortal words (with a deft assist by George Caulkin) are etched into the memories of every Newcastle United fan old enough to appreciate them, as he articulated falling in love with your football club better than most ever could. But what happens when you’re not that small boy anymore? What happens when that initial feeling fades? After decades of support, of ups and downs, boycotts and bickering, relegation and resignation, how do you fall in love again?
With any relationship, getting something back for what you put in seems to be a basic requisite for longevity. After all, there’s only so long you can give your time, energy and emotion without getting much in return before your feelings start to change. Newcastle United has given little back over the last thirteen years and I no longer feel like that small boy, or how I did twenty years ago, or even ten. It’s been a gradual decline over the last decade or so resulting in this season being the first season since I haven’t gone to a single game since I was a child. I don’t care about the club any less and I haven’t missed watching a single game by one means or another, just as I still read about, think about and get frustrated about them as I always have.
However, the Mike Ashley era chipped away at the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging and to paraphrase The Righteous Brothers, I lost that loving feeling. Going to the match was supposed to be my stress-relief, my day off from ‘real life’ where I could be unrealistic and fanciful, predicting ‘five-nowt’ score lines with absolutely nothing to back it up other than, ‘Why not?’ It was supposed to be a couple of hours of noise, singing, shouting, being on the edge of my seat, standing, celebrating, being entertained. When all of that faded for me, when the atmosphere was dulled and the singing became sporadic, when the entertainment ended and the five-nowts never happened, when being unrealistic became predicting we’d even score a goal, what was left? I once queued round ¾ of the stadium for the Box Office to open to get a ticket, now there were 10,000 freebies and still empty seats. It clearly wasn’t just me feeling this way and I asked myself why was I still going when I wasn’t enjoying it anymore? So, I stopped. Newcastle United, I still love you, I’m just not in love with you.
‘He goes through spells of being angry and despondent and tries to kid himself that he’s done with the team. We know that’s a lie though because it’s impossible for him not to think about, read about and watch/listen to the match. He might have fallen out of love but the masochistic addict in him will never actually be done.’
Despite the tired cliché often parroted by national media, Newcastle United fans do not expect to be winning the league. Most of us have never seen the club win anything, so why would that be our baseline expectation? However, the start of every season is supposed to offer ambition and potential and give fans the chance to dream of what lies ahead. But when cup dreams end early and transfer windows provide little but rumour, after the Sports Direct-sponsored death of romance, what are you left with? It takes a lot to test the innate loyalty of a football fan but Mike Ashley’s systematic removal of ambition, and therefore hope, provoked sufficient inner turmoil in thousands of hardened souls to relinquish their beloved season tickets and well-earned loyalty points. We’ve seen worse teams and we’ve seen worse managers, so it isn’t necessarily what’s on the pitch that has caused these feelings. I didn’t want to assume that my reasons were everyone’s reasons so I asked other fans about their views.
‘I became more ambivalent towards the club as I felt the life was being sucked out of it. I did still go to the odd game out of loyalty but with no excitement. Once Rafa left, that was it for me and I said I would never go again while Ashley was there and for once I have kept my promise. Once he’s gone then I will be at the first game of the new era. Whenever that is!’
‘I still find it hard to believe that we had Rafa as boss but when he went, I stopped watching the games. I lost interest in Mike Ashley’s Newcastle. What’s the point if there’s no ambition? I’m excited by the takeover attempt as the one thing we will show is ambition, which is a very exciting prospect.’
The departure of Rafa was a final straw for many fans, who saw in him those missing elements of hope, ambition and potential. Amongst the turmoil and division of the Ashley era, he provided unity and wanted what we wanted. The long-term project to rebuild the infrastructure of the club, give our once-great stadium the TLC it so desperately needs, improve the training ground beyond the infamous wheelie bins and paddling pools and build the academy to unearth the next Carroll, Dummett, Longstaff(s). That’s the ambition we want to see but Ashley was simply never interested in matching our (and Rafa’s) goal and as this became more apparent, many fans walked away in frustration and desperation.
Inside our cathedral on the hill, when apathy and ambivalence replaced atmosphere, those who remained were often there out of a sense of habit or a stubborn determination to outlast Ashley.
‘I think for so long people continued to go because they wanted to show that the club will be there after Ashley, it’s that sense of loyalty to the club. But with multiple takeovers seeming to be on the cards and then falling apart, I think fans started to give up that hope.’
‘The lifelong bonds forged over many years of going to the match are too strong and meaningful to break or give up on because of one bloke. Ashley knows the price of everything but the value of nowt!’
For some who remained, going to the match became the footballing version of Mark Twain’s, ‘Golf is a good walk, spoiled’ quote. The afternoon on the beer with your mates inconvenienced by the game in between. The pre-match laughs and smiles inside the surrounding pubs were not often replicated inside the increasingly-quiet stadium as the lack of ambition and hope found its way into the stands.
‘I found it noticeably gloomier than it has been for quite a while this season. The Norwich and Burnley games just before the season was suspended, the atmosphere was as dead as I’ve ever heard it.’
There have been memorable moments, even this season, and that feeling of not wanting to miss Matty Longstaff beat Man Utd or Isaac Hayden beat Chelsea is what keeps many fans going through those Norwich and Burnley games.
‘I’ve never stopped loving NUFC but I haven’t liked them at times (too many of late) but there is always that hope that things might just happen or get better and I never want to miss that moment.’
With so many fans seemingly on standby, some still in their seats and some watching on from outside of St. James’ Park, waiting for Ashley to be gone you can feel the desperation for the takeover to be announced. You can sense that the club and its fanbase are ready to ignite again.
‘What I would say about falling out of love with Newcastle United because of Ashley is, the club is 127 years old and he is simply a blot on its history.’
It seems more likely than ever that the blot is finally about to be erased and as we reach the final stretch perhaps the most memorable words of encouragement to fans comes from Kevin Keegan, captured memorably by Wor Flags in one of their iconic displays:
‘Don’t ever give up on your club. Keep supporting it, it’s your club and trust me, one day you will get your club back and it will be everything you wanted it to be. Newcastle United is bigger than anyone. It hurts, I know, but just keep going. He is only one man, we are a city, a whole population. Trust me.’
When that one man is gone, will the love rekindle? Will the takeover make us all feel like that small boy clambering up the steps again? Perhaps not immediately but ambition will allow hope to return and the romance will surely follow. That’s all we’ve ever really wanted.