My earliest memory of football finds me standing in the middle of a group of other eight year olds. It’s a beautifully grey Saturday morning at Ballinamallard United, a little village club in the most rural of rural parts of Northern Ireland. It’s 1996, and I’m a lonely Black and White shirt in a sea of red. Inherited from fathers and grandfathers, everyone here supports Man United or Liverpool. I feel their eyes on me, the kinder ones confused, the meaner ones mocking and aloof.

I grew up in a house where football doesn’t exist. My dad had no interest, my mum none beyond a glorious era in the 70s of George Best in short shorts, and three siblings who wouldn’t know a football until it hit them in the face. There was no guiding hand telling me who to support. How I ended up a Newcastle fan is a mystery to us all, but there I was – a David among scarlet-clad Goliaths.

Among those red ranks, I made a friend. Jonny, unfortunately, was a Manchester United supporter, but he told me his older brother was also a Newcastle fan, so I guess he felt responsible for me. I could barely believe it – apparently there were two of us! Until then, my love for this club had been a bit abstract. There was no money in our house for Sky Sports, let alone a trip to England to make my Black and White obsession a reality. My parents did what they could – birthdays and Christmases brought replica shirts and season review annuals, and Ceefax brought me scores and one-line match reports. It was less Black and White Army for me, more Black and White Behind Enemy Lines.

One Saturday a couple of years later, there was Jonny’s brother standing at the side of the pitch. 18 years old, towering in front of me like a god, resplendent in those famous stripes. The tales he told me were scarcely believable. He was just home from university in Newcastle, that mystical place of footballing dreams. He told me he had a season ticket and could go to games every week. He had seen Alan Shearer score in real life – my bedroom posters made flesh. My world had changed. A seed had been planted.

Before too long, I was in secondary school. I found allies amongst that sea of red, other hearty warriors appeared – a West Ham fan, an Everton fan, a pair of Leeds die hards. Whether inherited from family or a choice plucked from obscurity, we had chosen a different path in life. There would be no easy road to glory for us.

In Newcastle terms, those were the good days though. My secondary school years fell alongside the Robson era – league challenges and Champions League nights allowed me to stand tall among my trophy laden classmates, even if any real victory eluded us. Those school years also brought reinforcements in the form of the Ward brothers, Ruairi and Conor, whose dad was a real-life Geordie who had left behind his beloved home town for an Irish bride. The Wards regaled me with tales of Tyneside, and made me homesick for a place I had never been.

My own dream was in motion though, the seed was growing. GCSEs arrived, then A-Levels, both a means to an end. We were trooped to massive sports halls for university fairs where we were sold the possibilities of campus life in every corner of the UK, but it was all white noise to me. I knew where I was going. I think I had always known.

As I got closer, it became more real. Ruairiwent first, off to Newcastle University with my football-allergic older brother in tow. My own applications went in, 3 courses each at Newcastle and Northumbria. I didn’t care what they were teaching, only where they were. The days and weeks ticked by. I’m March 2006, my 18th birthday rolled around, and I came down to breakfast to a little white envelope on the kitchen table. Inside was a little bit of card – who knew such a small thing could hold so much meaning? The words stamped across the top in bold, capital letters – ALAN SHEARER TESTIMONIAL –were those abstract, impossible dreams of an 8 year old made real. I later learned that Ruairi had queued all night at the ground at my mum’s request to get his hands on a ticket.

The 8 weeks or so until the game passed by in a blur. My Education Maintenance Allowance was put to use to secure EasyJet flights to NCL, my art teacher was informed that I had something more important to do on the day of my A-Level exam – it would be Northumbria instead of Newcastle for me, I guess.

I don’t need to tell you what came next. The noise, the scarves whirling, the cheers and the tears. The dodgy penalty and the last entry of the gladiator. My hero. Our hero. It was never about the end result – with this beautiful, awful, great club it’s always been about the journey – and I was home.

That September, my student loan went straight on a season ticket. My weekends became a delightful routine of hopping off the Metro at Monument, a two hour scenic route to the stadium via The Black Garter, City Vaults and Gregg’s, squeezing through the Leazes turnstile. Black and white in a sea of black and white. On hearing my not very North-East accent, questions of “how’d you end up here like?”. Where could I start?

It’s no small irony that less than a year later, the Ashley era began. 13 years followed for me on Tyneside, as university turned into a job, hope and heartbreak followed at the cathedral on the hill. The highs were so high because the lows were so low. In 2019, my career called me back to Northern Ireland. The inertia at the club made leaving easier than I’d like to admit.

When I first put pen to paper on this piece, my thoughts were about how if I went back to that village ground, would you see another kid in a Newcastle top? What dreams were there for an 8 year old to cling on to, what adventures on a faraway hill? Suddenly, our future looks very different, but we can’t forget our past.

This was going to be a very different article.

After last week, inside I’m that kid again. It’s still a sea of red over here, but now my Black and White will shine a bit brighter, a bit bolder. There are no mocking eyes among the glory-hunting masses. Now, it’s fear.

If success is to follow, our new era will bring new fans. It won’t just be the hardy few – there’ll be new voices and new faces at the ground, and there might be a sense of unease about that. Just remember though, that out there in those distant corners we’ve always been here, those of us who weren’t lucky enough to be born to it, those of us who made a choice. Flying the flag, holding the line, and always, always wondering – how do I get back home?

Peter Brimstone