With Newcastle facing a pivotal matchup versus Leeds FC in the first fixture of the EPL weekend, I thought it would be fun to relive my journey to St James’ Park from Los Angeles, CA.
If you only read the headlines prior to the match against Tottenham back on April 23rd, you would have assumed they were in a relegation fight. Constant negativity surrounded chairman Daniel Levy and the team after his latest management victim Antonio Conte exploded on the podium following a 3-3 draw to Southampton. Yet I had circled this match in January as the critical make or break for where the Magpies would end up this season.
To be fair, technically Tottenham are still in contention for the Champions League places. While Newcastle had endured a rough February, form immediately picked up after the pressure of the Carabao Cup evaporated. Tottenham were still competitive and legitimate top-4 contenders with a strong goal tally.
They still had Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min prowling forward, Richarlison inexplicably getting garbage minutes, and Hugo Lloris still protecting the goal. While all seemed normal, the Spur’s 3-2 loss to Bournemouth the week prior may have been a key indicator of the 6-1 thrashing that was to come.
This was not my first time at St James Park, in fact, I’ve been making an annual journey to the North for a number of years. However, I can say to all the American (and overseas in general) fans out there that this was by far the most difficult game to attend, and if you want to make the same voyage you’d better get going before this squad starts making greater strides in the worldwide consciousness.
There has always been an energy in Newcastle revolving around the Magpies, and the fanbase has always been loyal and proud of a history that includes the likes of Alan Shearer and Paul Gascoigne who achieved fame at the international level. But sometimes that loyalty can carry a burden.
I grew up in Northern California outside of San Francisco, and American sports fans will be very well versed in the chronic failure of sports teams with rabid fanbases local to the area like the Oakland (now Las Vegas) Raiders, Sacramento Kings and the Oakland (soon to be anywhere else) A’s. Notice a theme?
It’s great to have a raucous atmosphere and fans, but no one wants to be that team that opposing teams love to come and dominate. It’s one thing to have a middling team no one notices, but another when everyone starts to say, “they’ve got great fans who deserve so much better.”
I remember going to Liverpool vs Newcastle in the final home game during the 2019 season. Though Everton fans have done their best to malign his reputation, Rafa Benitez was a very popular manager at the time with the Toon. He guided Newcastle back to the Premier League after relegation, and on that night led a squad that twice equalized against an electric Liverpool side that squeaked by with a 3-2 win in the 86th minute. His pressure on then-owner Mike Ashley would lead to his ousting the next month, a move that catalyzed the eventual sale of the team.
Fast forward through the Covid years to the Fall of 2021, when the sale was finally pushed through in October after over a year of limbo. November saw Eddie Howe replacing a feeble Steve Bruce who had identified a few diamonds in the rough but had virtually no tactical ideas besides parking the bus and praying not to be relegated.
Imagine the emotions running through my head after I made my usual 12-hour flight to London, then took a four-hour train north on March 5th to watch Newcastle and realized in an argument with some traveling Brighton fans that we were undefeated in 2021 EPL play!
I’m not a local Geordie, nor have a lived in the shadow of St James’ Park my whole life, but I’ve endured my share of insipid sports franchises that were (and still are) mired in mediocrity. I understand the parallels between US sports franchises and football teams in Europe are limited and that many of the financial restraints are completely different. And yet, watching Eddie Howe leading Newcastle to a 2-1 victory over Brighton that weekend with a newly acquired Bruno Guimaraes still riding the bench under a canopy of black and white flags among fans singing “He’s Brazilian…” for 90 minutes is a feeling every sports fan should enjoy at some point in their lives.
Which all lead me to Tottenham vs Newcastle a few weeks ago, after more than 16 hours of planes, trains, and automobiles back to the Leazes stand after a few pints and a stomach full of Gregg’s. As the popularity has increased exponentially, this was my first time dealing with StubHub International—which saw me spend over $100 in international calls just to get my tickets delivered to my hotel on Newgate Street.
My trials were quickly validated when I was one of the thousands sitting in shock as the Magpies began a blistering assault that saw five finishes in 20 minutes, including a thunderous screamer by none other than Jacob Murphy.
When the teams returned from halftime, and the away section began to empty out, I could feel a celebratory aura swelling in the stadium, and that happiness spilled into the town at the final whistle.
Over the course of the day, I met locals, Londoners, and even a few other Americans from across different States. It is a warm camaraderie that I hope will continue, as on-field success will continue to bring in more outsiders from farther reaches of the world.
Everyone is a believer now, and everyone seems to be saying it’s now not a question of if, but when. This is no team mired in mediocrity, nor a fallen star that sings about that title run in 1903 as they fight to avoid relegation. There will be bumps on the road, and this off-season will inevitably see us say some bittersweet goodbyes.
But Newcastle’s are no longer fans who deserved so much better, they are described in terms more apt to resemble, “finally given a team these fans can truly embrace and deserve.”