Tales From The Toon

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 26 September 2015.

When I left the office at around 5pm on Friday, and slowly paced across to my waiting car, there was a rising feeling of contentment. My week’s work completed, I would now be on holiday for five days, with a couple of Chelsea trips, to Newcastle and Porto, thrown in for good measure. Five days of relaxation with a few good mates and The Great Unpredictables.

Life rarely gets much better.

On the Saturday morning, I needed to be up early. I set the alarm for 4.30am, and meticulously packed for two trips. On the Sunday, the schedule was tight. I would be arriving back from the North-East at Bristol airport at 2.15pm, but heading out from the same airport to Portugal at 6pm. It is just as well that some good friends of mine live but a five minute car ride from the airport. It meant that I could leave my car, and bag for the European leg, at their house without having to drive back home.

I left home on the Saturday at around 6.15am. There was a great feeling of escape. The Mendip Hills were waking, and the air was crisp and perfect, with mist hugging the lower levels of land. Childhood memories flooded my mind. At Burrington Combe – a less dramatic version of Cheddar Gorge – one distinct memory returned. When I was a young’un, from the age of four or five onwards, whenever we went on a trip, I always seemed to take my football. There might be a lawn at the house of an uncle and aunt where I could pop out and kick a ball around while conversations inside continued. I always took my ball to beach visits. It was a constant companion.

A boy and his ball.

On one particular occasion, when my parents and I visited Burrington Coombe – I was surely no more than six years of age – we walked up to the top of a hill overlooking a deep valley. Until then, my father would always kick the ball back to me. On this occasion, I always remember that my mother joined in too. And I always remember being really impressed with this. It showed my mother in a new light, happy to join in a previously “father and son” activity, with dear Mum laughing and smiling as we kicked the ball between ourselves. That afternoon always sticks in my mind. It was one of those early moments of my childhood that brings me great pleasure in remembering.

A father, a mother, a son and a ball.

It has been a tough year, but these memories bring me great sustenance.

On the short drive from Pete’s house to the airport, we chatted about football, family and work (possibly in that order, I can’t remember) and it is ironic that Pete supports Newcastle United. When Newcastle United were newly-arrived in the Premier League in 1993, we always said that we would drive up to Newcastle for a game against Chelsea. We never did. I hope we can do it over the next few seasons, especially since air travel between Bristol and Newcastle has made this such a great option. Sadly, Pete has – like many Newcastle supporters – become totally disillusioned with the way the club is run of late. He would be tuning in to the England versus Wales rugby match after the game between our two clubs, and I had a horrible feeling that I knew which game he was looking forward to more.

I had to laugh when we spotted a gathering of magpies in the middle of a country lane as we approached the airport. They soon flew off. I quickly counted them.

“Five.”

“One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl and four for a boy.  Five for silver.”

“Silverware, Pete.”

“You’re joking aren’t you?”

“Yes, perhaps you are right. Silver hair maybe.”

As Pete dropped me off at Bristol airport, we exchanged pleasantries.

“Cheers mate. Enjoy the Toon. See you tomorrow.”

“Cheers Pete. Enjoy…the rugby.”

The flight left Bristol at 8.40am and I recognised a smattering of West Country blues on board. I don’t attend every Chelsea game at St. James’ Park – far from it – due to the long distances involved. This would only be my ninth such trip. But I have enjoyed them all. Newcastle is one of my favourite away destinations. In 2013, I flew up for the first-time and, despite the 0-2 defeat, had an enjoyable time, though I am still struggling to remember how I managed to get back from the centre of the city to my hotel that evening. In 2015, there would be no boozy repeats; I needed to keep a clear head for Sunday.

On the metro in to the city, I chatted to a Chelsea fan from Weston-Super-Mare who was on the flight. He used to sit right behind me in the MHU for around five seasons. I see him sporadically. It was great to see him again.

Although the West of England was full of early morning sun, a bank of cloud enveloped the North of England as we crossed the Pennines. Newcastle was grey, but thankfully not cold. As soon as I reached the city centre at around 10.15am, I retraced my steps from 2013 and headed down to the quayside where I enjoyed a late breakfast, overlooking the River Tyne.

This area is wonderfully photogenic, with four or five bridges of various styles traversing the river. My camera clicked away madly, especially when the Gateshead Millennium Bridge was raised to allow a yacht pass underneath.

The iconic rail bridge was adorned with a “Rugby World Cup 2015” banner and I noted many rugby fans drinking in the river-side bars. Maybe there is a game at St. James’ Park on the Sunday. I really would not know, nor even care. I enjoyed a pint in the “Hop and Cleaver”, which is a wonderfully renovated old pub, with exposed brickwork and high ceilings. I then huffed and puffed my way up the 107 steps to the high land by the site of the original castle. Porto, too, is a city located on a river with high gorges and iconic bridges. It will be a theme for these few days.

At around 1pm, I met up with Kev from Edinburgh in “The Victoria Comet.” I passed over his match ticket, and we chatted about our trip to Porto. I first met Kev over in Lisbon virtually a year ago and here we were again. I then met up with Joe and Michelle, from Chicago, who I first met in Turin in 2009, and – most recently – in Charlotte in the summer. Another ticket was handed over, amid talk about their plans for Porto, too. Joe and Michelle distribute “CFCUK” in the USA and it was a pleasure to see them again.

I excused myself and headed up to my hotel in West Jesmond to check in. I enjoyed a pint in a local pub, The Lonsdale, as I waited to catch a metro train back in to the centre. I overheard a group of Newcastle fans bemoaning the state of their club. I had a quiet chuckle to myself when I heard one of them recount the famous story of the loathed Joe Kinnear, as their director of football, hearing good stories from a club scout about a player playing in a foreign team and making tentative requests to sign him. This player, infamously, already was a Newcastle player and was merely on loan with this team.

As they say :

“You couldn’t make it up.”

On the walk to the stadium, on that little cut through in the Chinatown area, I happened to spot “The Back Page” which was an Aladdin’s Cave of football memorabilia, and not just of the home town team. I have mentioned before in these reports of my fascination with the former Newcastle United and Chelsea player Hughie Gallacher, a ticking time bomb of a centre forward, who starred for both teams in the ‘thirties. I have long wanted to buy a book written on the 5’ 6” firebrand by Paul Joannou, so I thought I would try my luck. At first, I was met with a negative response from Kev, the shop owner.

“Maybes on Amazon like, and then yez talking silly money, maybes £150.”

We continued talking and he could tell that I knew my football. He then seemed to think they might have copies and so disappeared downstairs. He came back with not one but three copies.

“We have so many Newcastle books down there. I had this inkling we might have one.”

I was ecstatic, but the price was a £50.

“Put it to one side and I’ll be back after the game.”

On the short walk up to the stadium, I stopped to take a photograph of the Bobby Robson statue.

After the 107 steps earlier in the day, I was now confronted with 140 steps to the top of the towering stand at the Leazes End. I had forgotten how small the pitch looks from the top tier. The Chelsea support, as always in Newcastle, was swollen by a large number of Rangers – and Hearts – fans, who took over the bar areas with some of their songs and chants. I momentarily spotted Simon’s son Milo – eighteen now, and travelling independently of father – soaked in beer. His face was a picture, though.

We had tickets for three thousand and there were only a few empty seats.

The home areas took forever to fill up. At 5pm, the ground looked empty.

Newcastle were in a terrible run of form, and many conversations that I enjoyed throughout the day included these words :

“Surely we will win today.”

The news was that Jose Mourinho had again decided to go with Cahill and Zouma; no JT. Upfront, I was glad to see Loic Remy given the start. Elsewhere, there were few surprises.

Begovic.

Ivanovic, Cahill, Zouma, Apilicueta.

Matic, Fabregas.

Oscar, Hazard, Pedro.

Remy.

There were unfamiliar faces aplenty in the home team. At last the home areas were populated, but I spotted many empty seats; those of disinterested and disenfranchised Toon fans.

We began OK – lots of the ball – but as the first-half progressed, there were rising levels of frustration within the Chelsea support at our general play. After our three consecutive wins and a presumed upturn in our confidence, we were showing exactly the types of problems inherent within our poor start to the season.

Lack of movement off the ball.

No pace.

No width.

A lack of intensity.

No pressing.

Defensive frailties.

Exposure down our right.

Possession with no penetration.

A lack of leadership.

The nine deadly sins.

As the half progressed, our noisy support waned. I remember a Remy snapshot and a fine effort from Febregas. But Newcastle were creating more chances than us, and we had to rely on Asmir Begovic to keep us from going behind. The mood in the away seats was of disbelief and at times anger.

“Cam on Chowls, get in to them.”

Blame the first goal on me. I stupidly commented to Gary :

“Oh God, the last thing we want is to conceded just before half-time.”

With that, an innocuous cross from the Newcastle right from Anita drifted over the head of Kurt Zouma and Perez, to our disbelief, was able to bring the ball down, with Ivanovic too far away to act, and adroitly touch the ball in off the post.

It was a goal which absolutely summed up our woes in 2015.

The home support roared, we were gobsmacked.

During half-time, this typical of my comments :

“Shite. Absolute shite. We had two or three chances, they have had six or seven. Have we won a tackle? We have made a very poor team look good. With City losing again, here was a chance for us to make a statement.”

In the second-half, the roundly booed Remy (who played for Newcastle in 2013/2014 and scored against us in the corresponding fixture that season) had two headers, though one was offside. Our play improved, with a little more drive, but a goal seemed as distant as ever. After a fine run by Hazard, the move broke down, and Newcastle immediately broke away in one of their first real attacks of the game. A corner ensued and we watched – absolutely aghast – as Wijnaldum managed to get his stooping head to a low cross to head home past Begovic. I am not usually angry with our heroes, but on this occasion I screamed “free header” in absolute anger.

I was silent, stewing in my own juices, for minutes after.

“For Fuck Sake.”

I wondered what John Terry was thinking.

So, here we were.

0-2 in 2013.

1-2 in 2014.

0-2 in 2015.

Despite our slight improvement in our play, we were staring defeat in the eyes. The away end was now full of supporters who were venting more and more scorn on the manager and the players. The manager had been wanting to bring on Falcao – for Remy – and Willian – for Matic – for a while, but they now appeared.

“To be honest Kev, I can see them getting a third.”

Our play was still frustrating us all. Some supporters left to return to the bars of The Bigg Market.

Ramires replaced Oscar. His impact was great.

Eden Hazard was showing a little more spirit, and he played the ball square to our Brazilan number seven. Without hardly a thought, he ripped a fine shot high past Krul in to the top corner.

“Get in.”

It was as surprising as it was impressive.

The spirit raised within our ranks, our support levels climbed several notches. Hazard led the way, but was often crowded out. A magnificent ball from deep from Fabregas, his head bandaged now, picked out a run from Pedro, but his touch was heavy and the chance gone.

With three minutes remaining, Willian swung in a free-kick towards Krul’s goal. I had my camera poised and clicked just as the ball evaded Ramires’ lunge and dropped in past the dithering Newcastle ‘keeper. It was a goal which was so similar to the one against Tel Aviv recently.

“YEEEES.”

Kev and I grabbed each other around the waist and bounced up and down for ages.

We were loud now.

“Champions Of England. We Know What We Are.”

There was joy and also disbelief in our and. It was an amazing turnaround. We even had the chance to win it in the last few minutes, but Ramires’ header was dramatically clawed away by Krul.

Two points dropped or a point gained?

We will know in May.

I bounced down the 140 steps and we were out in to the Newcastle night. I said my goodbyes to Kev outside “The Back Page” – it billed itself as “A Football Pervert’s Paradise” – and went in to purchase the book on Hughie Gallacher. The shop owner slipped in a couple of other books too. That was a nice gesture. We had a good old chat about the game and our two respective clubs. Perfect.

It had been a fine day on the banks of the River Tyne.

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