As the return of the Premier League edges closer, debate has increased around the subject of empty grounds and the prospect of football with no supporters. Match days may not be the same for some time yet, as football adjusts to its new reality. How big this adjustment is for the individual will depend on how far from your normal experience you find yourself. If your normal match day is listening on the radio at home, you will have a much smaller adjustment than someone who is usually in the pub by 11am for a 3pm kick off and gets the last bus home hoping they stay awake for their stop.
With journalists focusing on the football side of Project Restart, I wanted to cover the other aspect I miss about no football: the pub. I ran a Twitter poll and 85% of those who responded indicated that the pub is part of their match day routine. The pub has been a part of my match day experience for as long as I remember and although the pubs have changed over the years, the pre-match and post-match drinking has not. Newcastle has a unique symbiotic relationship between city and football club, with the stadium right in the centre of around 200 pubs. It is truly more than a pub. Responses to the poll named pubs from Central Station right up to the doorstep of SJP and, for the benefit of those yet to visit Newcastle, the popular venues were The Strawberry, The Bodega, Rafferty’s, The Percy Arms, The Trent, The Junction, The Town Wall, The Hotspur, Three Bulls Heads and Tyneside Irish Centre. You’re welcome.
Pre-match drinking is always two hours, minimum, depending on the antics of the night before. A practised routine which has led to the ability of bladders around the region to stretch sufficiently to survive exactly 45 minutes before a run down concrete steps to the crowded urinal. Everyone will have their own morning routine and whether it’s a fry up at home or a Greggs as you walk from the Metro, the importance of ‘lining the stomach’ can never be overestimated. I love the early buzz around the city pre-match as the streets start to fill with black and white. I travel down Barrack Road and the bustle around the ground of TV crews and mingling of fans around Sir Bobby sets the hairs on edge even after all this time. Pre-match is the time for optimism after a long week at work. You’ve got your pass signed, your toon top on and away on the beer with your mates. Champion. There’s an optimistic strut about pre-match as you enter the pub and give the emotionless bouncer a nod and bit craic, hoping against all hope that one day he’ll crack a smile. It’s been twelve years, mate. Pre-match is the time to catch up on what everyone’s been watching and listening to, how hungover they were after last week and what footie they’ve seen on TV. It’s also the time for limitless positivity and predictions, for picking your starting eleven and justifying why you’ve hoyed a tenner on 4-1. It’s a time to leave behind whatever’s been bothering you in the real world all week. That’s forgotten for one afternoon and whatever happened the previous match is history, you’ve pressed the reset button and anything is possible. Pre-match pub is always, always, great.
Post-match pub is different. For a start, your usual pre-match spot has been taken by someone willing to risk missing Gouffran and Gayle score in stoppage time because they wanted a seat and a table. You know who you are. You also don’t necessarily have everyone from your group who was there pre-match as people head home for a variety of reasons I’ve yet to comprehend. Most importantly, post-match is affected by the two hours during which you left the limitless positivity of the pub for the reality of the football pitch. It can be a very different environment if those two things didn’t match up and anger and disappointment suddenly make the beer taste different. That time to get it off your chest and argue with each other about how shit players are or how the manager hasn’t got a clue is important because, let’s face it, whoever is waiting for you at home doesn’t want to hear about it. The post-match pub is your free therapy when a result hasn’t gone your way, a chance to decompress while you drown your sorrows. Conversely, when you win (try hard to remember what that feels like) it’s an extension of the party you’ve been on since you left the house. The pre-match positivity is enhanced by the result and suddenly you’re getting an extra round in, riding the alcoholic wave up the league table. Get in.
So what will match day be like without the pub? Personally, I’ll try to maintain some of my own traditions and still have a fry up before putting on the Sambas, jeans and Toon shirt. I’ll still blast Green Day, Ramones and The Clash to get me in the mood. Hey! Ho! Let’s Go! I’ll have cans in the fridge (at least there won’t be a queue) and the TV volume up higher than needed, I’ll have my phone in my hand to chat with my Dad and my mates as the game goes on. We’ll analyse, criticise and fantasise as we scream at an inanimate object showing live images of an eerily silent stadium. We’ll cheer on the lads as if they can hear us and celebrate with whoever is near us. We’ll turn to the empty cushion beside us to ask for its opinion and get looks from the dog as we jump and shout at a decision. Will any of this be enjoyable or good? Will any of this make up for not having pre-match positivity and post-match therapy in the pub? Nah, absolutely not. It’s been a part of my life and my upbringing for as long as I remember and football simply won’t be the same without it. In the meantime, I’ll raise a can to the bar staff on furlough and hope everyone is staying safe. I hope you all come back healthy and come back refreshed because just as we’ve needed our pubs, our pubs will now need us.