Newcastle United 3 (Perez 27’ 31’ 86’), Southampton 1 (Lemina 59’)

 Saturday 20 April 2019, Attendance 52,191 

I haven’t been to SJP in nearly three years.  This win over Southampton, in glorious Easter sunshine – Rafa’s penultimate home game, and his last home win – was the last time I was there.

The early part of the following season, 2019-20, was taken up with getting married and its paraphernalia.  Expensive 600-mile round trips from London to Newcastle were put on hold.  Money had to be put towards dried flowers and disposable cameras; time was dedicated to choosing middling plonk.  Predictably, we lost on my wedding day itself.  You can always rely on Newcastle United.  By the time we’d returned from honeymoon, Brucie’s anti-football had well and truly knocked any enthusiasm for going to the match into a cocked hat.  This was, of course, around the time that Magic Mike was reduced to flogging 10,000 free season tickets.  Then came Covid and, with it, went any prospect of getting back to SJP for some time.  By the time the crowds returned, I’d become a father.  Then came the takeover, and tickets are now like gold dust.  (And, even if they weren’t, the baby is very much here to stay).

I cannot wait to get back to SJP.  It looks and sounds absolutely unbelievable on TV.  The flags, the atmosphere, the unity in the stands.  It’s the hottest ticket in town.  I can only imagine how good it’s going to be.

Until then, I’ll just have to hold on to precious memories like Southampton at home in April 2019.  Ayoze Perez hit a superb hat-trick.  We deserved to win the game, but Southampton offered enough resistance to make it a spectacle and to make the result an achievement.  They brought plenty of fans too, helping with a decent atmosphere.  We climbed above 40 points and secured mathematical safety.  Lest it be forgotten, this was the zenith of our ambition not so long ago.  When Ayoze completed his hat-trick and put the game beyond doubt, all four sides of the ground chorused “Rafa Benitez, we want you to stay!” for what seemed like ten whole minutes.  (We believed he would, too, the stench of bacon fat having not yet wafted its way down the A69).  Even the East Stand joined in the singing.  This was a Saturday 5:30 kick off (surely the best kick-off time going) on a gem of a Bank Holiday weekend, the crowd was full of piss and vinegar, and the temperature was still well north of twenty as the floodlights came on.  In the late Ashley era, this was about as good as life got, supporting Newcastle United.

There is simply no matchday experience like SJP, no better place in the world than Newcastle on a sunny Saturday afternoon, and the city put on a show for this one.  My wife (then my fiancee) and I, my sister and her boyfriend arrived up from Teesside on the train around lunchtime.  This was his first time staying with us.  I was of course keen to play regional ambassador.  I’m sure you’ve done the same.  As the little two-carriage Pacer chugged across Durham viaduct, that most elegant of cathedral cities shimmering in the late morning sunlight below – and as, fifteen minutes later, the bridges of the Tyne boldly revealed themselves, the day pregnant with the prospect of beer and bonhomie and the carriage abuzz with ribald laughter and pre-watershed smut, I chuckled at how easy my job was.  My sister’s boyfriend is from Bath.  That city has its own aesthetic beauty, but Newcastle’s charm is truly something else: it is to be found not only in the architecture, the history or the views – but in a sense of life being lived, and lived well.

We lived well that day.  Fully four hours were lost drinking by the shipping containers on the Gateshead side.  My wife, a Sydney native, got burnt in NE8 in April.  The beer was cold and the sandwiches were big.  We walked over the Swing Bridge in the sunshine.  We climbed up the castle stairs and we caught up with Adam and Big John in the Bridge Hotel, with its beer garden’s matchless views eastwards down the Tyne.

Amid all this, a football match broke out.  It, and particularly Ayoze, did not disappoint.  The young man from Tenerife frustrated a lot of supporters.  His off-days were frequent and immensely dispiriting, but when playing with confidence – this was one such day – he could be lethal.  His first was a delicate finish with one foot, the second a goal poacher’s finish with the other, the third a close-range header to settle the nerves after we had (inevitably) allowed the industrious Saints a route back into the game.  A perfect hat-trick for a perfect day.  Southampton played quite well, Nathan Redmond their main outlet, and when the impressive Lemina pulled the score back to 2-1 just after half time, there was little surprise voiced by any of us sat in the Leazes in our early-evening beery reverie.  Indeed, the general expectation was that the warm Geordie welcome which had been given to the Southampton fans who took their full allocation and had been visible all afternoon in the city, would extend to gifting them the equaliser which their tidy football was threatening.  Thankfully, it was not to be, and the restoration of the two-goal cushion, four minutes from time, was the cue for a mass Rafa love-in, everyone joining in with La Bamba over the tannoy while sending frantic WhatsApp messages to plan the rest of the evening.

The late Ashley era was demoralising and miserable in so many ways, but there were still joyful days to savour within it.  The stars aligned for me and mine on this balmy Bank Holiday weekend.  It was also the first time my wife saw us win.  The first time I took her to a match, it was a 1-1 draw on a freezing Tuesday night at Selhurst Park in February 2015.  In hindsight, I can’t have been thinking straight – we’d only met a few weeks earlier, and I don’t know why I thought my new girlfriend, fully five foot two in heels, would enjoy standing behind a bollard for 90 minutes, with an obscured view of a sport she barely understood, while her new boyfriend spent two hours calling someone named Pardew, whom she’d never met, a wanker.  As I treated her to a post-match meal at KFC by Highbury Corner, she said that she wouldn’t mind going again, but “could it be a better match next time, please”?

Against Southampton at SJP in April 2019, she finally got her wish.  I think she’s OK with not going again, and I’m more than happy for this win over Southampton to be how she leaves it.  As for me, I can’t wait to get back and see you all, soon.

YOUSEF HATEM – @yousef_1892