Like every generation of Englishman, I got into football at a young age. Each day I would go out onto the field outside my house with my friends. Friends – at that age – were easy to come by. Anybody that could kick a ball was a friend.
We’d throw down some t-shirts for goalposts. The unluckiest – weakest – child was forced to be the goalkeeper. Then the rest of us would pretend we were world class footballers until it was dark.The imagination of a young boy is strong. The field only had its grass cut once a year, creating a small jungle underneath our feet. It wasn’t uncommon to find yourself running through a hidden pile of dog poop, but it never mattered.
To us it felt like we were in a stadium filled with a hundred thousand people. In our minds the grass was perfectly cut turf. We were no longer boys but our favourite footballers. Andy Cole. Alan Shearer. David Ginola. The t-shirts we used for goalposts became real metal frames.
Each Saturday night we would watch Match of the Day on TV and the next morning we would be up bright and early to re-enact every piece of action. We spent hours pretending to be Tony Yeboah scoring that goal.
It never mattered that he played for a rival team. It never mattered that our goal had no crossbar. It never mattered that every time we acted it out the ball would fly hundreds of yards away. In that moment we were our heroes, we felt what they felt. Or rather what we believed they felt. Pride and honour. Feelings that would later be replaced with shame and disillusionment as we grew out of our boyhood fantasies.
Back then nobody ever asked me what football team I supported. It was automatically assumed. Newcastle United. Who else. To support anybody else would have been ludicrous. We were from Newcastle after all. The children over the street supported Manchester United. We looked down on them, called them glory hunters. Not true football fans but boys who just wanted to support a winning team.
The irony of all of this is that the boys who supported Man United were the best footballers on the street. If I was smart I would have swiftly changed my allegiances then and there. It would have saved me from a lot of heartache. In the subsequent years Manchester United would win every competition it’s possible to win. Three times. Newcastle United – naturally – would win nothing. We’d come close a few times. Then we’d get beaten right at the end. In the dying seconds. Usually by sodding Man United. Who else?
This is all hindsight though. Back then I believed – as all children did – that my football team was the best in the world. Unlike other children I had at least some justification for my thinking. Over a glorious 7 year period in the 90s we finished in the top 3 of the league three times, were runners up in the FA cup twice, we played in the UEFA cup three times and Champions League once. (Beating Barcelona 3-2 on one glorious night.) To top it all off we had one of the biggest stadiums in the country, often filled to capacity with the most passionate of supporters.
You may notice my use of the pronoun “we” as though I was part of all of this success. Seems a bit silly really, I never played any of those games. I never scored any goals. All I did was support the team. But supporting a football team is as big a part of the game as playing it. Without the fans there would be no football. I was as much a part of every game as the players. We both existed together, without either of us there would have been nothing. For every missed shot, sending off and goal. We were there. We shared in the triumphs and tragedies.
Looking back on Newcastle in the 90s I realise that all I can list is the tragedies. Failures. We were at the top of the game back then, but sadly nobody remembers the losers, no matter how well they do. Everything that we did in that period may as well have not happened as we have nothing to show for it.
In those days it seemed it was only a matter of time before we won a trophy. We were doing so well that how could we not? There was a general sense of confidence and hope in Newcastle supporters. It wasn’t a case of whether we’d win a trophy, it was simply a matter of when.
This arrogance would eventually prove to be our shame. We tried again and again but we also failed again and again. The expectation was we would get something eventually but as each year went by our failures became larger. Our expectations stayed the same.
After that period of great hope in the 90s, Newcastle slowly started dropping further and further down the league. Winning less and less games. We’d had our chance and we’d blown it.
The problem for most of us was that we started to live in denial. We believed we would get back to those glory days “next season”. Always next season. This mythical next season never happened. Newcastle supporters became the laughing stock of English football. Everybody else in the country saw our team for what they were: losers.
The smartest supporters eventually realised we’d never get back to that golden period in the 90s. The dumbest supporters – of which there are many – clung to the desperate belief that we would somehow prosper again. Even those supporters were forced to confront their absurd thoughts when on the last day of the 08/09 season we were relegated to a lower league.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of that time. There was anger and heartbreak. Mostly it was a feeling of dismay. How could a club fall so far so fast? By the next year we had gained promotion back to the Premiership but by then all hope of success was long gone.
That’s when the greatest period of heartache began for me. It hurt to fail so often in the 90s, hurt to be relegated and to be made the brunt of jokes in the 00s. None of that hurt as much as it hurts to support Newcastle now.
Those that don’t watch sports wont know the feeling. Endless disillusion. Knowing your team will win nothing, knowing that in 10 years a lot of our current players will be gone and forgotten. They’re not winners. But we support them through every game. Stand by them not because we want to, but because we’re stuck with them. Our teams are like our children. To start supporting another team would be like abandoning someone you love. They are a part of us, when they fail, we fail.
They always fail. We know they will fail but we continue to support them anyway. We cling to them. We no longer have a choice in the matter, football is an addiction, never letting us go. When we watch it we’re no longer adults, we’re taken back to those hope filled days of childhood. Kicking the football on the field outside our houses, dreaming of the cheer of a stadium filled with fans. Dreams of glory.
Sometimes there’s a glimmer of hope. Whispers of that phrase again. Next season. Next season.
That famous next season never comes. Some of us believe it will never come. No matter how much that hurts we keep waiting. I wait. As I have waited for over 20 years. My dad waits. As he has waited for over 40.
Always waiting for next season.