On a good day – and it has to be a good day – you can still feel it, a heaviness that hangs in the air like a soupy fog. Call it sentiment, hogwash or delusion, but I swear you can feel it; those countless, trooping footfalls, those million hearts beating before yours. Perhaps it is because Newcastle have always been here, the same stretch of turf Jackie sped across, where Keegan dared you to dream, where Shearer raised his right arm in celebration. Ghosts, everywhere.
Perhaps it is because you first came here with your dad, or your mam or brothers, where you stood for so long that your legs locked in protest. Where you rocked on your feet, awash with drink, where you communed with mates, p*ssed and swaying. When St James’ Park is empty and you can find a space to gaze at, free of that scarring, jarring advertising, you can still feel those relationships, that extension of who you are.
At its most basic, this is what a football club is about. A club, by definition, is a collection of people brought together by a common cause and when it comes to football and the North East, there is a direct correlation between heavy industry and release, the rhythm of a working week culminating in this expression of identity, family and noise. Even when things were bad – and, by God, things have been bad – we turned up and we sang, because this is who we were.
But who are we now? Through not-quite thick, thin and thinner, we bore witness and we did so in the hope of better to come. We did so because we had a player to watch, we did so because however witless and rubbish the team was, it was our rubbish and our team. Our history. And we did so because forever beyond the fingertips, there was this great straining and yearning. My kingdom for a trophy, any trophy.
From a trophy to atrophy; this has been Newcastle’s journey under Mike Ashley. They no longer strain for anything and certainly not for sporting glory. They are profitable yet specialise in footballing austerity, disengaged from their supporters and the city they tower over, doling out dry, unemotional, corporate statements, speaking about cups as if they were a threat to the lifeblood of a club rather than the essence of it.
Through the whole compendium of Ashley’s contentious missteps – Kinnear and Wise (who sound like the worst comedy double-act of all time), Wonga and name-changes, that bitter, loveless relegation, the belittling of Keegan and Shearer and too many other acts of vandalism to mention – there has been a stoicism from supporters, a few flashes of fury aside. However desperate it becomes, turn up and turn up. Turn up, regardless.
It has not all been terrible. There has been a merit in doing things differently, in promoting self-sufficiency in an era of financial restriction, in seeking young, hungry players of good value after too many vanity signings, in targeting stability at an institution which had been reconstructed on quicksand foundations. Yet the model has become stale, lacking the intensity and innovation to push things forward and stability has become stagnation.
Stability is fine when it is the byproduct of competence. When it becomes the goal itself, corrosion sets in. If cups are not a priority, what is? Why would footballers commit to a club which seems content to exist in mid-table, never over-reaching? For two seasons in succession, Newcastle have effectively boarded the doors in January, either selling their best player or delaying the appointment of a permanent manager. What message does that deliver?
John Carver may have struck upon something when he talked recently about the character of a squad which has contrived to lose five consecutive meetings with Sunderland, but how can players understand what Newcastle and that fixture represents when Newcastle represents nothing? What does it say to them, to anybody, when judgement is continually being deferred, whether to the next transfer window or until the new man arrives?
It was at St James’ that I first knew terror and felt love, that enormous, befuddling stretch of green amid monochrome, those thronging, swearing, dangerous crowds. It was where I saw Paul Gascoigne’s sharp elbows and bagatelle feet, his chip-shop shine and where I realised there could be poetry in football, where I felt a powerful outburst of regional belonging when the North East was being trashed by a despised government. It made me long to do what I do.
As a journalist, those feelings mutate; they have to. I love Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Hartlepool, have built friendships and relationships there and feel a shared kinship (I realise most people will not), and I know that if I’m any good at all at this stupid, wonderful, ridiculous job it’s because I’m writing about my home, the place I care about most, an area of outstanding beauty and goodness, passion and integrity.
Over the last couple of years, Newcastle have made me want to turn away. From this loveless club, this lack of access and openness, from this cold, hard, business. Anecdotally, I know those feelings are harboured by others – by others who pay for their tickets – because many of them are friends and family. Perhaps it is a fact of life, of advancing years and other priorities and perhaps those people are being replaced, but something is changing. Soul is being lost.
This is only part of the context behind Tottenham Hotspur this weekend and the notion of a boycott. It is my context, really. When such a big part of us has been about being there and being there forever, the idea of wilfully not being there is agonising, whether in terms of one match or more, and because this daft and vital game is now my occupation, it is not my place to urge people to stay away. It is and should be a personal decision.
What these few days provide, however, is an opportunity; an opportunity for supporters, for all of us, to reflect on what it is that we want from our football club(s). What do we expect from them? And what do we receive in return? And if the answer to any of that is unsatisfactory then how, if at all, can we go about registering our disapproval? If Ashley will not go until his asking price for Newcastle is met, then is there a point to protest for protest’s sake?
But there comes a moment, whether it is in football, politics or anything else, when a line is crossed and a stand must be taken. There is power in simply stating enough is enough. However difficult or impossible the circumstances, there are times when you have to say this is not being done in my name, this is not who I am, what I stand for, what I believe. Is that moment now? Go or don’t go on Sunday, but there is a choice beyond impotence and apathy.
Ashley owns Newcastle, but he is not Newcastle. He is not the blessed air in that stadium, the air that you breathe and which your relatives and friends and idols inhaled and exhaled before you. He is not the club. The club is your memories, the club is inside you, that power, that meaning, that identity, that black and white beauty, those long bus journeys, those bleary mornings and late nights, belonging and feeling, loving and hurting. Those good days. Your family. Your club. The club is you.
By George Caulkin, Northern Sports Correspondent of The Times