Tooning In: A Newcastle Fan’s Journey

It was March of 2000, and the snow was starting to fall in Newcastle. It would have been picturesque—thick flakes and the blue light of late afternoon on old English streets—but I had been wandering around all day, it was freezing cold, and I was out of options.

I had come to Northeast England for one reason: to finally see my favorite football club, Newcastle United, play live. Their next home game was the following day against Chelsea. And it was sold out.

In the US all I would need was enough cash for a scalper. I assumed it would be the same here—wrongly. Throughout the day, Newcastle’s home pitch, St. James’ Park, loomed like Dorothy’s Emerald City—and me without any red shoes. All I heard from locals was, “It’s not going to happen.” I had flown all the way from Cambridge, MA, just for this, and I was not getting a ticket.

Although I had played soccer my whole life, I had barely heard of Newcastle until a trip to London in 1995. It was a winter of record cold, so I spent most of my time there in the pub; too shy to talk to people, I’d instead watch whatever football was playing on the bar TV.

Newcastle were on a tear. Led by flashy French stud David Ginola, they had the equivalent of a huge four game lead over Manchester United in the Premiership. When their midfielder, Rob Lee, posed for a goofy profile in a London paper in full Civil War regalia and astride a horse, I was hooked: any pro footballer willing to humiliate himself like that seemed like my kind of guy. I bought a Lee jersey and went home professing my love.

If Newcastle’s fans had known about my new crush, they wouldn’t have been pleased. I’m the Stephon Marbury of the La-Z-Boy set; wherever I go, good things vanish. The Knicks, the Yankees, the Jets: each had found fantastic, excruciating, ways to lose while I rooted for them. It wasn’t fair, then, to long-suffering Newcastle fans that I had climbed aboard when things were looking so good for them: predictably, the next few months witnessed one of the worst crashes in Premiership history, and Newcastle lost the league to United.

The next year they paid a then-record 15 million GBP for hometown hero Alan Shearer, and hopes rose again. Soon after, Shearer broke his foot, and I became devoted. I bought month-old Match magazines and started going to the Plough & Stars on Mass. Ave. whenever Newcastle was televised. It wasn’t easy: Live games were early Saturday morning, the only ones shown were against Manchester United or Arsenal, and on the rare occasion someone else showed up dressed in the Toon’s black and white, we’d be swamped in a sea of red jerseys singing about United’s Stretford End.

I followed the team as best I could, but for someone who didn’t live there—or even in England—it was impossible to really know what was happening. Likewise, the team’s rich history eluded me: I once wore my jersey to a marathon, and when a runner who happened to be from Newcastle saw me his face lit up. He yelled Newcastle’s classic cheer—“Ho’way the lads!”—but I had no idea how to respond. His face plummeted, and he was gone. It couldn’t have helped his time.

In 1998 Newcastle made it to the FA Cup final, then lost. Six other Newcastle followers showed up at the Plough & Stars to watch. They sang songs, but I didn’t know them. In their midst, I felt like the imposter I was.

In 1999 they made it to the final again—and lost again. There were high expectations at the beginning of the next season, too. And it, too, soon turned disastrous. Newcastle forced their manager to resign. Then Shearer scored five goals in their next home match, a stunning 8-0 win. Hopes were again raised, and I booked my ticket.

And so here I was in Newcastle. As it grew darker I felt a kind of despair creeping over me. In a way, I deserved what I had gotten. I had gone there looking for more than just a ticket—Newcastle, an industrial town with a heartbreaking team and not much else, had spoken to me on a level that went deeper than football: something about the cold winters and delayed gratification felt right to a second-place kid from Upstate New York. I had gone looking for legitimacy, for my own history with the club and town to shift from a theoretical similarity to a deeper level of authentic experience. What I had found instead was proof of what I was: a foreigner, and a somewhat silly one. I didn’t bleed black and white; I watched from a bar 3,000 miles away on an occasional Saturday.

So I decided to do the only thing I could: get drunk. It wasn’t even five p.m., and the only other people in the bar were a guy in a slick suit and a blonde who wouldn’t get off his lap. They were flirting loudly.

After a few beers, my gloom dissipating in the dull haze of alcohol, I began feeling chatty. When the guy went to the bathroom I turned to his girlfriend and asked the thousand-dollar question: “Any idea where a guy could get his hands on a ticket to tomorrow’s game?” She couldn’t believe I had flown all the way from Boston to see Newcastle play, and when her boyfriend came back she demanded I tell him the story.

When I had finished, they looked at each other and burst out laughing. The guy looked at me and said, “Mate, not only do I have a ticket, but I’ll give it to you.”

Why? The girlfriend, it turned out, wasn’t his girlfriend at all—she was his mistress, and they wanted to move in together. The only time they could look for an apartment without raising suspicion was the next day: He had been a season ticket holder since he was a boy, and that’s where his wife thought he’d be.

I offered to pay, but he refused money. There was, however, a small catch: season tickets came in a book that you had to show at the gate. I would have to meet his friends the next day so they could escort me in and get his book back. I wasn’t sure if it was a joke, if I’d show up and not find anybody—or, worse, find a cadre of hooligans ready to have some fun with the Yank. But the game! Free! I took down his info.

If Newcastle had seemed empty the day before, game-day brought the town to life. The sun was shining, the streets filled with black and white jerseys. I headed out, not really believing I’d get a ticket.

The bar from the day before was jammed, but the bartender directed me to a guy named Jim, slick guy’s friend. He introduced me to a pack of his buddies, and, after a couple of pints, produced the magic ticket book.

The group led me up toward St. James’, but not to the stadium. First we went to a private club for more friends and drinks. They asked me to recount my story, and were genuinely touched that their team—their town—could inspire such a journey. They bought me drinks and filled me in on all I had missed by being such a far-away fan: the insights and team controversies, the lingo, the songs.

I don’t remember much from the actual game—I was pretty drunk. I remember the stadium bathrooms were like those you’d expect to find in a jail. I remember everyone yelling at the Chelsea fans in the next section, and the riot police who laughed at it. Newcastle played pathetically, of course, and lost 2-0.

But the score wasn’t the point. That night Jim and his friends took me out. Each, in turn, asked about life in Boston; and each, in turn, told me about their lives as construction workers, cell-phone salesmen, brick-layers. They gave me their addresses; their girlfriends offered to take me clubbing the next night.

The next day I woke with a deep gash on my forehead and no idea how I got it. I felt hung over, bleary, and like the night before might have only been a dream. It seemed unreal—the luck of the thing.

It was still brutally cold as I headed toward a café for breakfast. The only people on the street were a crew of city workers jack-hammering away at the cobblestones. The sound ripped through my head like mortar fire.

But as I passed, the jack-hammering stopped. A guy in orange coveralls took off his eye-goggles; I didn’t recognize him, but he raised his fist and yelled out, “Boston Dave!” Then I remembered—it was Carl, a brutish guy from the night before who had talked quietly to me for a long time about how difficult it was in Newcastle: to get ahead on workmen’s wages, to pay to keep his baby girl in diapers, to live.

I raised my fist, too. “Carl,” I said. Then: “Ho’way the lads!”

He smiled then, wide and bright, steam billowing from his mouth. And then he yelled it out, too.

Dave, you are my kind of guy! You truly are a real fan of Newcastle United!

Dr Gloom    Dec 27, 03:46 PM    #

Dave, Did your curse cause the collapse at Bolton?

— Alan    Dec 27, 05:36 PM    #

Yeah—there I was excited to see Srnicek back in net after what, ten years? All apologies.

David Andrew Stoler    Dec 28, 08:29 PM    #

Did you hapen to see James Milner’s goal against United? That is what they call a corker!

EJ Murphy    Jan 2, 04:05 PM    #

Yes, what a goal. Here it is.

Austin    Jan 3, 10:45 PM    #

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