For Newcastle United fans, it’s been very much a season of ups and downs. No change there then. For many of us it’s been that way for decades. We’ll beat the likes of Manchester United, Barcelona or even Melchester Rovers one week but get beat by Hereford or Whitley Bay reserves the next. We’ll go out and sign Keegan, Asprilla or Kluivert but we’re also perfectly capable of landing a Rob Macdonald, Kevin Dillon or Gabriel Obertan. And in terms of managers there’s a Kinnear for every Benitez. Actually there’s two Kinnears for every Benitez, unfortunately. We’re that good at ups and downs.
In the absence of trophies we’ve often been forced to look for other highs. I mean, those Intertoto Cups don’t come along every week, you know. Often these highs have been found in the form of maverick players; David Ginola, Laurent Robert and Hatem Ben Arfa spring to mind. This sits well alongside the message that we demand a team that tries and not necessarily a team that is bringing home the Champions’ League each season. Give us effort and a bit of skill and we’ll back it. Sadly, we’ve had to. Give us trophies and we’d back those too, but I think we’re all realists when it comes to silverware.
One thing that is almost guaranteed to make us happy though, is a local lad doing well. Like trophies though, they’ve been few and far between over the years. Unlike trophies, I suppose, there have been some in living memory – because weirdly, some people really don’t count the Intertoto triumph.
‘Some of them might even be from Blaydon, like me.’
As a very young season ticket holder I didn’t realise that the players might come from different places. In my innocent mind these people in front of me, clad in those mesmeric stripes were just ordinary blokes from the North East. Some of them might even be from Blaydon, like me. And barring a few Scots and the odd southerner, I was about right. But I still wouldn’t say we had any local boys doing particularly well.
As I got older and my understanding greater I was aware of the likes of Kenny Wharton coming through the ranks and the likes of Chris Waddle and Peter Beardsley being brought in. And I worshipped them for being local, like me. These were lads who were out there, fulfilling my dream of playing for Newcastle United; fulfilling the dream of thousands of others too.
‘And then came Gazza.’
We’d heard about the past and the likes of Jackie Milburn – Wor Jackie – granted veritable sainthood for being not just one of us, but a fantastic footballer to boot. But it had been years since a local lad of that quality had come along. And then came Gazza. Paul Gascgoine. For some of us – lots of us in fact – he would quite possibly be the greatest player we would ever see wearing the black and white shirt. For me, I’m pretty sure that still rings true. Forget his demons, his personal life, his off-the-field habits; Gazza was a one off and a world beater. He had a God given talent. And here he was living within a few miles of the stadium and representing his boyhood club. I was around 14 when he was in his pomp at the Toon and, in footballing terms he was everything I would have wanted to be – outrageously skilful, tricky, quick and beyond compare. I worshipped him. We all did and our feelings were given that extra boost because of the fact that he was local.
I was there on the night of Wednesday 25th November when we played Blackpool – I think in a League Cup game – in the pouring rain, amongst less than 8,000 fans as Gazza won it with a peach of a goal and celebrated in front of the Leazes End with the Ali shuffle. It’s a memory that will never leave me. When he left the club it felt like someone had ripped my heart out and I couldn’t work out why a local lad would ever want to leave. I remember my dad had said it broke his heart when ‘Supermac’ left and now I knew how he felt.
‘…Paul Dummett will never really make the heart flutter.’
Since Gazza the production line hasn’t really given us many to believe in. Lee Clark and Andy Carroll both gave us hope, but never fulfilled their potential with the club. The likes of Steven Taylor and nowadays, Paul Dummett will never really make the heart flutter. But we’d all still give our right arm to do what they did. And then there was Alan Shearer, the local lad made good elsewhere who, thanks to Kevin Keegan, returned in a triumphant homecoming in 1996 for a then world record fee. Hard to imagine these days, right?
Shearer, of course succeeded in every aspect of the Geordie dream, taking the number 9 shirt and going on to become the greatest goal scorer that the club and the Premier League had ever seen. Trophies and medals didn’t matter – he fulfilled every little boy from the region’s dream, something that people outside of the region still seem to delight in not understanding. We’ll leave them to it.
Sean Longstaff is the latest off a slightly slow production line. He looks like he’ll take a slightly different path. He’s not the number 9. In fact as yet, we can’t quite pin down exactly what he will be. Is he a number 10, is he a deep lying defensive midfielder or will he become a Shelvey style quarter-back of a player? Keyboard pundits and hopefully Rafa Benitez will decide that. One thing’s for sure is that Longstaff is without doubt living the Geordie dream.
‘And wow, has he looked the part.’
Those in the know have suspected for a while that here was a kid who would make it. But I must confess, as the past couple of seasons have gone by and he’s been out on loan, I had started to wonder whether he’d make it with us. However, just as he was breaking into the squad, injuries to Shelvey, Diame and then Ki’s Asian Cup call up pushed him into the starting line-up. And wow, has he looked the part. Even as more accepted first-teamers have regained fitness he has kept his place in the team on merit.
Longstaff has slipped into the team playing like he’s been there for years. An unassuming youngster with a quiet confidence and a wealth of natural ability, Sean is very definitely an old head on young shoulders. His eye for a pass, accuracy and work rate are allied to a certain amount of steel and strength in the tackle and he looks every bit the complete midfield player. Let’s not forget that he’s come up against more or less the best that the Premier League can offer in terms of midfields so far and has more than held his own, earning praise from not only Rafa but Pep Guardiola along the way.
For us fans his emergence is a joy to behold. And while we’ve willed him to do well, in truth, it hasn’t looked like he’s needed us really. He’s clearly a special talent. The next Paul Dummett? Yes, but only in terms of being the latest local lad done good. While Dummett is hard working and functional, Longstaff oozes class. Both are doing their club and city proud, but Sean promises so much more. In fact, until injury struck he had looked a shoe-in for at least the England Under-21 squad.
‘Thankfully, the family remained on Tyneside…’
And yet, he could have gone the way of many others of the past, including Michael Carrick, with whom he’s drawn comparison from several experts this season. Sean’s father, David, was a much admired ice hockey player and at one stage it seemed like the family may move to Canada where there were offers aplenty for David’s talent. Sean himself even indulged in the sport. Thankfully, the family remained on Tyneside and Sean, as well as his younger brother Matty were able to pursue their own careers. The Longstaff boys weren’t destined to follow the Robsons, Shearers and Carricks by moving away, but could yet emulate their successful careers.
Longstaff’s performances so far this season have been full of promise. As mentioned previously, he’s slotted in with ease and looks more than comfortable with the burden placed on his young shoulders. He understands exactly what he’s achieved and what the levels of expectation will be like. After scoring in the win against Burnley at St. James’ Park he told journalists, “You ask any young boy in Newcastle and I think that’s the ultimate dream – to score a goal in front of your friends and family.” So pleased was he that he forgot which side of the ground his parents were actually on, running instead to the opposite side in celebration!
‘This boy can play.’
Statistics show that Longstaff’s strength is in his work rate. The data suggests that he’s covering well over 10km per game. And this isn’t simply just ‘running around’ or boyish enthusiasm. This is calculated graft, reading the game and a natural awareness of simply where to be or where to get to. However, this is not what has supporters excited, although it’s undoubtedly appreciated. This boy can play. Look at his passing and there’s an element of Shelvey or Cabaye. Dare I say it in terms of accuracy there could even be a touch of Gazza. Whichever way you look at it, he’s our brightest hope – locally – in many years.
Sadly, a knee injury seems to have curtailed Sean’s season and it looks likely that he won’t pull on the black and white shirt until July or August. However, even with only 13 appearances in league and cup, Longstaff has given Newcastle supporters something that they have and will always cherish: a local lad living the Geordie dream. Long may it continue.