In this age of social media, every fan has a voice. Every one of those voices can vent whatever it likes, in whichever direction it chooses and there is even a direct line to alert a specific target, through @ and #. Communication has never been easier and demand for instant information and reaction has never been higher. There is little time to pause, reflect and digest before publishing your article because during this time there have been ‘hot takes’, ‘five things we learned’, vlogs and podcasts saturating the subject. I want it all and I want it now.
Instant access to information is not necessarily a bad thing, nor is giving a voice to those who want to speak, and here at Coming Home Newcastle we try to provide a range of content for anyone who is interested in it. However, with the ever-increasing quantity of Newcastle United content made by anyone who wishes to produce it, inevitably comes some poor quality. Prior to social media, there was a time when NUFC fan content quantity was singular and quality was so high that it became a mainstay in the culture of our football club for decades. I caught up with writers Chris Tait, Howard Linskey and Ian Cusack to discuss the early days of The Mag.
As co-founder of the fanzine, alongside Mark Jensen, I asked Chris about what inspired its formation and how that idea became reality:
“I was a huge fan of the football fanzine When Saturday Comes and in one issue in late 1987 or early 1988, an article appeared entitled Tyne Tease. Although there was a grain of truth in the piece, I disagreed with about 80% of it and immediately sent them an 8 page letter putting it right! The editor was very nice about it and invited me to write an article for the magazine, which I did and it was published in issue 16 I think. He also suggested that as Newcastle didn’t have a fanzine at the time, why didn’t I have a go at it. I was working at Gateshead Civic Centre with Mark at the time and we got talking and thought, why not?
John Hall had set up The Magpie Group to try to buy the club around that time and one of those involved in that was a guy called Brian Reed who owned Reed Print & Design in Washington. He said that if we produced something, he would format and print it for us so Mark enlisted a friend of ours Stephen Brennan and the three us wrote the first issue long-hand. The week before publication day, Reed pulled out of the Magpie Group and so we lost our printer but they at least gave us the finished artwork which we took down to Howe Brothers printers behind Gateshead Job Centre and asked them to print it. We had 28 days to pay the bill and two matches to sell the copies.
We’re a passionate fanbase so I think deep down we knew we were pushing at an open door – it was a ripe period for football fanzines with the Heysel fallout (and later Hillsborough ) and Thatcher’s disgusting ID Card scheme in the pipeline, as well as the protests going on at our own club. Fans needed a voice and didn’t have one other than the letter pages of The Pink. We took the decision early on that we would try to produce something professional that wouldn’t look out of place on the shelves at WH Smiths and it proved to be the right decision in terms of giving us credibility (and sales!). I think we were selling around 8,000 copies at one point.”
Chris wasn’t the only one of the three to mention When Saturday Comes, as Ian also cited it as an early influence:
“The latest issue is #400 and I’ve got every one of them. For me, it will always be the original fanzine. How I longed for a fanzine dedicated to Newcastle to appear in the classified section of When Saturday Comes, to which I’d contributed a couple of letters and an article. I’d been in Leeds for postgraduate studies but returned to Newcastle just in time for the hideous relegation season of 1988/1989. I started penning articles about music for Paint It Red, where I met Kriss Knights (aka Billy Furious), and The Crack. I also picked up a copy of The Mag’s first issue on the day of the Spurs game that opened our season and marked the return of Gascoigne and Waddle. I was incredibly impressed by the professional layout and design of The Mag. As the season wore on, I still didn’t think about writing anything myself, never having written about football before, but became more and more impressed with the range of opinions it contained. It wasn’t until after the season-ending draw with Millwall, where I sat sunbathing on the Gallowgate, that I wrote, in my head, something about football, specifically a piece begging that we held on to John Hendrie. Kriss had told me that all I needed to do to appear in The Mag was submit a piece to Mark and I’d be accepted, as long as it wasn’t rubbish. Amazingly, my work was published in the first issue of 1989/1990, when we battered Leeds United 5-2. That was me hooked.”
Interestingly, that famous victory against Leeds marked the beginning of Howard’s affiliation with The Mag:
“I was a student when I first saw The Mag and I thought it was incredible. All we’d had before then was the match programme, which was bland and completely uncritical of the club, team or manager. This new fanzine felt like a cross between Viz Comic and the kind of unfiltered opinions you might want to express to a mate in The Strawberry straight after a game. I started writing for it early on, way back in 1989. The first thing I sent in was a letter that was inspired by watching the Mighty Micky Quinn banging in four goals on his debut against Leeds United. They printed that so I thought I’d have a go at writing an article. When they printed that too, I was bloody delighted and thought I’d try and write another. In the end I wrote an article for every issue for four and a half years. The fact that it has lasted for thirty odd years and is still going strong online shows that Newcastle fans will always need an outlet to vent about the club. Back then, it not only represented the fans but was the only outlet for their opinions. The Chronicle could report NUFC news but was, and still is, restricted by the need to have an ongoing relationship with the club and players, so they can never be too critical. The national media often gets Newcastle United and the fans completely wrong. You could read ‘The Mag’ and find yourself nodding along to the contributions in a shared spirit of solidarity.”
Ian also offered his thoughts on what made the fanzine so successful in terms of its committed readership and unparalleled longevity:
“What cemented the role of supporters as scribes in the fanzine movement were the seismic changes in the game, that came via a series of aftershocks following the Hillsborough Disaster, from the abolition of the proposed ID Card scheme to the formation of the Premier League and everything associated with the commercialization of the sport, by way of those semi-mythical E Generation terrace love-ins post Italia 90; all of these developments meant that the fans were now being taken seriously. We proved we could be articulate, progressive and responsible; fanzines reflected this, much in the way podcasts do now I suppose. Hence, there was a certain inevitability to The Mag’s sustained success mainly, it has to be said, because Newcastle were so terrible until Keegan came, that there was plenty to moan about and then loads more to celebrate.”
Although I was a regular reader of the fanzine, I had often wondered how The Mag was collated. Did the writers know each other or were they little more than a name they read alongside their own, once each issue was published?
Chris: “In the early days, we hardly met, or at least I myself didn’t meet many of the writers but a few of them became good friends over the years. Mark co-ordinated everyone and we did have the odd Christmas get together but as time went on, my main contribution was the Sweet Left Foot column, a jokey Top Ten feature and a match report in each issue and our paths rarely crossed, even when we had the office in Low Friar Street.”
Howard: “I didn’t know anyone at first and I was possibly the only writer at that early stage who didn’t live in Newcastle, as I was a student in Huddersfield. After a while, I called in to meet the founder and editor, Mark Jensen, to say hello and we went for a few pints. I was so naive, I imagined all of the other contributors sitting in an office together like a newsroom but of course it wasn’t like that at all, with everyone just sending their stuff in. Mark had an office where he put it all together. He’s a top bloke and I remembering meeting Stephen Brennan too who wrote the match reports. Another top fellah who went to every single Newcastle match, home and away, for a decade. Oh, how he must have suffered!”
Ian: “Basically, Mark Jensen had a very laissez-faire attitude to content; he just sat in his office waiting for people to bring stuff in for him. Over the years it changed from hard copies, handwritten as well as typed, to floppy discs, and then emails. He then put it all together and sent it off to the designers, who made it look striking and glamorous, by adding colour photos and using glossy paper. At first, we only featured away match reports, that were the preserve of the very wonderful Steve Brennan. Later, Mark organised who would do what report, which now included home games as well because a sizeable part of our readership were exiled Geordies who, before the internet, struggled to find detailed discussion of games they knew the score of, but probably hadn’t seen. You were never told what to right and that’s probably why in its later years, contributors became columnists; Kriss as Billy Furious and Chris as Sweet Left Foot, for example, who covered several topics each issue.”
The written version of The Mag transitioned, eventually entirely, online with the final written edition published in 2014 as #289. I asked whether they thought there was still room for a fanzine in the modern world or have we moved too far into social media and blogs to go back?
Chris: “For me personally, and this might be an age thing, The Mag pretty much ended in May 2014 with the last printed issue and I think it was the right time. The world had moved on, people were now demanding their information and opinion pieces immediately. I was pleased with the work Mark did on the final edition though, especially the cover which I think was a fitting end. I still think there is a place for background, reflective writing if it’s good quality but now you don’t need to go through the hassle of printing and distribution, just open a Twitter account. As Sean Lock once said though, the problem with Twitter is that it gives equal billing to the genius and the fool. I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant or big-headed, it’s not meant to, but I think we had to work a bit harder to produce something of quality that people would actually pay money to read over hundreds of issues but I would say that, wouldn’t I? We had some cracking writers on The Mag though, some who have gone on to make careers in literature but we were lucky that, a few other fanzines aside, we had a bit of a captive market and these days you’re just bombarded by bedroom bards. So social media has democratized and demystified the writing process which in reality is what we were trying to do with The Mag so I shouldn’t be too critical.”
Howard: “I think too many people are used to seeing everything instantly online now. Newspaper and magazine print sales have declined massively, so it seemed sensible to move The Mag online. I think the days of people waiting till match day to buy a copy from someone standing outside the ground are long gone. Going online is far more immediate. I go on the site every day and read most of the articles without having to leave the house.”
Ian: “The days of a general, not too controversial read about your club are long gone. Why pay for someone else’s opinion when you can get it for free and submit your own, however badly written, illogical or even prejudiced your thoughts are? Despite the wonderful work of Bill Corcoran and the NUFC Food Bank, witness how such good actions are dwarfed by the amount of Newcastle fans untroubled by the proposed Saudi takeover. If this had been 20 years ago, we’d have seen regular 2,000-word articles in The Mag arguing the pros and cons of this potential deal; now it’s far easier to send a Tweet calling anyone who opposes the takeover a Mackem, without soiling your frontal lobes with thoughts about morality and football club ownership. An unthinking culture made possible by the younger generation’s disinclination to read anything doesn’t afford house room to nuanced debate. Sadly, the law of diminishing returns is also impossible to ignore too. If newspaper sales are down 80% on a decade ago, what hope is there for independently produced publications? That’s a great shame as I still think there’s a market for a dedicated Newcastle fanzine, among a certain age and social demographic.”
I wondered when they look at fan websites and Twitter pages whether they are grateful that they wrote in a relatively anonymous era, without instant comment and generally negative abuse from online ‘trolls’.
Chris: “Absolutely. We’ve become a nation of (often anonymous) cowardly bullies but we’ve also spawned a generation of fans who think they’re celebrities (filming their own reactions at the match FFS !!) which is an annoying problem across wider society in terms of “influencers” on Instagram etc. I’ve unfollowed lots of toon fans on Twitter because it’s all mock horror clickbait items trying to make some kind of name for themselves or “love me love me” pleas rather than discussions about the game and club we love but I probably sound very old there! (56 isn’t old is it?). I didn’t get lots of feedback (the lads I drank with would just take the p*** but I knew they enjoyed The Mag – it’s what lads do) but whenever I did get feedback it was usually pretty complimentary thankfully. It was never really about that. We did it for the love of it (honestly !!)”
Howard: “I am so glad I wrote when there was very little feedback and none of it was instant. I was a young lad with little self confidence back then and ‘The Mag’ helped me develop enough to do a post grad in journalism then work for newspapers and eventually write books. If I had been writing in this era, I probably wouldn’t have done it for long. The level of mean spirited, critical comments, from supposedly fellow Toon fans when someone writes an article with an opinion they disagree with, is staggering. Sometimes I agree with the writer and sometimes I don’t but I would never dream of slagging off them or their article. I’m not talking about the majority of people, who offer alternative opinions or reasoned rebuttals but the idiots who just seem to enjoy having a pop at someone. You have to have a thick skin these days.”
Ian: “I think this is best summed up by the fact that despite every smartphone owner being in possession of the entire history of human culture, most of the time people are looking at amateur porn, photos of cats looking cute or blurred footage of Alan Barnes wandering down Old Durham Road. Instant comment should provoke debate, but it can be so disorganized and, as you say, deliberately provocative and hurtful. There is absolutely nothing wrong with provocative or controversial opinions, which are my stock in trade, but I’m only interested if they are couched within the parameters of reasoned, detailed, respectful debate. Looking back over 30 years of writing, the best feedback I’ve had, both positive and negative, is that it made people think. I hope it will continue to make them laugh, cry, nod in approval and fizz with impotent rage, all at the same time.”
To conclude, decades later and with subsequent successful careers in writing, I asked them to reflect on that period of their lives and how they viewed it overall.
Chris: “The early days were really exciting, meeting some great new people, being interviewed by the BBC in the Hotspur– David Taylor from Panorama (Ray Stubbs got the drinks in for us!). Being invited down to Plough Lane to interview John Fashanu for no reason other than he agreed. Probably lots of other events I can’t now remember. On the field, we were relegated in The Mag’s first season but I think we hit our stride during the era of Keegan’s Entertainers and that was a golden period for the club of course, despite the fact we didn’t win anything. Whilst I still dream that one day we’ll win something, I sometimes feel that was our last or at least best chance to win a trophy, in my lifetime anyway. I’m immensely proud of what we achieved with The Mag but I was always just happy being a fan and despite Ashley, I still am.”
Howard: “With huge affection and a fair dose of nostalgic pride. It was great to be part of it and in every interview I do as an author I always credit ‘The Mag’ for getting me started. If Mark Jensen hadn’t published my stuff, I would not have gone on to become a journalist then an author. I’ve had fifteen books published since then but ‘The Mag’ was where it all began for me. Mark interviewed me for the 25th anniversary edition (one of the last print ones) and asked if I would write a guest article too. I was honoured to do it and got properly fired up writing about the greedy, parasitic owner who has utterly ruined our football club. The words came easily. It was just like the good old days!”
Ian: “With enormous and enduring fondness. You felt part of a movement that was starting debates, rather than fights in car parks, which was a massive step forward from football in the 80s. Football fans showed we are civilised and rehabilitated the game in the 90s. Sure it eventually became too commercial and high profile, but at least we were listened to. Clickbait polls by gambling websites do not serve a similar function, because football fans are now, or have been rendered, passive, unthinking, conformist consumers. That’s so sad.”
Co-founder, deputy editor and regular columnist Chris Tait has since written a book about his Dad’s band, The Tru Tones, which was published in 2018. The book, Upstairs On Fourth Street, covers the story of the band affectionately referred to as ‘The Bensham Fab Four’.
Howard Linskey, who wrote an article for every issue of The Mag for four and a half years, is now a successful author and novelist, with over fifteen books. He is best known for the David Blake crime fiction series and has also written two Second World War historical thrillers, as well as other crime fiction novels. The New York Journal of Books suggests that, ‘Howard Linskey does for Newcastle what Ian Rankin has done for Edinburgh.’
Ian Cusack wrote for The Mag for sixteen seasons and has since written for over 100 fanzines, edited programmes for non-league clubs and contributed poems and short stories to many different litzines over the past 30 years. He edits one, called Glove and ten years ago wrote a book about Percy Main Amateurs of the Northern Alliance. He also publishes a blog at http://payaso-de-mierda.blogspot.com/