Rollercoasters are something we often use to describe life at Newcastle United. This year was no different. From the brink of ‘Oblivion’ in the middle of March to fighting off our ‘Nemesis’ in October. We’ve been riding the ‘Big Dipper’ when it comes to form but perhaps Amanda Staveley would prefer a namecheck for ‘The Ultimate’ at Lightwater Valley given how long it seems to have dragged on.

You won’t be surprised to find that this is latter stages heavy, but here’s my top ten #NUFC moments of 2021. Read it in your best Tony Blackburn voice and play ‘Pick of the Pops’ while you’re at it..

“In at number..”

10 – Matt ‘Lionel’ Ritchie – “Hello”

I thought I’d start with one of the wilder dressing room tales that came out of NUFC when we were in dire need of leadership last season. Up walks Matt Ritchie to the door of Steve Bruce to call him a “coward”. Chinese whispers and all that but I think he went full Duncan Ferguson. You’ll get varying reports from journalists depending on their loyalty to our former commander in chief but I feel as though this was a watershed moment, that united fans with our radgie on the wing. For once we felt like the players were validating our concerns with Bruce and shutting down the idea that the training ground was some sort of Butlins weekend with Uncle Steve. This small argument at Darsley Park might have just led to the lads airing concerns openly and creating more unity for the near perfect run in that saved us.

9 – Me and Mr Jones

Our marquee signing of the January window was… another assistant manager to help the manager do his job better. Still baffles me to this day but hey, couldn’t get any worse could we? The winter period from late 2020 started an 11 game winless run including two cup exits and gifting Sheffield United their first win. When Graeme Jones made his first touchline appearance fans instantly spotted his supposed involvement at Goodison Park. The result was a brilliant attacking display that saw Everton continue their annual capitulation against the Mags. Much like the last entry, fans gleefully took to their online stands to poke fun at the fact Jones had an instant impact, especially after a visibly rattled Bruce took questions about his new right hand man. He wasn’t bothered, despite Jones being banished to the stands a few days later when Palace quickly burst out bubble of optimism. As we have come to realise, Jones was never the answer but he did give us the sense we were turning a corner albeit briefly.

8 – Burnley Love

The majority of highlights from the current season are covered later in this list, but we did have the one positive result that perhaps suggested we aren’t done yet. After the calamitous Ciaran Clark decided he was playing in the Six Nations against Norwich, the pressure to get 3 points at home to the Clarets was high. Those pre-match nerves that suddenly give you the feeling that “yes we will get something today” were finally rewarded with 3 points after a joyous display from the delectable Callum Wilson. There’s a man who wanted to win that game on his own. I’m still dreaming about that detour he took to fire it into the Leazes net. The relief in the ground when the final whistle blew was palpable and I gave my usual run of saying “get in” at least 10 times on my way down the stairs. I missed the lap of honour, so widely ridiculed by national media, but that win was the icing on the Takeover cake. It may have been delayed by 8 weeks but it’s given a glimpse at what St. James’ could be with a permanent feel good factor.

7 – We’ve gotta get out of 17th Place

Easter Sunday, Newcastle were heading for the biggest resurrection since Jesus. We were down and out after losing 3-0 at the Amex, fans furious and rightly so. This was the lowest we’d felt in a while and Fulham were somehow starting to beat teams. How dare they! 4th April onwards was THE turning point. A 2-2 draw against Tottenham with Joelinton opening the scoring, you got the feeling something was in the air. I’ll get onto our super substitute in the next entry. Fast forward to 7th May and Newcastle had accumulated 11 points in 5 games, stealing one off Liverpool and beating an impressive West Ham side. The Friday game against Leicester was an almighty weight lifted from us. One of our better nights under Bruce, a stark contrast to the team who Brighton pushed aside. We were safe in 13th and managed another 2 wins plus that odd game against Man City. I’m praying that we can see similar results before the end of this campaign.

6 – Hey Joe… Willock  

Closing the first half of the list with the player who was responsible for most of the points in the aforementioned run in. Willock was the only other signing after Graeme Jones (yes the club did announce him) and had shown promise at Arsenal, enough for fans to be satisfied with him. Finally a midfielder in the box who could fire home as shown against Southampton. He was strangely dropped causing us to question the point of his deal but Bruce’s “master plan” clearly worked. Substitute appearances gave us smash and grab points and he scored 7 in 7, equalling a Shearer record. Keys to the city were being prepared and statue planning permission granted as we were 17 points clear of the relegation zone. The permanent signing of Joe came far too late in the window and the laughable club statement on recruitment are now distant memories of the old regime, but they seem to have taken Willock’s confidence too. Here’s hoping Howe can find a system that works for him in 2022. There’s a real player there and we’ve seen him!

5 – Please! Release Steve (Let Him Go) 

As was the nature of the Takeover, the top 5 isn’t very chronological. Perhaps because this is the order in which things should have happened, according to the fans wish list, nailed to the door of St James’ Park to begin the reformation. Maybe we do this like one of those adventure books. The Takeover happened (jump to entry 1) and the first game of the new era was imminent (entry 4) but Steve Bruce was still in charge. WHY IS HE STILL HERE?! Now, I have to admit it didn’t really bother me that much, as we all knew he wouldn’t be there much longer. But the Tottenham game as a performance was a reminder of the damage done by the Ashley era compounded by mis-management of Bruce. Forgetting the pre-match celebrations (entry 4) Newcastle were easily beaten after the opening goal and we made sure his excellency, Yasir knew that our bumbling excuse for a manager was not wanted. Maybe he’s a Springsteen fan not realising the boos weren’t cheers of ‘Bruce’ from every corner of the ground. He got his 1000th game and he was gone, another weight lifted and another step in the right direction, even if it was one game too late. Nothing was going to change overnight but the removal of Bruce marked an end to the insults Geordies had been delivered over and over. Finally we had owners who wanted to learn their lessons quickly. Good riddance, Steve. I enjoyed that week just as much as the Takeover one.

4 – (Theme from) Home and Howay

I’ve got my negatives out the way now, it’s a wonderful finish from here on. Let’s just talk about how great St. James’ has been for the last 3 months of the season. The build up to Tottenham was special, convenient that we were on TV and had a full international break to soak up the feeling and anticipation. Yes, Bruce was still there but who really cared? Riches untold were incoming and Wor Flags were planning. I ran from my 4:10 arriving train at Central and into the ground to hear Jimmy Nail wailing out Big River. Surely he’s not singing on the pitch? The wording on display in the Gallowgate were perfect and the noise just what I thought the ground was meant to be like. A sea of black and white erupted when Wilson scored the first goal after Ashley and that atmosphere has carried through. I’ve had the pleasure of being at three away fixtures since the Takeover and every single one has been a party, despite only picking up a few points. Once again, who cares. Pints! The Burnley win was joyous (as previously stated) but it’s been the resolve of the fans in the face of doom when we’ve proven our worth. We even saved a man’s life. Defiant against Norwich with only 10 men on the field. Waving flags while getting slaughtered by Man City and most recently the noise when we went after Man United with everything we could. The phrase gets thrown around but if we won any of those games, I might well be in hospital in need of new liver. Eddie’s medical Mags.

3 – Howe Long Will I Love You?

Who will be manager of a team in 19th? The question on everyone’s lips back in late October. Graeme Jones’ flaws were quickly exposed and potential options were coming from every news source. We had our hands burnt with Unai Emery rumours so the next man was, to quote Bruce, “the guy who got Bournemouth relegated”. Ok, you know what? We’ll have a bit of that! It must be surreal for Eddie Howe to have such a fanfare for his arrival at NUFC. He’s not your world class cup winner, he’s not the headline grabber or the dinosaur. If anything his modesty and gratitude has won most fans over and aided the atmosphere that is now present at each game. Eddie Howe’s Black and White Army might have only got one win so far but the foundations in place keep us all quietly confident that we can achieve the great escape. From the first training session where it felt like he was taking an eraser to the whiteboard where Bruce wrote his shopping list, we were sold. All he did was tell them to move and look at Joelinton now! I was always hopeful of Howe. He’s the man we would have taken pre-Takeover, so with the owners backing him we could have a special manager who becomes a legend. I hope he does. In the same way Benitez, Hughton and Roeder had bad spells, they got the club and Howe has bought into it already. Whatever happens we will give him that respect in return.

2 – Greatest Day (Before) 

Into the final turn of an 18 month rollercoaster now. October 6th I went for a haircut at half past 1. I walked out with the loss against Wolves still pissing me off 4 days after. Checked my phone and Luke Edwards was suddenly saying the Takeover was happening. The gallows humour of our fanbase never rests with so many people asking if he’d been kidnapped and sending a coded message. But then followed Hope, Caulkin, Ryder and the merry men of NUFC Twitter. Just waiting for Keith Downie and Pete Graves to get it on the yellow bar at the bottom of the TV. It took me 20 minutes to start my car and drive away from the barbers. A process that had dragged on for every single lockdown we’d endured was suddenly hours away and Newcastle United were in the final throes of Mike Ashley’s ownership. That still gives me shivers. The night was a flurry of activity, will it be tonight, tomorrow, never? That day was a floodgate opening and the positive vibe started in April 2020 swept in, but this time there was no cause for concern, no red flags, no piracy issues. It was too simple. Let’s just go to bed and wake up from the dream tomorrow.

1 – Meet Me on the Gallowgate Corner

Morning everyone, oh it wasn’t a dream! Bloody hell. Another mad morning around Tyneside, all the green lights stayed on and activity grew around the stadium. TV crews were stationing themselves like the satellite lorries on Barrack Road which fooled us before. What time does the pub open? I was lucky enough to be present for a few interviews and the build up to the announcement everyone suddenly knew was coming. They kept us waiting, I went to work but the news channels were confirming it. Keith has tears in his eyes as he reads the statement. I don’t think you need me to explain that feeling as my chest tightens typing this. You know how you felt and this is bringing the giddy sensation back. 7th October now goes down in history as the day the Takeover happened, the picture of the smoke rising from the masses in front of an illuminated Newcastle United sign etched in your mind. No matter what people said about the questionable investment or the moral dilemma it causes us for the foreseeable, nothing could take away from the celebration that 14 years of misery were finally over. The festival on Strawberry Place was similar to the scenes when Napoli won the title in the Maradona film. The crunch of cans under your feet and the football someone had brought along flying up into the sky as we sang. I am so glad I was there. The Sports Direct Arena sponsored by Wonga, covered in the bile of Joe Kinnear and draped in an 8 year contract from Alan Pardew was ours once more. We’ve had the windows cleaned, signs removed, every last reminder of red and blue is gone and only black and white remains.

This is a mighty town, built upon solid ground and everything they’ve tried so hard to kill, we will rebuild. Here’s to a year things changed and here’s to years full of transition.

Happy Newcastle Year-nited.

EMIL FRANCHI