Football is at its best in the sun. No doubt many prefer a cooler version, and some insist that the perfect conditions include a nip in the air. Others, and sometimes I find it hard to disagree, say there’s nothing to beat a floodlit cup tie, cold night air, blazing floodlights from a black sky. The smells, the cameras, the cosiness of being in a crowd in darkness as mist drifts across the drama on the field.
Instead, give me a warm, sunny day like those of Pele and Rivelino in Mexico, like Maradona in the searing heat, like Geoff Hurst’s shadow leaping to celebrate on the green Wembley turf. The whole experience is more pleasant, and the style, slowed only by the heat into a more thoughtful game, more attractive. No wind to swerve a good cross into the crowd. No rain to bend into. No awkward bounce from frozen pitches. Perhaps that’s what is wrong with the whole English game, played out in the rain, frost and snow. I’ve been there. I’ve played. There’s no romanticism in plodging through a snow covered mudheap. Endeavour . . . commitment, brute strength. Steel and never say die, the trenches transferred to sport. Generally it produces an unpleasant balance that’s almost always exposed on the world stage. The thrilling game – not the beautiful game.
The games I find most memorable took place in the scorching heat and high altitude of Mexico. Perhaps it was because they were World Cup finals, or that the best players were on the field, but who could forget the France Brazil game of 1986. Socrates’ breathtaking chipped penalty and Platini’s raking cross field balls. The mercurial Zico and Jean Tigana’s surging long runs. Or Maradona’s hand and that wonderful second goal. Pele, Jairzinho, Tostao in the greatest ever display. Gordon Bank’s save.
Sure, I’ve had my moments crushed together in the pouring winter rain in the roofless Gallowgate and memories of sliding tackles that sent water pluming across pitches covered in puddles. As a kid I also sat in the straw on the touchline while the best players of their generation struggled to stay on their feet on a rock frozen pitch. It’s best in the sun.
The sunlit game that particularly takes the memory had a build up of strange, and at times, momentous proportion. It began in a Northumberland village on a Monday morning in mid September. The summer sun had returned for a last blessing before Autumn closed in, and as I walked to the post office, the sky was a deep, sharp blue. Black shadows fell across the lane from the turning trees. Forty minutes later, almost home, a dead animal caught the corner of my vision. You’d often see one, for it was a country road and invariably it was a rabbit or pheasant. Their bodies, and then fur or feathers, could hang around for a long time before disappearing into dust or being swallowed by nature.
I turned and saw my own ginger cat sprawled dead in the grass. “Oh . . . it’s you,” I mouthed. “It’s you . . .” While my wife and children were in Amsterdam for the summer, the cat and I had become the best of friends. She was a strange one who wandered bemusedly in and out of the house in those summer months. Sometimes she’d walk in through the sunny porch, down the corridor and with a quick glance at the kitchen, out through the back door. She was the same on the stairs. Was she going up or coming down? I bent over and felt her stiff body, returned home for a bag and buried her under a rose bush in the garden. Gutted.
I slept badly and the next day grumped my way through in a dull mourning fog. A slight ray of sunlight shafted through in mid morning when one of my clients rang, a Canadian girl with her chirpy, cheerful voice. She’d just been to her first ‘ball game’, England against Albania at St James’ and she’d loved the atmosphere. It was shortly after England’s five one hammering of Germany in Munich and the whole nation briefly loved the beautiful game again. The euphoria was immense and infectious although my theory was much simpler . . . she’d loved it because it was in warm August sunshine. She wanted to know if I’d like to go to the Man U game on Saturday with some of the staff. I didn’t really fancy witnessing another mauling, although we had beaten them the season before, and memories of the five nil thrashing by Keegan’s team always warmed the heart. It was difficult to say no. Anyway, tickets would be like camel **** in the Arctic. It’d be bonding but unlikely to happen. I said yes. She rang back an hour later with the tickets.
In the afternoon working sluggishly at the mac (that damn cat), my daughter popped her head around the door.
“Dad, you should come and see this!”
The channel was playing a movie where an airliner crossing a blue cloudless sky thumped into the side of a skyscraper.
I watched again as the scene was unexpectedly replayed, and then again.
“What is this?”
Wow. It was September 11th.
The rest of the week flashed by. The daughter was leaving home for the first time on Saturday, a slower, subtler loss than the cat. We’d found a decent flat for her, ten minutes walk to the college, in a terrace on Arthur’s Hill overlooking the whole city and especially the citadel of St James’ Park, a mile away down the straight road into the City centre. The area was just slightly seedy, litter everywhere, but still . . . decent. Kids played in the street, people drove slowly, carefully. No booze, drugs or gangs. The shop signs read Iqrah Jewellers, Rahman Fabrics and the Komal Restaurant. Saris, headscarves and the occasional veil were abundant. It was 95% Asian muslim. We liked it. The only scallies in evidence were the white underclass relics of what had been a haven of bad conditions, unemployment, the black economy and petty crime. Thatcher’s children.
However, the slow intrusion into the consciousness from the media’s constant unearthing of names like Bin Laden, Al Quaeda, the naming of Afghanistan and Pakistan and the replacing of ‘terrorist attack’ with ‘Islamic terrorists’ created a slight unease about the move. And not just the move. The political implications and the certain retaliation of the Bush government, together with the enormity of the incident, determined a strange almost excited air, during which people dashed home from work to hear the news, radios were on in the office, and an exuberance which lasted for weeks filled the air. Still, the plan evolved, we’d drive her in, unload the car and then I’d walk down the hill to the match.
Then, on Thursday, the really, really bad news. Midfielder Kieron Dyer wouldn’t be fit for the game. The old warhorse Rob Lee, pace gone, thickened legs slowing, would face Keane, Veron and Scholes. Our whole team were an unknown quantity. It was early season, but following four years of mediocrity, a flirtation with relegation under Gullit, and the Cordone, Cort, Acuna and Bassedas disappointments of last season, meant that great things weren’t expected. The summer signing of Craig Bellamy, who’d looked very ordinary at Coventry and had barely bothered our own fragile defence, went almost unnoticed. The late arrival of Laurent Robert from PSG provided a boost, and at £9.5m you’d expect that. But who was he?
Now, walking down the hill to the ground, nerves building, another emotional jolt joined my list. I remembered that I’d done this before, as an eleven year old going to my first big game with my Dad. We’d visited a friend of his on Scotswood Road in the morning and taken a wrong turn in the maze of terraced housing, whose men fed into and fuelled the huge factories of Vickers Armstrong below them on the Tyne. Ending up on the West Road, we’d cut down this very street and saw the ground below us, towering floodlight pylons dominating the skyline.
In those days, the crowds were enormous, with massive snaking lines leading to the Popular Side terraces, police horses snorting and stamping as we queued to be shot like bullets through the turnstiles. We ended up jammed in among the away fans, high up near the Gallowgate. One of them, hardly bigger than me and with the funniest accent I’d ever heard, clamped his hands on my shoulders and tapped his way through the entire first half, of which I saw very little. Dad, spotting my discomfort, picked me up and passed me down, through a forest of helping hands, to join the kids at the side of the pitch. It was there and then that I first really fell in love with the game. Dark, stormy skies and a 60,000 crowd, the vibrant strips, the fast, powerful action. The roar. When Newcastle took the lead early in the second half, and the Blaydon Races echoed around the ground, it was sheer intoxication, a magic that enters the soul . . . and stays.
However, we were playing the league champions, and it showed as they slowly began to dominate the game and all of the action was at our end. Now, for the very first time, I began to notice things like ‘off the ball runs,’ the shape of the whole team ebbing and flowing up and down the pitch, and above all, some of the individual players. I’d grown up, stopped just following the ball, and the great game opened up before me.
Two players in particular caught my eye, both of them dark, strong and handsome. Duncan Edwards was a really powerful player and the skill with which he dribbled past two defenders before scoring from the edge of the box to equalise, and then minutes later, half bludgeon, half dribble his way from the half way line to crash a shot onto the bar, was awesome. Before the ball could hit the ground, Tommy Taylor dived heroically among flying boots to head home the winner. We’d lost . . . but what a game. Some months later, when our teacher interrupted the afternoon class to solemnly announce the air crash in Munich, and the deaths of so many of that wonderful team, I actually cried and she sent me home.
A team was lost that would have been the backbone of England’s World Cup challenge that year, and that would have influenced the next generation, just like Moore, Hurst and Banks inspired the Keegans and Brookings. Alex Ferguson luckily inherited a team that, as 12 – 15 year olds, had been inspired by Italia 90. Would Beckham, Scholes and Butt have been as good without Gascoigne’s tears, Lineker’s goals and Butcher’s blood? Bobby Robson’ll tell you.
Approaching the ground, that September day, barely recognisable from the St James’ of my childhood, and with a headful of strange emotional connections, Munich, the Twin Towers, my Dad, Man U, my nerves were getting the better of me. There’s something disturbing about being a real fan. I often really envy the commentators and pundits who can experience a game without the pressure of support. They’re all fans, of course, but not generally of the match they describe. Fans and their team are different . . . mostly, it’s not great. When your first thoughts on a Sunday morning wakening are of yesterday’s 6 – 2 home defeat, it smarts, and suggests those ninety minutes of play are merely the sparkling diamond tips at the summit of a massive iceberg. Too much is involved, it’s deep in the psyche, it can illuminate or depress. Excitement or despair. Most real fans don’t even choose the path. It’s inherited. Infection at birth.
Imagine being a Carlisle United supporter. When they were born, their dads were enthralled with the game and their team was top of the First Division, the Premiership. They’ve now grown into the guys who phone the 606 Rant Line after five successive seasons narrowly avoiding relegation to the Conference. They’re still in their twenties.
I know I hold cynical views, but after a lifetime of supporting a club, and make no mistake, it is my club,– not the current directors’, or owners’, or even manager’s, my infatuation with the game and my team still has its own momentum and the surprise and delight at a good performance is immeasurable. Some say it’s an addiction, but heroin and crack users, after the initial euphoria, take their drugs to feel normal. After decades of football addiction a good away win just gets better and better.
Still, I get terribly nervous in the build up to a game and, especially, at home listening on the radio. It’s bad. Nervous before, tense during, and drained afterwards. The only thing that really helps is being there. TV has it’s place but it is a strange media that presents the game in it’s own image. It annoys and irritates me somehow. As soon as I enter the ground it all goes away and I become calm and benign.
Our tickets that day were unbelievably expensive and are deliberately kept back for ‘tourists’ to the game, the ‘entertained,’ and the wealthy convert. I check our seats (great view) before meeting the others in the bar. There’s the Canadian girl, Secretary General, the President and his wife, and one of the staff, thankfully a 100% Geordie girl. Standing at the bar, the New York attacks dominated our conversation, football wasn’t mentioned, and it’s funny, but the thing I remember most about September 11th and the days afterwards was how incredibly excited everyone became. “Of course, I feel terrible about all those deaths . . .” could be heard from flushed faces with shiny, excited eyes. It’s not very attractive but that’s the way I remember it.
Going up the steps to the stand was like entering the Coliseum, the noise, the warm, bright sunshine and the sheer scale of the fans packed to the skies was both impressive and emotive. The huge support for Newcastle in the area isn’t unique, but despite its relatively small size, it’s one of only a handful of cities in Britain that can go from high attendances to insane sell out at the scantest, merest sign of success. Only Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow are the same. A new signing, new manager, a few wins and the glory days are here again. In the late forties, Newcastle’s reserve team averaged 49,000 crowds. In the week Keegan returned as manager the attendance shot from 17,000 to sell out and the whole region was lifted. It’s always the same, that ambience of beneficence and anticipation, on the street, in the bars and clubs, even in the shops. The visit of Manchester United is always special and this particular team, Beckham, Scholes, Giggs, Keane, Veron and Van Nistelroy, who were not only league champions but had also sensationally lifted the Champions League cup, raised the atmosphere spectacularly. As we took our seats the triumphalist chanting of their fans, barely forty yards away in the upper tier, resounded around the ground.
I watched the warm up, and Shearer in particular, his hair receding as quickly as his speed. I remembered I’d mentioned to my daughter’s landlord that I was going to the match when he suddenly asked,
“ You know what’s wrong with Newcastle?
“Alan Shearer,” he sneered.
“Aye, Shearer. Thinks he’s God, with a divine right to play. Been finished for ages.”
I’ve always been a somewhat grudging admirer of Shearer, preferring the extraordinary skill of a Ginola or Asprilla, despite their failings in the English game. There it is again . . . the English game, of which Shearer is the epitome and clearly the best in the business by some way . . . but real skill?
“We’ll see,” I shrugged, for his was an increasingly common view, particularly after a disappointing Euro championship that summer, when a sluggish looking captain had carried the can for England’s poor performances and promptly retired from international football.
When the officials entered the arena, the players formed a circle in the centre of the pitch, their shadows sharp on the grass. The whistle blew and in a second it went from total cacophony to absolute silence. The noise of silence almost equals the volume of sound it replaces. It takes the breath away and everyone is affected, whatever they say, or even think. There’s many a suppressed giggle and embarrassed cough in such a long, long minute. In that awesome silence a pigeon flew by, its flapping wings cracking the air. The whistle blew, the tribute to the dead of New York over, and the noise roared back in. Kick off.
The game itself was pure ding dong from the off, and only after
a few frantic minutes did the semblance of a strategy begin to emerge. Surviving the predictable Newcastle start, Man U continued to play deep and conservatively, seeking through Veron and Keane to release Van Nistelroy with the long ball. Whenever the new boy, Robert gathered the ball, just below us, there were at least three players in close attendance. Was he good? Could he play? After only five minutes we found out, for Shearer won a free kick, in typical fashion, backing in but adjudged to have been fouled. From twenty five yards out in a central position, Robert stepped up to beat Barthez with a vicious drive over the wall and into the net. The curve of the ball was stunning and the Frenchman had 52,000 new fans. Joi d’vivre, . . . or is it Va Va Voom?
The clash continued at pace, most of the play locked in a hustling, crowded midfield, but gradually the pendulum swung decisively. Van Nistelroy had already been played in and foiled by the smothering Given, when after 29 minutes, Andy Cole repeated the move with a header across the box, and the striker, with those huge paddles of feet, controlled instantly, span and scooped the ball over the diving goalkeeper. Just what you’d expect, they were back in it, when Rob Lee and Lady Luck intervened. Only minutes later, the pair brushed aside a tackle, surged toward the penalty area and delivered a totally wayward shot that sliced off a defender, and sent the flailing Barthez the wrong way as it looped into the net. Eruption at St. James’.
Back came the Reds to slowly press the Geordies into defence, but the resistance was stiff and energetic – inevitably the kind that cannot be maintained for ninety minutes, and most of the crowd were relieved to hear the whistle. At half time, after the rush for hot dogs, popcorn, whatever, I noticed the strange composition of the crowd immediately around me. The President and wife were rugby fans with binoculars and flasks and two months later would have covered their knees with a tasteful tartan blanket. The Geordie girl wore an old Ginola shirt, but, while of good heart, was an armchair Toon fan. The Canadian was hopelessly unprepared, completely blown away and glassy eyed by the whole occasion. Baseball it wasn’t. A few seats back were the only vocal fans, teenage lads in the latest shirts, their cheering and booing learnt from the TV. The game could have been another clever Nike ad. Behind me, the guy from Hull (I asked) had complained every two minutes when I shot to my feet in excitement. If football’s better in the sun it’s also better standing up. I gazed across in envy at the Toon Army in the Leazes . . . their bums never touched a seat all game.
The second half resumed much as the first had ended with Man U pressing toward the Leazes and Newcastle battling to cope. Rob Lee, legs spent, trundled out of midfield to be replaced by a full back, the honest but limited Barton. After 51 minutes, on a rare break, and with the visitor’s smoothness becoming increasingly ominous, Bellamy’s combination of pace and downright aggression won a free kick on the left. Relief at breathing space was replaced by surprise, and then delight, as Robert flung in a cross that somehow fell for Dabizas to instinctively smash home.
For a very brief period it seemed that a Newcastle win was not only possible but likely. However, the decisive replacement of a quiet Cole with a fresh and determined Paul Scholes changed the game. Within minutes, Ryan Giggs, who’d had the full back Griffin glued to his shadow all game, and who had hardly had a kick, slashed in a great shot from the edge of the box. 3 – 2. Shortly afterwards, despite a further rolling up of black and white sleeves, Veron, entering the penalty area on the diagonal and at speed, sidefooted in. Geordie hearts sank. It could only get worse.
During the build up to that Manchester equaliser and for the next 15 minutes, their flowing play was completely dominant, and as good as anything I’d ever seen. The pulsating rhythm of the whole team . . . out to Beckham, back to Keane, through to Veron, back to Keane, out to Giggs and on and on, was equally superb and painful to watch. If this had been Brazil, the drums would have been beating loud. Ninety nine percent of those present, and the billions watching on the box, expected them to go on and win. The Geordie crowd, who knew their football, and were also completely adjusted to failure and what might have been, fell into grudging, if appreciative, silence. At this point, the President’s wife, leaned across and whispered in my ear, “That’s what is wrong with football. At rugby we’d be cheering to lift our team.” Her misreading of the situation lost in her ‘knowing’ smile. I looked away, above at the Man U fans, glanced at the Geordie girl and said “Do they have to be so ******* loud.”
At this point, in typical, if mystical fashion, with the game ebbing away, things began to turn. Bellamy had been causing Laurent Blanc problems all afternoon and as the Frenchman’s legs began to tire, he and Robert began to make sporadic and telling raids down the left flank, culminating in the 83rd minute when they won a free kick out near the touchline. Robert flashed another wicked cross into the crowded penalty area and in the ensuing melee, Solano shot weakly against Barthez, and totally against the run of play, Shearer stabbed in the rebound from ten yards. The stadium erupted again, and it wasn’t just the Geordies, for those upstairs obviously believed they’d still win. The game was totally stoked!
We were now watching the best of football, the thrilling game and the beautiful game. Shape was lost, the play was stretched to the full length of the pitch and everyone with talent had room to play in the sun. First it was Bellamy, Robert at his side, skinning Blanc and racing to the byeline, and then swiftly to the other end where Scholes, lungs bursting on a trademark run, just failed to connect with a Beckham cross. Hearthumping stuff. As the clock wound down it was absolutely gripping. If they’d just give it to Shearer, he’d take it to the corner, minutes would pass and we’d win 4–3. It’s not sporting and an infuriating tactic to the neutral and opposing fan, but it has crept in and become an integral part of the modern game. Normally, I’d sympathise.
And so it happened. Shearer first worked the ball to the right hand corner. Two throw ins and a free kick later, and he was at it again down the left flank. Several throw ins more and to the enragement of the Man U players, Shearer stood with his foot on the ball on the touchline, but somehow dragged it over the line. Roy Keane, eyes and veins in his neck bulging, lost his cool with Shearer’s baiting and flung the throw at the back of the Geordie’s head. Shearer span around in anger, Gary Neville and the Ref intervened, and, red mist fully descended, Keane swung a full uppercut at Shearer’s jaw. This was no Di Canio push, but a caber tossing, hammer throw of an uppercut. It missed by a centimetre but knocked the yellow card from the Referee’s hand.
At that moment, these two icons of the Premiership, the best players of a whole decade, faced each other, a contrast of steely cool and red face wild. Shearer, his back to us, stood big and solid enough that George Bush’s tanks wouldn’t have pulled him over. The yellow card lay on the green turf. Time stood still, then a red flash and the Irishman was striding off to the tunnel. If that punch had been in the Bigg Market on a Saturday night, he would have been arrested. Memories of Paul Davis’ 10 match ban and Duncan Ferguson’s gaol term sprung to mind. He parted to mass howls of derision, and despite another late lunging Scholes run into the box, when he sidefooted wide instead of scoring, that was it.
The celebrations were wild. The Canadian, Geordie girl and I hugged and cuddled, united and drenched in emotion. The exultant crowd roared and roared and from the corner of an eye, I saw Laurent Robert race into the far penalty area, and sink to his knees, fists raised to the heavens in front of the adoring, saluting fans. Silvain Distin, who’d only been at the club a week and on the field for just three minutes, ran to join him and the two Frenchmen, joyously and unashamedly, rolled around in the warm Gallowgate dust. Lovely. As I glanced around the crowd in our section, it also dawned on me that most of the glum, smacked-arsed faces, in these executive rows, were actually ordinary Man U fans, including the guy from ‘Hull’, who’d paid over the top prices to sit on their hands and emotions for the entire game. The football had been great but their loss was inflamed by Shearer’s late outsmarting of Keane, rubbing Geordie salt into open wounds.
We made our way down through the jostling crowd, “We are the
Geordies . . .” echoing around the concrete stair wells. When we parted outside the ground, the whooping celebrations were going off like fireworks all around us. Saying our goodbyes, my workplace mask had long since dripped away, and instead of shaking hands with the President, I waved a fist in his face and grinned, “Howay the Toon!” He flashed an embarrassed smile and suddenly there I was, cover blown, transformed from successful consultant and solid family man to exposed, working class, football hooligan in only ninety minutes. I turned and marched away. Years later we all still talk about that day, that game, and we can all start a meeting or conversation with, “Do you remember Robert’s free kick . . .” and strangely, and I’m not too sure if I like this, my stock seems to have risen with them.
Some games you reminisce about, or think back and say, “that was fantastic.” This game actually felt fantastic. I was physically dizzy, drained and yet, magically energised. I turned to the kid walking parallel with me. He was a teenage supporter who looked pale, almost shell shocked.
“What a game.”
“I’ve never seen anything like that.” he replied shakily.
Further up the hill, I was alongside a young couple, when the guy turned and exclaimed jubilantly,
“What a game. What a ******* game.”
They disappeared into the new ghettoland flats that had replaced the ones the Asians and my daughter had moved into.
I gathered the rest of the family, and warm glow settling in, we drove off. It was hot in the car, we rolled the windows down, donned sun glasses, and joined the snaking traffic jam leading west out of the City. Fifty yards ahead I spotted a young Asian woman, black head scarf and flowing robes, child in pushchair, trying to edge her way through the traffic to cross the road. When I got there, the first to stop and wave her through, she glanced quickly at me and crossed. No smiles, no wave, no thanks. It would be easy to apply the adjectives proud, upright, dignified to that figure, but really she was just being herself. Nothing else, just crossing the road with her kid. Satisfactions, like victories, come in all shapes and sizes. We drove home.