Rob Houwing

Toon may be the death of me

2015-05-21 13:05
Newcastle United (File)

To think that I so very nearly became an Arsenal supporter.

I was 12 years old in 1976, and faced with a seriously tough decision over my Shoot! magazine pin-up soccer hero, Malcolm  Macdonald.

Supermac, along with his expansively in-vogue pork chop sideburns, was lured away to the Gunners from Newcastle United, you see -- only a year or so after famously scoring all five England goals in a 5-0 disposal of the mighty, er, Cyprus.

It was for feats like that, rather more than his club affiliation, that I had become a fan of his; remember that it was also the era of Roy of the Rovers of Tiger comic fame. (Boys being boys, we loved those ridiculous, mythical matches where Roy Race would single-handedly turn a 4-0 deficit into a 7-4 win for Melchester Rovers in the space of a few manic minutes.)

Somehow Supermac seemed the best living answer to Roy, even if I hadn’t yet properly developed my affection for his Newcastle side collectively. No, it was all about the No 9 and only the No 9.

So when I read suddenly in the morning newspaper (no Twitter, no Internet, not even any English football on our fledgling TV in the bad ole RSA ...) that he was off to the brighter lights of London, the question arose: do I go in spirit with Supermac to Arsenal, or should I register a sympathy vote for the Toon and perhaps even commit myself more properly to them?

So I read up earnestly on the north-east club (some of it in the creaky passages of the Rondebosch library), learning more about their once-mighty achievements -- like winning the FA Cup three times in the early 1950s-- and icons like Jackie Milburn and Hughie Gallacher.

But what especially grabbed me was the famed, thick-and-thin devotion of their supporters, said to be possibly the most passionate and unbudging in England. I have always admired loyalty, and had a soft spot for the underdog, too.

Right, I said to myself one profound day, Supermac may have gone but I am now officially a fan of NUFC. I was just not to know then that the words “for my sins” would become a fitting, stubborn addendum.

 I was aware that they hadn’t won anything of significance for a while: certainly not since the old European Fairs Cup in 1969, when we had beaten the Hungarians Ujpest in the two-leg final.

Ah well, time was consummately on my side for glory (remember I wasn’t even a teenager yet) or at least so I thought.

Instead years have passed, decades have slipped by ... and all that has happened, in a nutshell, is that Newcastle have either been a “nearly” sort of team (what I’d give to bank that right now) in the elongated period, or disaster-prone, or plain old “Loony Toon” for the often laughable upheaval that transpires in the manager’s office or boardroom.

This wackiness can even transfer itself to the match-day pitch: remember the 2005 friendly-fire fisticuffs between Lee Bowyer and Kieron Dyer?

And all the while, 50,000 lovably daft, quite often Brown Ale-sozzled Geordies have unfailingly gone through the home turnstiles (unless some are in occasional, rebellious boycott mood like now), keeping the faith. And the hope.

Newcastle may never win anything of consequence, but at least you’ll never, ever bring down the Toon Army and their trademark “Howay the Lads” chant.

There are seasons, or phases, where they can play cruel tricks on you, as in the mid-1990s when the Messiah, Kevin Keegan, led them on a buccaneering, forget-about-defence ride toward – no, sadly I didn’t say “to” -- title glory.

Ah, them was the days: David Ginola, Philippe Albert, Peter Beardsley, the eccentric, gun-toting and cartel-threatened Colombian Tino Asprilla ...

A girlfriend at the time even developed a minor crush on our so-so, ponytailed central defender Darren Peacock. (This I considered wholly acceptable: if it had been Niall Quinn or Kevin Phillips of arch-rivals Sunderland it would have been greatly more problematic.)

In the run-in to the famous (well, infamous) Premier League campaign of 1995/96, Newcastle commanded a gaping 12-point lead over Fergie’s infernal Manchester United at one stage, but then developed quite spectacular stage-fright at a critical time and subsided to runners-up.

I remember with particular horror one away match at Blackburn during this edgy period; we were leading 1-0 at an advanced stage away and seemed set for a really heartening, back-on-track sort of result.

I slumped, groaning, to the floor when Blackburn levelled late ... there was no lower to go for me when Blackburn went on to win it, even later.

It was scant consolation that this was the club’s best season since they had last won the league back in very distant 1926/27.

Every few years – OK, except this season -- Newcastle are still capable of once-off, truly gem performances.

Two that spring to mind include the 5-0 St James’ Park thumping once of the dastardly Red Devils, with Alan Shearer to the fore ... I still have the specially-produced video (yes, video) of that game, aptly titled Howay Five-Oh! The tape may well have perished, like my VCR itself.

 Another was beating glamour club Barcelona (well pre-Messi, I admit) 3-2 in the Champions League in September 1997, propelled by a hat-trick from the moody Asprilla.

My wife still talks fairly fondly about our memorable, relaxed little trip to Scotland at that time; don’t tell her this, but I remember it most passionately for watching that game on a tiny portable telly in our B ‘n B room in Ullapool, trying not to wake her with my blissful trio of whooping goal celebrations.

I have only twice (when holidaying or briefly working in the UK) seen Newcastle play in the flesh, and neither of them at their own temple of St James’ Park.

Once was a last-day-of-season stalemate at West Ham in the mid-1980s, when a young Paul Gascoigne commanded the midfield in an otherwise rather humdrum side. Poor old Gazza ... these days he is sometimes to be found slumped in a hobo-like stupor on train platforms and the like, as broken as a Toon trophy dream.

There was a bit of a disturbance on the away terraces at Upton Park, with police wading in with batons as the Toon faithful stubbornly sang, as if a badge of honour: “We’re the drunk and disorderly, we’re the drunk and disorderly.” I managed to keep my head down, and relatively out of harm’s way.

The other was a mid-winter, bitingly cold 2-0 defeat at Derby County, near the end of Sir Bobby Robson’s tenure as boss.

I was with my father-in-law, most inconveniently a born-and-bred Sunderland devotee, and we had a pre-match agreement that he would not holler if or whenever Derby scored. So he simply fist-pumped gleefully in the Rams’ favour on two occasions ... they are so lamentably childish, those Black Cats fans.

Some two months ago, he gently chided me – as many might have at the time – for not being able to bring myself to relax over the fact that Newcastle had already advanced to 35 points (generally considered as near as damn-it to safety).

“What are you on about? You are as safe as houses,” he suggested.

But if you are a Newcastle enthusiast you have learnt over the years to always have a half-empty glass next to your chair, just in case, and under the caretaker management of John Carver – the weirdly self-confessed “best coach in the Premiership” – they have duly picked up ONE pathetic point out of a possible last 30.

Little wonder, then, that they go into Sunday’s final round of Premiership fixtures in the grips of a desperate dogfight with Hull to avoid the only remaining relegation berth.

Irony of ironies, despite the heartbreak they have caused me and the black-and-whites over the years, I will be a Manchester United temporary fan of note when they go to Hull: simply stop the home side from winning and Toon will stay up virtually by default even if we botch (as might well happen, given lamentable form) the visit to Tyneside by West Ham.

I earnestly don’t agree with the sentiment that we should be relegated to “begin a cleansing” or possibly even to somehow get rid of highly unpopular owner Mike Ashley.

Given the rank mediocrity of the current squad, I fear that if Newcastle do slide to the Championship, they could simply go the way of other “big” clubs like Leeds or Wolves, and stay in the lower tiers of English football for years.

All I know is I am in it for the long haul. Even if they routinely start entertaining or visiting the likes of Rotherham, Huddersfield or Cardiff, I am sticking with the Toon until the day I die.

Unless, of course, the Toon kill me first.

Think of me on Sunday.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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