Passion for the game never dies, even when it looks like the club you follow is dead on its feet. This is the predominant feeling in the camp that once would have flocked to St. James’ Park, some may argue, rather lemming-esque. Newcastle fans however, are no lemmings, and the division caused by the uncertainty around the club’s ownership and the subsequent appointment of Steve Bruce as Rafa Benitez’s replacement has been the catalyst to attempt to bring about the change they want to see at the top.
When 3pm on Saturday rolls around again, those who have known nothing except walking the terraces of the stadium they love, in the city they love, to watch the club they love, will have to find a temporary home. Blackpool fans did it, Blackburn fans did it, and Newcastle fans are planning on doing it. You feel like you belong up in the stands belting an anthem older than you are, but when you no longer recognise the club you grew up loving, there is a gap to fill. And where better to fill that gap than right at home?
The average attendance in the National League for the 18/19 season was over 1,900, whilst the step below, the National League North and South gained an average of just over 1,000. This was higher on average than the previous season. But what is it that is drawing people towards non-league football?
It certainly lacks the glitz and glam of the Premier League, yet there is a sense of ownership here that is not felt at the larger, more industrial like clubs. As a fan you feel valued, not just someone that can make an owner more money. That is primarily what is behind the boycotting of Newcastle’s opening Premier League game against Arsenal.
“What we need is a message. Not just to Ashley but also to the Premier League and football as a whole, that this man is toxic. Your brand will be tarnished and your product degraded. The ‘best league in the world’ seeming tolerant of a club existing solely to promote one of the country’s most loathed brands. We need him gone from our club.” – a statement of joint Newcastle Supporters’ Groups outlines the reasoning behind the boycott of the Arsenal game which saw a few thousand Newcastle fans miss the season-opener.
The National League and the steps below that are certainly growing in popularity and the disillusionment of League Football fans can definitely provide a welcome boost to the grassroots game.
More than just a day out
Programmes, pints, chips, the eternal northern argument of whether gravy or curry would be the desired companion to said portion of chips, an ex-Premier League player, and the son of an ex-Premier League player. As preseason friendlies in the former industrial town of Consett go, this one was of particular note.
In charge of a new look Gateshead side is Mike Williamson. The more eagle-eyed reader will remember the name as the steel in Newcastle’s back line in the 13/14 season which earned him some rather high praise from Toon fans, who headed up a campaign to have him in England’s World Cup squad for the competition in Brazil that summer. Williamson, who played for Gateshead during the team’s turbulent 18/19 season which saw the side narrowly miss out on the National League playoffs yet be relegated as a result of financial irregularities and an ownership which seemed intent on destroying the club’s identity, has been appointed player-manager of the now fan-owned club. This was of course an incentive for the Consett locals to get to the game. The Premier League ties did not stop there with Gateshead fielding the son of former Newcastle defender Nikos Dabizas at the heart of their defence. Many will remember Dabizas as the unfortunate victim of a fluke ‘skill’ from Bergkamp who scored ‘that’ outrageous goal against Newcastle in 2002.
Where else could you see an ex-Premier League defender as player-manager at a pitch that houses football from senior level to under 6s?
But the football on show from the Consett side was not short of talent. Some flair and skilful counter attacking in the first half gave Consett a shock lead against a Gateshead team full of trialists and youth players. This was immediately a game that typified the lower divisions of English football. A game that was competitive, tough, and hard-fought. A game that, even as a friendly, would be treated as do or die. The lower leagues have a reputation of being ‘rough’ but this was not the case. The viewing was a fantastic experience that more and more football fans are turning to.
One Gateshead fan spoke of his reasoning behind quitting his boyhood club Sunderland in favour of the non-league side. He mentioned the big money in the Premier League and the fact that fans became a “commodity”. That being treated as the “pawn in a businessman’s venture” was not what he wanted to experience as a football fan. Thus, he made a decision to start to follow his local non-league team, Gateshead. There is a feeling of ownership among the fans who rescued their club in the summer. A feeling that they belong at their club. They have a transparency with the ownership, who now regularly communicate with them. The frustration felt by many premier league fans is grounded in a disconnection. With Newcastle fans for example, the summer of “no comment” that followed a 13th place finish and takeover rumour only stoked the flames of the rebellion that so desperately want Ashley to step aside for the good of the club.
The non-league feels like a family. Consett’s owner joined the stands, pint in hand, to celebrate the third and fourth goals scored by his team – one of which a coolly chipped penalty. The Northern League Division One team had beaten the National League North side 4-1. No animosity between the sets of fans, primarily because most people at Belle Vue Stadium were there simply to see a game of football. They weren’t interested in the politics of boycott or protest, for 90 minutes – most of which in torrential downpour – 378 football fans witnessed a game of passion, skill, determination, and grit. The 4-1 score-line was in no way undeserved.
What next for fans who love the game but want to boycott?
There remains much controversy surrounding a potential boycott. People couldn’t possibly give up their routine or miss out on their fix of football, whilst others have simply fallen out of love with the commercial entity that Newcastle United has become. Profit and turnover mean very little to the passionate football fan, who just wants to see a team that tries rather than a team that wins everything. It will be hard for Newcastle fans to turn away from their tradition of matchday, but history has shown that mass boycotts and action work. West Ham’s recent spending is arguably the result of a storming of the director’s box by fans recently. Joelinton, Saint-Maximin et al are a good start, but feel like a kick in the teeth to Rafa Benitez, who asked for more money but was not trusted to spend it himself.
Newcastle fan groups have worked in alliance with many of the local non-league clubs, many of which have been kind enough to drop ticket prices for Geordie season ticket holders. From experience, it is well worth looking into. Consett for example are a team looking to compete at the top of their division, which recently saw South Shields – another high aiming non-league club – as champions. Any Newcastle fan – or indeed any Northern football fan – who is disillusioned with their club, I implore you to find out about your local non-league club. There you will find a friendly welcome and good football. The 3pm Saturday kick-off is far from dead. The revival of grassroots starts with the migration of boycotting fans to the non-league.
Failing that, there is the ever-growing Newcastle United Supporters Trust (NUST) which is £1 for membership. Rafa himself is an honorary life member and there exists a forum by which fans can share their views in a safe space to try and discern what is best for the club.
To end, I leave you with the words of Rafa Benitez: “what would an 18-year-old Newcastle supporter think about his club now?”
If you have fallen out of love with Newcastle United, it doesn’t mean you have to fall out of love with football.