Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 26 August 2018.
Not so long after I picked up Parky from his Wiltshire village at around 6am on Saturday, my car slowed to allow a black cat, leaping from one hedgerow to another, to cross the narrow country lane. PD and I could not immediately decide if a black cat crossing one’s path was deemed as good or bad luck, though we feared the latter.
I thought about Sunderland’s relatively new, and quite ridiculous, nickname as being certified evidence that it was indeed bad luck, a warning of misfortune at best or something graver still at worst. The Black Cats was surely dreamt up by some marketing consultant for Sunderland so as to instil fear into their opponents.
Beware the Black Cats. Although not in their current third tier predicament.
The Black Cats. Destined to strike fear into Sunderland’s opposition.
Meow bloody meow.
But the message was clear. Black cats were definitely seen as a bad omen. It was just what I bloody needed at the start of our trip to Tyneside. I had not seen us win at St. James’ Park since 2009, and our last win up there was in 2011.
I needed all the good luck charm I could find.
And then, just moments after, it just got worse.
A single Magpie flew past.
Sunderland’s menacing Black Cats and Newcastle United’s sorrowful Magpie.
I felt like turning the car around there and then.
But I drove on. I wasn’t going to let such irrationality influence another, hopefully, memorable jaunt to the North-East.
My alarm had sounded at 4.15am, and I collected PD at 5.30am. It was safe to say that we were the only ones on the road. It did not seem five minutes ago since we were last headed to Bristol Airport, and then to Newcastle. Our last league game of last season was of course against the same opposition. The two fixtures were fifteen weeks apart, but in league football terms, just one hundred and eighty minutes apart.
At the airport, we faced a two-hour delay.
The flight would eventually leave at around 10.45am.
Maybe we should have taken heed of the Black Cat and the Magpie after all.
Not to worry, we soon landed at the airport, took a cab into town and booked into our hotel down on the quayside, right under the darkened shadows of the green ironwork of the Tyne Bridge. We were out and about – “The Slug & Lettuce” – by about 12.45pm. The first three pints of the day – “Peronis” – did not touch the sides. We were soon joined by Andy, a friend from back home, and his good friend Russ, who is a Newcastle season ticket holder, and who we met back in May. Russ and Andy were in the army together, and I have known for a few years that Andy always stays with Russ when Chelsea play in the north-east. We then dropped into the “Newcastle Arms”, a first-time visit for me. Here was another delightful Geordie pub, stripped bare to expose its red brick, but with comfortable chairs and good food too. The plastered walls of dingy pubs of the past have long since been banished from this part of the Toon.
And it is a fantastic little area, right under the high arches of Newcastle’s famous bridge, full of pubs and bars, with rowdiness and laughter, with shrieking females and strutting lads, not so mad as the Bigg Market atop the hill, but a wonderfully evocative location.
On a whim, Russ invited us back to his local pub to continue the drinking session. We were more than happy to head out of the city centre. I, for one, didn’t want this trip to be a simple repeat of the one in May. We hopped into two cabs outside the “Akenside Traders”, and were soon “ganning” over the Tyne, into Gateshead, past Paul Gascoigne’s home town of Dunston and past the Metro Centre. After only ten minutes, we found ourselves in The Sun at Swalwell, where we met the landlord Dave, who quickly bought us a round of lagers.
We chatted to the locals, who were more than welcoming, and we had an absolute blast. We bloody loved it. I chatted to Russ about all sorts of football stories, and the beers and laughter flowed. There was an impromptu photo call with one of the locals, who proceeded to take off his shirt to expose his NUFC tattoos. Bit of a Geordie tradition that, I fear.
Dave, the landlord, was wearing a Bobby Robson shirt. Bless him.
Amid the laughter, there was one sad story. In 2014, two Newcastle United supporters – John Alder and Liam Sweeney – perished when the plane on which they were passengers was shot down over the Ukraine in a sickening act of terrorism. They were on their way to see their team play in New Zealand.
John Alder, who only missed one Newcastle United game in forty years, and who was affectionately known as “the undertaker” because of the black suit that he wore to games, often used to drink in “The Sun” at Swalwell.
RIP Bonny Lads.
Dave bought us a round of Sambucas as a leaving gift and we jumped back into a waiting cab to take us back into town.
At the Redhouse, we again met up with Kev, Gillian and Richard from Edinburgh– no strangers to these tales – and then Alan and Jo from Atherstone. We nipped over the road for a curry, and then the drinking continued at the “Akenside Traders” and then up the hill at the oddly named “Colonel Porter’s Emporium.”
We had been “on it” – and had valiantly stopped ourselves from falling “off it” – for around ten hours.
Although The Toon was still bouncing, we decided to call it a night at around 11pm.
On the Sunday, in an exact copy of May, we breakfasted at “The Quayside” pub. We were first joined by Foxy, from Dundee, who last appeared in these tales for the Barcelona away game, and it was a pleasure to see him again. He had only decided to come down to the game at 6am that morning. I was happy to offer him my one spare ticket. We were also joined by my work colleague Craig who, with his young son, had driven up from Wiltshire in the wind and rain on the day, a horrific journey which had taken him seven hours. Outside, the rain was lashing down. The difference between May and August was black and white.
Four more pints of lager to the good, I hopped into one of the two cabs that took us to the ground.
We took our seats way up in the upper tier of the Leazes End.
Everything was grey, the seats, the stadium, the steel of the roof, the city outside, the hills on the horizon.
We all had jackets on. It wasn’t ridiculously cold, but when the wind blew you knew about it. It was like November in August.
The kick-off approached. There had been changes from the Arsenal game.
Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso
Kovacic – Jorginho – Kante
Pedro – Morata – Hazard
Eden’s inclusion surprised me; Sarri had hinted that he would be rested further.
The Ramones “Blitzkrieg Bop” thundered around the stadium, complete with images of Newcastle victories over us in recent seasons on the TV screens. This then gave way to Mark Knopfler’s “Local Hero”, a song which I find particularly stirring. I always remember that after England’s exit to West Germany in Italia ’90, as a precursor to our third/fourth place play-off against Italy in Bari, the BBC team aired a five-minute segment in which the rich and varied talents of the wunderkind Gascoigne were featured, and the instrumental “Local Hero” was chosen to illustrate it. It was as one of the most evocative pieces of imagery that I had ever seen. It captured my imagination in 1990, and hearing the same song, high up and above St. James’ Park in 2018 I was again stirred.
It was just a lovely moment. I stood and looked out over the grey rooftops of the ancient city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and breathed it all in.
“It’s not a bad life is it, this?”
I had a little smile to myself, only for myself, but now shared with everyone.
The moment fair took my breath away.
Behind me, the yellow “away” flag fluttered past.
Memories of my first game up in Newcastle in 1984 when Kerry, Wee Pat and Speedo wore the famous “lemon” hoops.
This would be my eleventh trip to St. James’ but nothing compares to my first time.
This little clip brings the memories tracing back.
In 2018, Chelsea were in all blue. We were far enough away from the kit for it to look semi-respectable. The Newcastle United kit this season jars a little too; thin stripes, not their style, and white socks too, not their usual black. It did not look right. It did not look like Newcastle United to me. I noted a surprisingly number of unoccupied seats in the directors’ box area of the main Milburn Stand, plus many empty ones in the top tier to our right. The locals’ displeasure with Mike Ashley is obviously continuing.
The game began. A kick on Eden Hazard in the first minute was not punished.
It was quickly evident that Newcastle were quite happy to sit deep. We absolutely dominated possession. With Jorginho and Hazard seeing a lot of the ball, we tried to cut in to the massed ranks of the thin-striped black and white shirts.
Ironically, the only effort that troubled either of the two goalkeepers came from the boot of Murphy, but his low speculative shot was ably saved by Arrizabalaga. A deep cross, into the corridor of uncertainty – which sounds to me like it should be in a hospital where doctors carry out gender-reassignment – from the trust right foot of Azpilicueta could not – quite – reach the not so trusty foot of Alvaro Morata.
We passed and passed. We passed and passed. It was rather one-paced, and not exactly thrilling. But the away fans were in very fine voice in the first thirty minutes of the game. But one song grated, as it always grates.
Rafa Benitez last managed us over five years ago.
If Chelsea fans really do not care about Rafa, why do they bloody sing about him to this day?
How about a song for the current manager or – shock horror – current players?
A song about Rafa, in 2018, is as fucking tedious as it gets.
We still controlled the game, with little quick triangles played in an attempt to create space, or at least a diversion, from which space could be gained. A Rudiger effort was well wide. Hazard curled one past the post. A Morata effort was driven wide. The Toon ‘keeper still had not made a save in anger.
Then, a rare Newcastle effort, a deep cross from a free kick, but Rondon headed well wide.
“Free header, though, Alan” I muttered.
On thirty-four minutes, the home fans eventually raised a song for their home town heroes.
“Newcasuuuuul, Newcasuuuuul, Newcasuuuuul.”
I had never known them so quiet.
In 1984, their mesmeric “Howay The Lads” sent shivers down our spines, and made our knees tremble. But on this drizzly August afternoon in 2018, this was post-modern support at its most timid, lukewarm and insipid.
A Pedro effort cleared the bar. But space was at an absolute premium. Only once did I remember us playing an early ball, out to Pedro, but nobody else reacted quick enough for us to seize an advantage by gambling and drifting past players. After some luxurious tip tap toe shuffling from Hazard, a Pedro shot at last made the Geordie ‘keeper make a save. At half-time, despite us having so much of the ball, I did wonder if we would ever pierce their defence.
The second-half began with the script unchanged. If anything, Newcastle defended deeper still.
Kante often attacked his area of the pitch, but it seemed to me that this was – at the moment – like a square peg in a round hole. One of the best holding midfielders of his generation, worldwide, being asked to go into uncharted territories seemed odd to my layman’s eyes. In contrast, Jorginho was hardly asked to do much defending, but he acted as a metronome for our play – pass, pass, pass – and I noted that he grew a little frustrated with the lack of movement of his runners ahead of him. Azpilicueta shot at the ‘keeper. And then a heavy touch from Morata and the moment was lost.
On the hour mark, I spoke to Alan.
“This is like a game of chess, but we have too many pawns. We are missing knights, rooks and queens.”
We were missing movement off the ball. We were devoid of pace. Of course, they were closing down all space and suffocating us, but I wanted a little more craft, a little more vision, a little more magic. And we then seemed to stretch them, just as I had wanted. I suspect that the home team were tiring. Hazard and Alonso were now turning their men inside and out.
With twenty-five minutes to go, Olivier Giroud replaced Alvaro Morata.
Then Willian came on for Pedro. There is surely not much to choose between these two wide men.
Rudiger, who had been a calming influence alongside the more tempestuous Luiz, crashed a howitzer against the bar from the southern banks of the River Tyne.
The support turned up the notches.
It was only us making the noise.
The locals were not vocal.
With fifteen minutes to go, Hazard played in the raiding Alonso. From my vantage point – through my telephoto lens, “snap” – it looked like the trailing leg of a defender had stopped him in his tracks.
Eden Hazard flicked the ball past the ‘keeper’s dive and how we – and he – celebrated.
Alan Price : “They’ll have to come at us now like pet, man.”
Chris Donald : “Come on wor little diamonds.”
Without irony, the Geordies sung.
“Sing when you’re winning.”
Sickeningly, our lead – deserved, surely – only lasted a few minutes. Out on the right flank, an agricultural challenge by Yedlin on Giroud – from our vantage point some five miles away, it looked like a forearm smash, as much loved by Mick McManus and Kendo Nagasaki – and some Chelsea players appeared to stand like pillars of stone, waiting for a free-kick that never came. Yedlin whipped in a cross towards the near post and with David Luiz horribly flat-footed, substitute Joselu headed strongly past our kid to equalise.
The home support at last roared.
The clock ticked on.
With three minutes remaining, a long searching (as in “slightly over hit”) ball found Giroud, who did ever so well to head the ball back towards Marcos Alonso on his wrong wing. He volleyed the ball through the legs of a defender and we watched, open mouthed, as the leg of Yedlin – karma – diverted it into the yawning goal.
Newcastle United 1 Chelsea 2.
A huge celebration took place in the upper section, three-thousand strong, of the Leazes End. We had won our third consecutive league game of the season.
Nine points out of nine.
Well done, lads.
We met up outside the away end, and slowly walked down to the Quayside. The three of us were joined by Raymondo, who tends to favour Chelsea colours, unlike us. As we walked past Sunday evening revelers, lads full of bravado and beer and girls in short skirts and high heels, past bar after bar, a local man in his ‘seventies, spotted Raymondo and approached him. I looked back and saw him shake Raymondo’s hand, wishing us well this season.
Canny people, the Geordies, like.
At last we had beaten the Geordies.
And, for those upset with my comments about Rafa Benitez, here is a photograph of him walking alone.