Another TBAWE debut this week, as cup final week dawns on us, and everyone at TF HQ is starting to feel a bit fuzzy.
Football. It’s a passion, an obsession, a community. It’s a story. It unites us in moments of joy and saves us in moments of grief, grounding us and connecting us when nothing else makes sense.
Saturday morning was one such moment. The news every United fan had begun to dread, that tragically, Christian Atsu had lost his life in Turkey during last week’s earthquakes, gradually filtered through news outlets and across social media and was met with bowed heads and respectfully raised glasses in the city Atsu so recently called home. What can one do in such a moment? What can one say? The image of Atsu’s wife and children in the crowd for the Liverpool match truly brought home the reality of the situation. A young man, still very much in the prime of his life, loved by so many throughout football and beyond, taken far, far too soon. The thoughts and best wishes of everyone associated with True Faith go out to Atsu’s family, his friends, and of course to all those who have lost their lives or been left bereaved by the incomprehensible disaster. Rest in peace, Christian.
This horrifying news arrived on a day already wrought with emotion. Celebrations to mark what would’ve been the 90th birthday of Sir Bobby Robson had been going on all week, and the well-oiled curation involving numerous fan groups (including some of my talented TF colleagues) and spearheaded by the always-eloquent George Caulkin, came to a conclusion. Following the publication of a series of articles on the Athletic, our very own special podcast episode, a beautiful and poignant fanzine, and the release of some never-before-heard interviews between Caulkin and Sir Bob, what better way to culminate the remembrance than with a display from Wor Flags. And what a display. We’ve become so used to being impressed by the pre-match exhibitions put together by the fantastic lads and lasses at Wor Flags, that it’s easy to forget how much time and effort must go into producing something so spectacular. A fitting tribute, and then some, to a man whose spirit, whose attitudes and whose words still echo around the walls of St James’ Park, and within the hearts of Geordies and football fans the world over.
After all that emotion, and after a day of Premier League results that caused one or two eyebrows to rise (including a highly notable opening goal for a certain block of timber for Nottingham Forest against Man City), focus finally turned towards our opponents. And Saturday’s wasn’t just any old match. Our last home game before the final. Our chance to stop a recent run of patchy form. A head-to-head against one of our main rivals for the Champions League places. A chance for revenge against the only team to have secured three points against us all season. On today of all days, it just had to be Liverpool, didn’t it?
The Scousers will always be the first to offer their sympathies and understanding at moments of tragedy, and the rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ that rose from the away end during the minute of remembrance should be received with the respect and appreciation with which it was delivered. Although we may love to hate the reds on the pitch, it’s oft been said that as a city and as a fanbase, we have more that unites us with Liverpool fans than most other opponents. This was perhaps perfectly exemplified by the donations made by a group of visiting supporters (including MP for Liverpool West Derby, Ian Byrne) to the NUFC food bank. A touch of class and a moment to help us remember, in a world of Sovereign Wealth Funds and multi-billionaire ownership bids, that solidarity between fans, in times of struggle, costs us nothing.
And then, at long last, after all that, and with many of the match goers feeling like they’d already been on the most bruising and unforgiving of emotional roller-coasters, the football started.
The Merseyside Reds may not be our fiercest rivals but Newcastle United v Liverpool will always feel like one of the most romantic and poetic fixtures in English football. Football is a story, and the chapter when these two teams play each other is always a highlight. However, I’ll be doing all I can to try and erase that first 20 minutes from memory. A couple of very uncharacteristic defensive lapses, and a moment of madness from Nick Pope, and within the space of a matter of moments it seemed like United were determined to send the whole season up the spout.
However, the way the rest of the game panned out left me with a fair amount of hope. Maxi pulled out one of his best performances of the season – a timely reminder that he has a tendency for finding form for the biggest of occasions. The drive, determination and bite that was missing from the West Ham and Bournemouth games seemed to have returned in abundance, and I still feel bristles of excitement whenever Alexander Isak is on the ball, bearing down on goal. I swear the lad is going to be very, very special. And so, despite finishing the game with a lack of points and a complete dearth of available goalkeepers, there seemed to be a renewed sense of optimism trundling down the newly acquired Strawberry Place, as Saturday evening turned into Saturday night.
Now, attention turns to Wembley. To those who were lucky enough to get tickets; I wish thee all the best in managing a wink of sleep over the next seven nights. It’s going to be a glorious day, and I can only begin to imagine what the atmosphere under the arch will be like.
Although I haven’t been fortunate enough to receive my own golden ticket, I will be in London for most of the weekend. Both True Faith live podcasting recordings are bound to be buoyant affairs, and I’m looking forward to spending time with friends old and new, mingling in a mass of black and white, as London itself turns Geordie on Saturday night. It’s going to be quite the party.
The days leading up to next Sunday will likely feel like several lifetimes. There’ll be plenty of clock-watching going on at northeastern workplaces, and I have a strong suspicion productivity levels are going to see a major dip everywhere from Berwick to Barnard Castle. There’ll be plenty of True Faith content to keep you occupied, have no fear. We can also all hope that when Thursday comes around, Barcelona will be feeling some Robson-inspired comradeship, and decide to kick seven shades of shit out of Rashford & co. I’d never normally wish injury on a player, but just this once, a minor twisted ankle for the red-hot Mancunian wouldn’t be too much to ask, would it?
The Red Devils will try and make out that they’re in the midst of their own drought for trophies and success, which is of course completely laughable. They’ll be up for it come Sunday though, make no mistake, and some of the Old Trafford chants during their game against Leicester had a distinctive Geordie-aggravating Shearer-bashing nature to them. It’s almost like the good old days.
Speaking of the good old days, as it’s my first shot at TBAWE, and cup final week, I hope you’ll indulge me to end with a short passage of personal nostalgia. Growing up, none of my family had much time for football. I arrived at a rural northern primary school in the aftermath of my parent’s divorce feeling pretty lost and hopeless (so I’m told – the images are a little worn that far back). However, one of my first clear memories is standing in the playground, with a lad in my class opening up this enormous glittering book, filled with graphics and stickers and emblazoned with the giant words ‘Panini’ on the front. My new best mate was kind enough to share his packets of stickers with this fellow five-year-old and told me in detail stories about all his favourite players. Stories about Ruel Fox, Andy Cole and Peter Beardsley. Stories of a gargantuan stadium in the middle of a city, where 11 heroes booted a ball around and scored goals for fun. I was immediately hooked. I was immediately sold. I immediately felt a sense of belonging so strong and beautiful and unique, it lasted with me ’til this day.
Next Sunday morning, if I can extricate myself from the gutter surrounding Trafalgar Square in time, I’ll be heading to Kings Cross, and on a train back north, back home. I may well be the only United fan heading in that direction in the hours before kick-off, but it’ll be worth it, as at around 2pm I’ll be sitting down in a pub in Newcastle with that same old friend, some 30 years since he first approached me in the playground. We’ll raise a glass and we’ll share memories, we’ll bemoan that we weren’t able to get tickets for the final. We’ll argue about Miggy’s left foot and reminisce about Albert’s chip. We’ll give each other our predictions for the final score, and we’ll tell each other we’ve got no hope of winning, before admitting there might just be a chance. And then we’ll watch the match.
I’d like to think that if we lose, we’ll both take it with good grace. This modern version of Newcastle United is going places – the hefty contingent of PIF representatives who were at St James’ on Saturday aren’t going to sit on their hands and wait for success to come knocking. I have a feeling that the next few years will see this club transform to a degree none can currently comprehend, and in the grand scheme of things a Carabao Cup trophy, or lack thereof, isn’t going to affect that.
But if we win…Well… My friend and I have both been waiting for that moment since slumping on the sofa in May 1999, desperately holding back tears. If we win, I can’t tell you what will happen. I can’t tell you what it will feel like, as I just don’t know. I’ve never been there. But one thing I do know for sure is that the moment, the memory, the story, will stay with me, my mate, and every single Newcastle United fan, for the rest of our days.
So. All the best. Whether you’ll be watching in Wembley or Whitley Bay or Wisconsin, enjoy it. Take it in. Sing all the songs and drink all the drinks and hug all the strangers. Another chapter in this fantastic story is about to be written. There’ll be heroes and villains, twists and turns, moments of joy and despair, and, quite unbelievably, a potential leading role for Loris Karius.
It’s cup final week. It’s time to make history. It’s time for Newcastle United to finally fucking win something. Howay the lads.