Roll up, roll up. We have a debutant. And this Grace Laidler’s True Faith bow is more of the Matty Longstaff at SJP than Jonathan Woodgate for Real Madrid. Now this may feel like it is about to get painful, what with it being about that weekend in late February, but keep reading. You will not regret it.
Ask any Newcastle fan about ‘Wembley Weekend’, and the likelihood of them mentioning Trafalgar Square is high. From getting on the tube at King’s Cross, to arriving at the famous square, it was impossible to not be greeted by plenty of Geordies with black-and-white scarves on, singing rousing choruses of ‘WE’VE GOT BRUNO IN THE MIDDLE!’ It was a surreal feeling, seeing a sea of Geordies take over such a prominent area of London. It was as if we had turned Nelson’s Column into Grey’s Monument.
Of course, this was not the first time Newcastle fans had visited the famous square. On the bus on the way down, my dad told me how him and his friends had caught the early bird train, which got them to London for 8AM. And they only went to Trafalgar Square because the pubs weren’t open. This was the 1999 FA Cup Final, when London was considerably warmer than it was in February, 24 years later.
When we went to Trafalgar Square at around 7:30PM, dad and I managed to push through the bustling crowds to find a spot by a wall that overlooked the square below, allowing us to see all the action. It was like we were looking at a page from ‘Where’s Wally?’ That is, if his stripes were black-and-white.
Tens of thousands of people were chatting, singing, drinking and launching black-and-white smoke bombs into the inky night sky. Part of me wanted to jump right in with them, but I stayed with my dad instead. We were both happy to observe the madness from a safe distance.
Like most young people, I took a lot of photos and videos, posting them to social media. Before the weekend, my dad had sent me a photo from the 1999 final of him and his friends.
It is crazy to think of how much had changed since that photo was taken, and I don’t just mean the state of our club. The Newcastle shirts the men were wearing are now considered ‘vintage’ and go for upwards of £300. People (including myself) now have film cameras as secondary cameras to their phones, for ‘aesthetic’ purposes. And, most alarmingly, when I saw that my dad was wearing a three-quarter zip, black jeans and white trainers, I realised that I had saved that exact outfit to my Pinterest board.
However, there we were, back in Trafalgar Square, facing the same team at Wembley all those years later. The feeling of anticipation was higher than ever. Neither Dad nor I had slept a wink all week. Like most of those born in the early 2000s, all I have ever known is the Ashley era, so I had the anxiety of the unknown keeping me up. However, my dad, with his umpteen million supporter points, knew that anticipatory feeling all too well.
My hopes towards the match had been dwindling as the weeks went by, culminating in dread the minute I saw Nick Pope get sent off. And yes, in the end, we did lose 2-0 to Man United once again (exactly as in 1999). But I honestly barely think about the actual match.
When I returned to Uni on the Tuesday (not the Monday, for obvious reasons), I had a bunch of questions from my friends about the match and some unwanted stick from the Mancunians I knew. They were all dumbfounded when they learnt that I didn’t even have a ticket, and neither did thousands of others who went down.
So, why go then? I mean, where to begin? For the lively bus journey. For the off-brand gin at the service station. For the relatively nice Travelodge. For the magic of Trafalgar Square.
And for drinking far too much and upchucking your breakfast on the staircase at Spoons because you couldn’t make it to the toilet in time. And for crying your eyes out in Oxford Circus (but that’s a story for another day).
But, most of all, I went to spend time with my dad. As a leaving present for when I moved to Uni, I gave Dad a pin in the shape of a little magpie. I have one too. ‘One for sorrow, two for joy.’
I knew that once the Uni novelty wore off and the adulting got too hard and my heart got broken that I could always go home. And, sometimes, home was jumping on a bus for four hours, to sing an eclectic mix of ’10s indie tunes and ’70s disco bangers, interspersed with every bloody Oasis song, accompanied by a bunch of heavy-accented Geordies of all generations.
There’s more to it than just sport, than just drinking and swearing and causing havoc. It’s an escape. It’s a comfort. It’s a day to leave your worries at home. Although it can break your heart worse than any relationship can, it’s thicker than tears. It’s the blood that runs through our veins. My dad knew it then. I know it now. How could I not go?
I will always remember that weekend. And I told my Uni friends as much when I said that the match is always the worst part of the trip.
Grace Laidler @gracewillhuntin