It’s FA Cup Quarter Final day! I can almost hear every black and white soul born into this millennium cry, ‘What is this quarter final thing, you speak of?’ It is one of many sad indictments of the Mike Ashley era that it feels like an achievement worth celebrating for Newcastle United, six time FA Cup winners, to reach this stage of the tournament. Yet here we are, after progressing beyond the fourth round for the first time in the Ashley era, a period which saw knockouts to Hull City, West Brom, Stevenage, Brighton (twice), Cardiff, Oxford United and Watford (twice). As their peers from Portsmouth, Cardiff, Stoke, Wigan, Hull, Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and Watford have enjoyed the ultimate stage of a Wembley final, an entire generation of Newcastle United fans are seeing their team make it two steps away from there for the first time in their young lives. Cheers, Mike.
My first memory of Newcastle United and the FA Cup Final is the 1998 game against Arsenal. It was our first appearance in this tournament’s final in 24 years, since losing to Liverpool in 1974. 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 seven more finals and won six of them. Newcastle have, well, we’ll come to that.
We had already lost twice to Arsenal during that season as they went on to win the Premier League but as a 14 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 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, I was obsessed with Championship Manager so felt it was my duty as a recent treble winner to use the rear pages of my exercise books to scrawl out in X’s and O’s how to 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 15 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 belief 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 16 year old me, it was almost inconceivable 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! 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 is 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.
Those three consecutive years came at an age before I started travelling to away games, as London became the Toon Army’s home from home in Spring. Instead, 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 very ‘90s wallpaper as the tin foil FA Cup sat proudly alongside the impossibly bulky, low definition TV on the mahogany cabinet.
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 and mobile phones, the build-up came from 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 for those involved. Build-up ranged from team hotel interviews with cutting edge questions about breakfast options to guides to 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.
For three consecutive years I was the definition of teenage angst post-match, as my pubescent hormones were incapable of perspective or reasoning. The four cans my Dad had left for supervised drinking were long gone and I did not have social media to vent cathartically into my perfectly honed 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. On each occasion, he rang me that evening on the house phone and emotionally 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 later for the quarter final from home, I’ll fondly remember those days in the family living room. I have my own children now but they are too young to even feign an 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 agonisingly apart. Some might say that it would be typical Newcastle United fortune to eventually reach another FA Cup Final in its only season without fans. After all, it is 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 thought 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. Honestly, even though we drew Man City, I thought we had a chance this year to place the final piece of the puzzle into our paternal picture postcard. Although my Championship Manager days are long gone, I had it all worked out man!