Tippekamp. Roughly translated from the Norwegian it reads ‘The Pools Match.’ The game in Norway has its own momentum and coverage but the English Premier League dominates its footballing culture, driven by an obsessive national fixation with the pools. A simplified choice of twelve English games on a Lottery style pink coupon invites you to predict the results with the largest total of correct guesses, just like our pools, winning. Ten right – jackpot!

The media coverage, particularly the provincial newspapers, like ours, presents the English game in a hugely summarised fashion, mostly aimed at predicting, or tipping, the winners of the chosen twelve games. Gone from my life were the English broadsheet two page analysis, or even the tabloid two column version. My view of the English game after three years of living on a small island near Kristiansund, was reduced to a weekly ration of two sentences a game. There was the saving grace of Tippekampen though, a live Premier League game on TV every Saturday afternoon with goal updates on all 12 games. I often watched the games with Norwegian friends and, particularly in the early days, my views, and powers of prediction were highly prized. Of course, I never won a single kroner and being steeped in the games’ culture – I never expected to.

Those Saturday afternoons sometimes provided small insights into the Norwegian character, which I often found impenetrable, and especially their relationship with football. This was never more apparent than the sunny April afternoon when I sat down to share a beer with a young relative and watch the FA Cup semi final. Although he was a carpenter, the lad also played midfield in the local island team before graduating to the national second division club, Kristiansund IFC, where one of his team mates was one of the few successful Norwegian imports into the English game, none other than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Nearly every Norwegian fan supports an English team and Liverpool were the most popular English team on the island, which was hardly surprising given the success they’d enjoyed through the seventies and eighties, and everyone, my brother in law included, smugly expected them to steamroller their way to another cup win. When the cameras first picked up a fan trying to scale the wire fence at the Leppings Lane end of Hillsborough, my friend laughed, fully expecting another humourous pitch invasion where the drunken fan dashed around the field chased by Keystone Cops losing their helmets.

It didn’t seem that way to me though and the natural alarm bells we all have, started ringing in my head, as I instantly recalled the fear of being trampled on the terraces when over full crowds started to surge forward.  It had first happened to me as an eleven year old when I’d queued to be the first in the ground in order to take my place exactly on the half way line, right at the front of the terraces and only 2 yards from the pitch. When the crowd surged forward for the umpteenth time, I was trapped against the concrete wall, my breath totally squeezed out of me until I blacked out for a second or two. The wave of supporters quickly staggered back into their natural places and order was restored, but I never stood down there again and have always made sure to be in front of a barrier ever since.

So I watched in trepidation as more and more fans tried to scale the fence.

“What are they doing? Why are they climbing the fence? Are they all drunk?” my friend asked with a puzzled smile.

“ Not sure,” I replied, “but something’s wrong in there.”

“ Why are they lying them on the pitch?”

By now the full scale of the disaster unravelling before our eyes was unmistakeable.

“Unbelievable  . . . it looks like they’re dead.”

“Dead . . .are you sure? It’s just a football game.”

“Looks like it.”

“Ah well,” he said rather too cheerfully as he stood up, “No more football. I’ll go and stack some wood.”

No one knew it at the time, and God knows it wasn’t the time for star gazing or reflection, but the sight of the first fan trying to scale that fence to safety, signalled the end of an era for English football. In less than ten years, the stadiums and the whole ethos and fan experience would have changed forever. Gone would be the days of meeting a friend and deciding on the spot to go to the game. Swept away would be a fans’ choice of where to stand for a game or to meet mates on the terraces. Gone too, would be the ability to move to whichever end your team was attacking in the second half or to move away from those you didn’t like. Perhaps, most importantly, gone would be the right to stand at a football game at all.

Of course, no one was sad to lose the crumbling terraces, the firetrap stands and fenced off pitches, but those eroded rights went back into the mists of time and although everyone marvels at the new stadia and improved comfort and safety, along with the dangerous elements, out went an ingredient vital to the game. Atmosphere. Recently, I’ve endured low key games, stuck between obnoxious fans’ elbows on either side, in stadiums despite being full to the rafters, as quiet as a library, with the sound of corporate seats emptying five minutes before half time, the most meaningful noise in the place. Add to that the TV scheduling that demands ludicrous kick off times ranging from Saturday lunch time almost continuously through to late Monday evenings, and out with the atmosphere goes something else. Heritage.

I watched the Hillsborough disaster for a few more minutes, then, with stunned mind and grim face, went out to join my young friend. He’d never understand what had happened . . . and for that matter, neither would I.

So, after a few years, with teams and players changing, I knew no more than anyone else when I filled out my Tippe coupon. My view of the English game had become like looking across the sea through a telescope held the wrong way round. Apart from that our life in Norway was comfortable and we were really settled, although I was vaguely aware that we were starting to lose touch with affairs in England. Then one day, and to great surprise, a large brown envelope arrived in the postboks from England. I recognised my friend Tom’s scrawl and with an exile’s excitement, tipped out the contents. Scattered across my drawing board, in vivid black and white, were newspaper cuttings of all shapes and sizes marking the death of legendary Newcastle United centre forward, Jackie Milburn. I sat and stared at the board for ages, carefully shuffling the cuttings around as the images blurred with memories of my childhood. Images of my Dad, cloth capped, brown Burberry Mac belted up, and his smiling, cup winning face framed with his black and white scarf, my own teenage days on the terraces and shaking hands with the elderly Milburn when, much later, we stood together in a bank queue. There was no conscious decision, but deep down, I think it was right then that I decided it was time to return to England.

Some months later, my wife and I watched our young children standing at the bow of a ship on a cool, grey early morning, as we sailed into the mouth of the Tyne for our first holiday in England for three years. By the time we’d travelled west to a friend’s house in Hexham, it was a sunny July day. We unpacked, had some lunch and then wandered out into the park. Hexham Park is a typical example of Victorian urban parks but for us it seemed almost exotic. The huge, old broadleaf trees towered majestically around us, and after life on our rocky island where large trees were rare, they were something to behold, and the heat was something we’d all forgotten. The previous year, the Winter snow had turned to cold rain, the Spring had brought just rain, the Summer warmer rain, and then back to rain, then cold rain and finally . . . snow again. Touching 30c the sunshine stunned us all and we stumbled around in a daze, the surreal atmosphere enhanced by the sight of elephants and camels grazing on the hill overlooking the park. The circus was in town.

For the next two weeks we travelled all over Northumberland visiting friends in various rural and often remote locations, and we were blessed with almost unbroken sunshine. In one vivid visit to a beach, again in near 30c windless temperatures, a teenage lad paraded in front of us as we ate our sandwiches. He was wearing only a pair of baggy shorts, black curly hair waving against the blue sky and crashing white waves. He jumped in the air and spinning as he turned to face us, shouted, “This is fantastic! We could be anywhere . . . ANYWHERE!” He was right. This was one of the cleanest, whitest beaches in Europe and in that heat it could have been Florida, Tunisia or Turkey. Anywhere. Best of all though in those two weeks, after Norwegian Summers of endless night time brightness, the sun set around nine and we were able to sit outside, cocooned in luxurious, warm darkness.

Eventually we made our way to Whitley Bay to stay with my friend Tom and his family. They’d recently moved into a large rambling Victorian house with a garden of tall trees leading to a pedestrian walkway. For a town centre, it was a lovely secluded spot. Tom and Fran had two kids and with five of them dashing around together there was lots of space for parents, catching up and the eternal crack. Tom taught at a local High School and was winding down into his holidays despite the fact that the house was only half decorated, with torn wallpaper strips revealing many layers of weird and wonderful tastes from earlier eras. The place had a chaotic charm that was delightful for us after the clean and tidy mono cultural Scandinavian houses and interiors we now inhabited.

Bob’s Dad, Rocky was staying with them, ostensibly to help with the house and the kids, but his main function seemed to be making endless mugs of tea. Rocky was a living reflection of his youth, his wiry frame still wearing tight jeans and sporting salt and pepper bushy hair, quiffed and bouncy with Teddy Boy attitude. He’d played drums in various bands including the River City Jazzmen and was still hard at it, even though at a much reduced pace, accompanying organists in somnambulating working men’s clubs. His tight, craggy face, deep lines etched into a bony jaw, hinted at a hard and uncompromising life although Bob assured me it wasn’t the booze – the guy hardly drank. Our kids loved him and he always had time for a walk to the park, our youngest particularly enjoying being swung around by both arms at an alarming speed. Rocky was quite a character, despite Tom’s occasional hints, muttered under his breath, that all hadn’t been sunshine and light in his own childhood.

So it was, with the wives and children shopping in the MetroCentre, that Tom and I sat in the garden and got down to real business.

“How’s the Team doing then?” I asked.

Before he had time to answer, Rocky popped his head around the door.

“Cup of tea, lads?”

“Aye, go on then.”

Rocky joined us, pushing steaming mugs of tea into our hands.

“Talkin’ about the Toon then?” he asked, sliding effortlessly into the developing crack.

“What else?”

“Can you remember Len White?”

“Was he the one that got knacked by Dave McKay at Spurs?” Tom asked.

“Aye that’s right,” Rocky replied, warming to the memory, “Best forward line we’ve ever had. Allchurch, Eastham and White, they had the lot.”

“What, better than Keegan, Beardsley and Waddle?”

“Oh aye. Miles better.”

“How about Supermac then? He was amazing.” Tom steered the conversation into our younger living memories. “Old bandy legs. Him and Terry Hibbit together. Couldn’t catch a pig in a corridor.”

Living in America at the time, I missed the whole McDonald era although I did see him play just once before he left the Toon for Arsenal. I was with my Dad who was fresh from a spell in hospital with an illness that was to eventually kill him, when we’d stood near the halfway line, perfectly in line behind McDonald as he lined up a free kick, near the touchline from almost forty yards out. I couldn’t believe he was attempting a shot, but the ball left his foot with the velocity of a bullet and flashed into the net past the astonished keeper. My Dad didn’t speak, but when he turned to me his face was ashen and his mouth jaw droppingly open.

“How about Jimmy Smith then?”

Tom and I both remembered him, Jinky Jimmy Smith, ball glued to his feet.

“Young Gazza was like that.” I replied.

Just then, the garden gate swung open and Danny, Tom’s eldest son from an earlier marriage, bounced up towards us. He’d grown up since I last saw him, and indeed, first met him, when Tom and I had taken him to a Newcastle game using the Family Enclosure (one kid, two adults only) to get into an otherwise sold out home game against Liverpool. The Toon had a talented new young kid . . . there’s been plenty of them, a whole stream that everyone knows about by the time they’re fourteen  . . . from Nigel Walker through to Lee Clark, to Michael Chopra, but this was Gascoigne’s home debut and the first chance for the faithful to see him. No one was disappointed and I have a cracking memory of us standing behind Gazza, ball at his feet as the whole famous Liverpool defence stood in line between him and the goal, heads bobbing anxiously around as they tried in vain to figure out what the little bugger was going to do next. Newcastle took the lead from a George Reilly header but my abiding memory of the game is of Gazza, mazily dribbling out of his own penalty area, as Liverpool pressed for an equaliser, then storming upfield with the ball, spraying a pass out to the wing before receiving the cross and with red face and bursting lungs, lashing a shot at Grobbelaar. No doubt this kid would make it big, but when I returned a few weeks later for the Arsenal game there was a patently unfit Gascoigne, despite his young years, puffing and panting, red faced and obviously labouring, fifty yards behind the play stranded in his own half as United pressed Arsenal back into their penalty area.  Those two snap shots of the youngster offered an early glimpse of the two sides of Gazza, but I still maintain Newcastle had the best years of Paul Gascoigne. In those few years he played for United, he was fabulous, the combination of cheeky, youthful enthusiasm and sheer football skill never bettered,   despite his moves to higher profile clubs and the national team.

“How’s it going Dan?”

“Champion. Just applied for my season ticket.”

“What for?” his Dad asked, “You can walk straight in ten minutes before kick off these days.”

“Investment for the future,” young Danny quipped, “The good times are just around the corner. Feel it in me bones.”

These three generations of loyal Geordie fans were testament to the popularity of the game in the North East and proof of a massively enduring fan base. A club that never wins anything, but hey, the good times are just around the corner.

And so, the crack went on and on as the dancing, mottled shadows from the tree traversed slowly across the lawn. At one point we started scratching diagrams with a piece of stick in a bare patch of the lawn, the penalty area here, the corner flag there, to illustrate how a certain goal was scored . . . or defended. Rocky, in particular, was in full stride describing action in the 1966 World Cup final with all the fervour of a history lecturer, or the intensity of a war cabinet planning the invasion of Europe.

“Ball slotted it through to Hurst.” He looked up, staring seriously at us all. “Then, Beckenbauer strode across . .  .”

For me, this was an absolutely joyous afternoon as I caught up on missing years of football crack with three generations of the United fan club. The garden gate creaked open again and the first running child brought the afternoon to an end although we did manage a kickabout with the kids and a tennis ball in the pedestrian walk way.

Magical.

The next spring we did return to England, eventually settling in South West Northumberland and I had the pleasure, and agony, of attending every home game of Ossie Ardiles’ brave, or was it suicidal, experiment of fielding a team stuffed with young Geordies, freshly promoted from the youth team and reserves. By March, the pear shape was so pronounced that Ardiles was sacked and the Messiah, Keegan, was wheeled in to only just avoid a disastrous relegation.

We still saw Tom and Fran quite frequently, but after a couple of years, and lengthening gaps in meeting, we decided to visit Whitley Bay again for a weekend. Things had changed quite dramatically down there, with Fran succumbing to a bout of the mysterious ME and Tom struggling with the work load of Shakespeare teaching and frequent attacks of migraine associated with an earlier bout of meningitis that had almost claimed his life. The kids were turning into a wild handful and, inevitably, the marriage was suffering. Rocky had disappeared as suddenly as he’d turned up in their lives, returning to live with his own demons. On the Saturday afternoon, and how traditional can you get, it was decided that Tom and I would take the kids to the beach while the wives went – shopping.

Despite it only being a short walk away, we all piled into Tom’s old Citroen and drove down onto the ramp that leads to Cullercoats beach. There was match that afternoon and we’d need the radio. As soon as the kids spilled out onto the empty sands and began running around under blue skies with April white clouds scudding across the horizon, the local station was found and Tom and I were at Maine Road, Manchester. It had been a strange season for Newcastle, a season that was winding down into a disappointing 6th place finish. By now we were used to that ever elusive success we’d craved for decades. The Toon had stormed out of the old second division as champions, and the year before, on the opening day of the season, the Chairman, John Hall, had leered into the Football Focus cameras waving his hands and declaring, “Watch out! We’re coming through.”

When they lost that first game you could almost hear the football nation’s collective chuckling. But, come through they did, and in a feat probably never to be repeated, finished their first season in the Premier League, an impressive third. Peter Beardsley, at the beginning of a three year Peter Pan act, finished up with twenty four goals while strike partner Andy Cole, before he decided to become an all round player, hammered in forty one goals. Sixty five between them. No wonder that Peter Drury, Five Live commentator declared his highlight of the season as, “Driving across the Tyne Bridge in the sleet and snow on a Monday night to watch Peter Beardsley and Andy Cole playing at St James’ Park.”

This particular season had begun in scintillating fashion. By the end of October when they headed to a showdown at Old Trafford they’d racked up nine wins and two draws in the first eleven league games, three League cup wins, and that third place finish had brought a lucrative and still attractive UEFA Cup place. A five nil stuffing of Royal Antwerp in Belgium earned Newcastle the title of ‘The Entertainers’ and they had soon become the nation’s favourite team. You could feel a sense of the whole City swooning as the feelgood factor oozed across town from St James’ Park. Seventeen games played, fifteen wins and forty eight goals scored. Danny’s prediction had come true. Every game was a sellout and the waiting list for season tickets rocketed to a massive sixteen thousand. It was during this era that Tony Blair was shown on TV playing ‘headers’ with Kevin Keegan, claiming he was a lifelong fan who’d seen Jackie Milburn playing, despite the fact he was only four when the great man left St James’ Park. It was a typical Blair opportunist moment, reeking of “Eau de Campbell.’ Alistair actually was a real football fan, a supporter of Blackburn Rovers. However, in the twelfth league game, a two nil defeat at the nemesis that is Old Trafford, saw a few wheel nuts start to loosen and a few days later after a surprising defeat at Athletic Bilbao, that ended the Euro adventure, we all started to have doubts, and although the wheels didn’t actually come off, that most promising of seasons started to unravel.

Keegan had assembled a talented team, the majority of whom, and this was the key, were playing the best football of their careers. Beardsley, Venison, Howey, Beresford, Clark, Cole, Lee and Sellars were never as good before or since. Scott Sellars, in particular was having a great time, enjoying a renaissance after falling from favour when the famous Leeds midfield of Snodin, Sheridan and Sellars was broken by the transfer budget of other leading clubs. Although physically slight, probably the only thing that kept him from the England team, his natural left footed skill, that could drop a ball in a bucket from 50 yards, provided a balance that every good team needs. Those lefties are so rare these days, that despite the increased intensity, improved fitness and flood of foreigners into our game, the England team, eighteen years after Italia 90, have still been unable to find a replacement for Chris Waddle. To me then, it was no surprise that things went awry for United from the moment on that fateful night in Bilbao when Sellars went down with a knee injury and was carried from the field. Most people in the game took United’s fall from grace to be the product of Keegan’s characteristically wierd decision to sell Andy Cole in January, but for me it was the missing Sellars and the overall balance of the team that was lost.

“I’m just going to check the kids.” Tom said as he headed across the beach at half time. It was with a mild sense of relief that I watched his unhappy slope across the sands towards the rock pools where the kids were playing. He’d spent most of the last half hour trawling me through an account of everything that was wrong with his marriage while I had one ear sympathetically listening and the other glued to the match commentary.

“And then she said . . . can you bloody imagine it . . . she said. . . .” “Over the bar, how on earth did he manage to miss that one?” “The kids were crying, she was crying . . .and me . . . I’m just standing there . . . staring at the bloody cat.” “Oh, it’s gone through to the keeper. How many times has that happened today?” Both accounts were plunging me into an ever deepening gloom. I shouted across to my own kids to play nearer the car, for although it was almost May, an increasing North Sea wind was turning cheeks hot and red and I knew we wouldn’t be able to stay much longer.

Tom slid back into the driver’s seat. The break had obviously slowed down his mental tirade and we were able to resume as an increasingly dull 0-0 was played out with Manchester City. The commentator’s tone told the whole depressing story.

“What is it with them today?” an exasperated Tom was back in the zone.

“Dunno . . . it’s been like this for ages now.”

“Selling Coley . . . what was he playing at!”

“Think he thought he’d get Ferdinand from QPR. Still might. Who knows.”

“You reckon it’s Sellars missing don’t you?”

“Bob, I’ve been saying that since November.”

“What is it with him? Thought it was just a knock to the knee.”

“Supposed to be.”

Bob, in typical fashion, was transferring his marital anguish onto the Team.

“Been bloody six months now. Where is he?”

“Don’t know, I’ve heard nothing. They’re obviously missing him though. They’ve tried Fox out there, Gillespie, even Robbie Elliot.”

“Oh aye, two right wingers and a kid of a left back. That’s going to work isn’t it!”

“Lefties are like gold dust. Every good team has to have one.”

“Maybe he’s finished. Six months is a long, long time.”

“Hope not. Nobody’s heard anything.”

The final whistle blew. The radio was punched off with a sense of frustration and relief and Tom and I re-entered the real world.

“Hey, it’s getting chilly out there. Let’s get the kids back into the car.”

They didn’t take much persuading as they’d all started hovering nearer and nearer to us. Red cheeks and snotty noses, wet sleeves and sandy shoes filled up the back seat and off we went back home.

Back at the house, as the kids excitedly flooded in, it was a scene of pure domestic bliss. The ladies had a blazing fire lit in the old cast iron range, a huge bunch of fresh flowers stood in the centre of the kitchen table and they were both busily preparing a meal, chatting and laughing away.  John Hall could be very proud of his MetroCentre although Tom and I would find out the cost of their visit later. Luckily no one asked how long we’d actually played with the kids. Music was playing, the kids ran the bath and the ladies popped open a bottle of red wine.

“Fancy a glass? Fran asked.

“Er . . . well . . . would you mind if we popped down to the pub for a pint before dinner?” Tom replied sheepishly.

“ No  . . . no. You go on. You deserve it after such a busy afternoon.”

“Ok, then. We won’t be long.” He flashed me a rather guilty wink and off we went in that timeless tradition of millions of Geordie husbands.

On the way, we took a detour so Tom, as he always did, could pick up a copy of The Football Pink. The Pink used to be essential reading for all United fans as it was rushed out to coincide with the end of Saturday afternoon games, but I couldn’t see the point of it anymore. The match report featured a kick by kick account of the first half while the second half, hastily typeset before it hit the printing presses, was generally summarised in a couple of sentences. Bearing in mind the wall to wall coverage on TV and radio, I guessed its days were numbered, but this was what Tom did at tea time every Saturday and had probably done so since his childhood. We walked back to the bottom of Tom’s street and entered the Rockcliffe. It was a really traditional Northern pub, and probably because it was off the main street and hidden round the corner, had evaded all attempts at modernisation. It felt like the 50s in there.

There were two young couples sitting in the corner by the window and two old guys, looking distinctly like out of work pirates, further along the bar from us. While the bar man pulled our pints we settled on stools and spread the Football Pink out between us.

Despite my opinions on the Pink there was a decidedly comforting feeling about the way we flicked casually through the pages before Tom exclaimed, “Look  . . . there he is!” In the centre of the page was a photo of Scott Sellars diving into a slide tackle although the caption revealed little on his injury situation. We sipped our pints and continued reading, occasionally glancing back at the swing doors, as everyone else in the place did, when someone new came in. The doors swung open again, Tom and I glanced round, and there, walking towards us, with the same boyish gait that we’d seen many times as he danced into opponent’s penalty areas, was the man himself – Scott Sellars. We stared at each other and almost fell off our stools as he sauntered up towards us with the confident air of someone who knew he’d be recognised, and said with a broad smile, “Good evening, boys. How’s it going?”

Tom was the first to react, asking in a slightly pointed, annoyed manner that was typical of our mood. “Where’ve you been then?”

“Me? Oh, I’ve just been down  . .  .” and then he clicked, “Oh, the injury you mean?”

Yeah,” I said, echoing Tom’s tone, “It’s been six months now.”

Don’t know what to say.” He said defensively. “Thought it’d only be a few weeks meself.”

“So what is it then? Why’s it taking so long?”

Nobody knows. They said it was ligament damage, then they changed their minds and said it was cartilage trouble.”

So what is then?” Our intial, demanding tones were melting into more supportive questions.

Still don’t know. I rest it up for a few days, train normally again and then every time I play a game, bang, it swells up. Fluid on the knee.”

“So how long’s it going to be?”

“Looks like it’ll be next season now. They reckon it’ll be fine after a long summer break.”

Standing between us, he ordered a pint of lager, and then just like us, leaned on the bar and started flicking through the Pink.

Tom turned the page to the photo.

“Look at that then.”

Sellars’ eyes briefly widened. “Last season that one.”

Hey, the team’s really missed you, you know.” I said. “Seriously.”

“Don’t know about that.” he replied modestly.

“Look, it’s really obvious. The balance is gone without you on the left.”

Again he shuffled modestly, uncomfortable with the praise and glanced at his feet. “Not really . . . but thanks anyway.”

So there we were, Sellars with his arm around my shoulder like the oldest mates in the world, and all three of us inspecting the league tables.

“Look, I’ll have to go lads.” He waved at the couples in the corner, grabbed his pint and stepped away.

“Nice talking to you.” he said.

“Where’re you off to?” Tom asked.

“Wedding party. See ya.”

We finished our drinks and set off back home.

“Talk about coincidence.” Tom said. “Fucking amazing!”

“Aye, but did it really happen?”

Tom gave me a familiar, mischievous look that suggested he was back on track.

“Think he’ll be back next season?”

“Hope so.”

Little did any of us know, but around the same time David Ginola was being pilloried in the French press for playing a poor back pass that led to France’s elimination from the European Championships, and that decided him that he would have to leave France. Or that Les Ferdinand would finally be allowed to get on the train to Newcastle, or that the mercurial talent of Tino Asprilla, who was scoring scorching goals for Parma, was catching Keegan’s eye. When that explosive mix of attacking talent arrived on Tyneside, someone was going to have their nose put out of joint, and on that night in the Rockcliffe, neither Tom, nor I, nor Scott Sellars would have guessed it would be him.

GEORGE BROWN