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Newcastle United: What did the takeover ever do for us?

As I write, it’s been almost a year since our beloved Newcastle United was taken over by the Saudi PIF group, Amanda Staveley, Mehrdad Ghodoussi and the Reubens brothers. Almost a year since #cans became a reality. So naturally, and I imagine like many, many others, I found myself sitting reflecting.

I think we’d all share the view that it’s been an incredible year. And while there have been some nay sayers and doom merchants, I’d prefer to just file them under the headings of either ‘Idiots’ or ‘Attention Seekers’. So, if you’re sitting there still quietly seething at the fact that we haven’t bought Haaland, Mbappe or Neymar or even that we didn’t just fund the invention of robot footballers so we could win the league by Christmas, this isn’t the blog for you. Maybe shout down and tell your mam to get a wriggle on with your tea or do something else that you class as productive. Anything that makes you feel right, I suppose.

So, what did this takeover ever do for us then?

Well, I think the first thing we got was hope. As the saying went, ‘we don’t demand a team that wins, just a club that tries’. It was never all that much to ask really, was it? Surely the whole point of any sporting club is that it tries to compete? And yet, for 14 years we clearly didn’t have that. Cup competitions were deemed a waste of time and the stock line that came – infrequently – out of the club was that our season was about survival and that we couldn’t compete.

The takeover changed all that. And while the talk is quite rightly of evolution, not revolution, it would be easy to argue that after so long without hope and belief, to now have it once again is pretty bloody revolutionary! A year ago, the majority had decided that this was the year we’d be relegated again and almost all hope had gone. In fact, all we had left was the hope that it would all be over quickly. Now, by contrast, we simply hope it will never end! Many of us have rediscovered our love of the club, having had that feeling numbed by a bored owner who had more interest in balance sheets than anything positive like entertainment, love or glory.

The arrival of the new owners basically booted the club awake. Changes were made more or less immediately and the owners showed that they knew the value of easy wins. So surfaces were re-painted and what felt like 15,000 gaudy Sports Direct signs were consigned to the skip. A smart move; as a fanbase we were now even more onside with the owners.

No one can describe us as sleepwalking anymore. We are very much alive and one of the benefits of the last year has been that all of us can dare to dream again. However, it’s better than that just being something for the fanbase. The management have bought into the dream, the players sense incoming success and the owners are backing these dreams on what feels like a daily basis, while also living the very same dream and backing the team regularly, in person. Our owners are no longer reminiscent of the Ghost of Football Past.

Suddenly, there is a renewed professionalism about the club, a drive and a desire from everyone connected to it and these ingredients have built up over the past year, leaving even the most hardened cynics having some sort of tangible sense of belief. I’ve experienced too much Newcastle United flavoured heartache over the years to get too carried away, but even I’m beginning to think that given time we could be a trophy winning football club once more.

The past year has witnessed the addition of a certain level of quality and class that had been absent – or at least only ever seen fleetingly – over the previous 14 years. The most blatantly obvious sign of that has been the players that we’ve signed, with seasoned internationals like Kieran Trippier being joined by the likes of Bruno and Alexander Isaak; the like of which we all probably thought we’d perhaps never see again in black and white. But class comes in different forms too and so while we’ve signed some excellent players, Eddie Howe has brought in some excellent people too. Think of players like Dan Burn and Matt Targett and I can’t be the only one who thinks they seem like great blokes too?

This idea of class and professionalism extends to the bench and the backroom too where sometimes it can feel like we’ve appointed someone new on a weekly basis. Dan Ashworth was the classic example. A man at the absolute top of his game, in a great job who we decided we wanted and went after patiently but with focus, until we got him. The biggest compliment I can pay that particular appointment is that it’s a whole world away from the likes of Kinnear, Jiminez and Wise. And then you think about the owners. I mean, can you imagine them taking the players out for cut price pizza and then giving fans the sly Vs as they leave in the back of a car?

The coaching team seems big too. Only this week I read an article where Craig Bellamy pointed this out – there’s just more staff, which, when you think about it, makes perfect sense given the size of the squads involved in football these days. Then behind the scenes. the medical team has grown as well as areas like the Sports Science team and while I have very little idea of how it all works, the impression that I get is that it’s a whole lot more professional these days. Again, you get the feeling that the club is being run properly once more. And when you think about what the future might hold in terms of the playing squad and staff involved in helping them out, the mind might just boggle!

Those of us of a certain age might remember The Fast Show and a character played by Paul Whitehouse called ‘Brilliant’. His thing was to walk across varying landscapes extoling the brilliance of anything and everything, usually beginning with a line like, “Aren’t *insert brilliant thing here* brilliant?” And then he’d be off on an enthusiastic riff about said thing being brilliant and the many, usually inaccurate, reasons why it was brilliant. He’d end by simple shouting, “Briiiiiiilllliiiiaaaaaaannnnttt!” Funnier than I’ve made it sound, I assure you! Well, supporting Newcastle United for the last year has been just like being ‘Brilliant’.

Aren’t Newcastle United brilliant?

Imagine you’re ‘Brilliant’ and then just have a think about what you could shout about. It could be an endless sketch, couldn’t it?

“Aren’t Newcastle United brilliant? Black and white stripes like zebras, brilliant! Kieran Trippier over the wall, Amanda Staveley, Wor Flags, Jason Tindall’s tan, brilliant. Team photos, laps of appreciation where they walk around the pitch…appreciating. Bruno’s f***ing magic, Alexander Isaak, so many As in his name, it’s brilliant! Full stadiums, Maxi’s volley against Wolves, mackems fewmin’, who’s that team we call United? Brilllliiiiiiiaaaaaannntt!”

The takeover has also managed to bridge a gap that was embarrassing, but could have got to shameful levels. The womens’ team was left to their own devices under Mike Ashley and as a result it looked under-funded and it under-performed. There seemed to be a general lack of interest in the whole thing. In fact though, it was a team that had been going for ages and been ignored and neglected by the club for most of that time.

It’s to the owners’ credit that they have now brought the womens’ team under the wing of the club. It’s something that could easily be viewed as a PR exercise, but you get the impression that our owners are actually fully behind the team and want it to work.

It brings back memories of Sir John Hall’s ideas about Newcastle United Sporting Club and I personally see it as a good thing. It’s certainly managed to add to the general good feeling about the place and earlier this year the Lady Magpies, as they’re known, smashed their own attendance record when playing at St. James’ Park. The interest is clearly there so it’s just another good thing that we’re all operating under the same roof, so to speak and also another sign that the penny-pinching of the previous regime, has gone.

Speaking of penny pinching, the arrival of Matt Targett got me thinking about the benefits of the takeover in a slightly more subtle way. Matt is not the star name that some would have wanted. You’ve only got to cast your mind back to the summer speculation about Renan Lodi to see that, with social media pundits going mad for a man that probably 80% of them had never heard of. However, we signed Matt Targett. Now, some of us will remember that Targett was meant to sign for us when he was a Southampton player, but we missed out on him and he ended up on loan at Fulham. A familiar tale, sadly and no doubt another last day of the window rumour put out as a smokescreen for our usual level of inactivity. Once again, this was down to the owner’s unwillingness to spend money and we’d have been fed the usual line about ‘just not being able to get it over the line’, so it’s a subtle reminder of the changes that we eventually got him after all, regardless of what some may have made of the signing!

I’d find it hard to believe that anyone could have any real problems with how things have changed in the last year. We may feel conflicted by moral issues connected to the owners, but looking at what they’ve done for the club in the last year, any complaining would be churlish. Where a storm had been raging over Newcastle for years, these new owners have been a breeze that cleared the clouds and brought sunshine where there had been rain. It’s safe to say that it’s been a hell of a year, but it’s almost as much of a sure thing that the next 5 or 10 years promise much, much more.

So, after a year of living the dream, it’s definitely time to look forward, but also to say thank you, because we’ve got a hell of a lot to be grateful for. So far, it’s been an amazing ride – here’s to the future and whatever treats it might bring!

Grassroots Football: Back on the grass once again…but it might be a very long season!

I half recognised the feeling both when I went to bed on Saturday night and then while I was having a shave on Sunday morning. With the whole house silent, other than the noise of the swooshing of my razor in the sink, I tried to pin down what it might be. I showered – always a good place for thinking – but still it didn’t come to me. Breakfast presented no breakthrough either. And then, as I closed the front door and ventured out into the brisk chill of the early Autumn morning, it hit me.

Excitement!

Of course! This was the first Sunday of the grassroots football season and despite the fact that my team had finished rock bottom of their division last season and then subsequently lost around half of its squad, I was definitely smack in the middle of a bout of excitement.

I’d packed the car, as I always do, the previous afternoon. Kit bag, footballs, nets, Respect line, corner flags, step ladders for putting the nets up and a smaller bag with my match book and a few other things in. I’d got up slightly earlier than usual, having also lost an assistant coach, whose son was one of those who departed at the end of the previous season, which meant that I’d be starting to set up on my own. And now, I was getting into the car to drive the two minutes up to the pitch. To add to my by now rather distinct sense of excitement, it wasn’t even raining! Today would be one of those rare occasions where I would be able to set foot on the grass without getting soaking wet feet within about 3 minutes!

My excitement continued, but was dulled ever so slightly when I walked across our pitch and saw the state of the grass. It was easily a good three inches long and therefore not really very convenient for football. So, not ideal then! When one of our parents arrived, we decided to change to an adjacent pitch which appeared to be slightly shorter. That buzz of excitement was still hanging around and the fact that an adult pub team might turn up later looking to use the same pitch added a sense of jeopardy too!

Time always seems to fly when you’re setting up for a match. It can seem like one minute it’s just you, your corner flags and the odd dog walker and then the before you know it, players and parents are arriving and the whole pitch is surrounded with people. It’s always at this point when you realise that all of this is your responsibility and sometimes, especially when the opposition seem to have a number of players who look like grown men, it can be quite daunting!

Still though, the excitement hung around. I spoke to some parents, to some of my players, to the opposition coach and still the flutter stayed. As we warmed up and closer still to kick off, as we conducted a team talk, I was optimistic and looking forward to the game to come.

Sending your players out onto the pitch at this level can relieve you of any control that you thought you might have had. And this is where the excitement can begin to dissipate. It certainly did on Sunday. I sent my lads out onto the pitch on Sunday we some simple instructions, I’ve decided this year to try and think of games in terms of 3 Golden Rules because this should mean I’m never over-complicating matters for my players. I may then speak to people individually, but as a team I want them to all think in terms of these golden rules and trying to do a few simple things as well as we can.

After making a decent enough start on Sunday, we then conceded 3 goals in quick succession and the game was almost already out of our grasp. Worst of all was that they were avoidable goals, meaning that my excitement quickly turned to tension, dread and a real feeling of helplessness. I ask my team to enjoy playing and stay positive, but for them and for me it can be difficult when nothing’s going your way.

At 3-0 down I could see heads dropping and I could hear one or two of my players sniping at each other and arguing a little bit. Obviously, I tried to encourage them to stay positive and to keep playing and pushing forward, but by half time, we were 6-0 down and I knew that it was going to be a difficult half-time team talk!

That earlier feeling of excitement now disappearing somewhere over a local hill, I tried to stay positive. I pointed out the mistakes that were being made, but also reminded my team that they were a far better team than both the last 35 minutes and the score were showing. I repeated the three golden rules and pointed out some positive aspects of our performance, but made sure that I didn’t give anybody any excuses to relieve themselves of any responsibility for what was happening. I made sure that we all understood that every one of us was part of a team. No one person was responsible for this scoreline.

To cut a long story short, we were better in the second half, but we still lost the game 9-1. We had 7 new players in the squad, so it was always going to be a bit of a learning curve as these are 13 and 14-year-old kids getting used to new people.

At the end of the game I ramped up the positives and made sure everybody knew that in the second half we’d been far, far better. We train again on Wednesday evening, when we’ll try to tweak a few things about how we play in order to cut out the kind of silly errors that cost us dearly this weekend.

Then, we have another home game next Sunday. Same time, same place, different opposition. Hopefully I won’t allow myself to get too relaxed and too carried away then, because as I found out at the weekend, it turns out that excitement’s not always what it’s cracked up to be!

Tracking, swooping and discussing: Welcome to the world of transfer window jargon!

As fascinating as it is, the transfer window can be a frustrating and baffling place. As a fan of Newcastle United, during the Ashley years I lived in hope, despite the fact that every fibre of my being told me that it was a fruitless exercise. As if any of us didn’t learn our lesson after we signed Shefki Kuqi!

Yet still, we feel our hearts skip a beat at the mere sight of the yellow ticker at the bottom of the Sky Sports screen and we can’t stop ourselves from refreshing Twitter (and especially the NUFC hashtag) every minute of every day at certain times of the year! And don’t get me started on ITKs! I’m guessing it’s exactly the same with all clubs at this time of year though.

Although things have very much changed for my team on the transfer window front, one thing has stayed very much the same; the amount of hilarious jargon used in the reports relating to the window.

Recently, while I was having a scroll through the BBC Sport gossip section, I found that it was out of hand. And then when combined with places like the Chronicle Live website and listening at any length to Talksport, the language just seems to enter an entirely new dimension. Here’s a selection of what I found.

‘Tracking’ was something Newcastle did a lot while Ashley was owner and as far as I could tell, at most it meant watching a player and generally it seemed to just mean building your hopes up a bit but not buying a player. The verb tracking though brings to mind some kind of cowboy film scenario where native americans are using special skills to find the foot marks from a player’s Gucci trainers on a pavement outside a nightclub somewhere or a broken branch in a hedgerow where the player they’re searching for has passed. At best though ‘tracking’ seems to have meant scouting, which if I’m not mistaken has been going on for years! But, reading newspapers and websites, the amounts of players being tracked was quite something.

I also read a lot about clubs having ‘made contact with’ various players. Now firstly, I thought that was kind of against the rules. ‘Tapping up’ they called it. You’re not supposed to just make contact if a player has a contract with another club. I get it that clubs do, but it’s actually against the rules. Secondly though, it’s funny, because making contact could mean almost anything from sending a letter, a text, an email or even just shaking his hand when you played against him. Sadly, I have a feeling that during the Mike Ashley era, we probably attempted to make contact with players via carrier pigeons…blind ones.

Some new jargon seems to have emerged in recent years with phrases like ‘maintaining an interest’. Another ridiculous one for me, this. Basically, it sounds like a club have said they’re interested in a player and then a bit later, when they’re ‘maintaining an interest’, well they’re just still interested. So, all in all, a pointless report to make really. Great for those ‘clicks’ though eh?

Staying with matters of interest, it amuses me when I read that clubs have ‘cooled their interest’ in a player. How is that interest cooled? Does the coach get forced into a very cold shower? Are they subjected to the ice bucket challenge or just asked to make their minds up while sitting under the shade of a nice big parasol? A weird phrase really. Sadly, again I think that Newcastle’s interest was often cooled in the past when it looked like that carrier pigeon hadn’t been able to make contact with a player. Or just when Mike Ashley realised that he couldn’t sign said player for a bargain bucket price or traded for a box full of Lonsdale tracksuits.

One of the more vague expressions I read concerning transfers was that a club was ‘weighing up a bid’ for a player. Almost like a manager would go to the chairman, let him know that they’d been ‘tracking’ a player, had ‘maintained an interest’, but didn’t know whether to actually sign them. So the two of them were just going to sit their and ‘weigh up a bid’, looking quizzically at each other. Similar to this in terms of vagueness was reading that a club were ‘discussing the possibility of a deal’. Not the deal, but the possibility of a deal. Weird.

It amused me to read that a club was ‘exploring a deal’, conjuring up images of Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola in a big canoe going up the Amazon or Ralph Hasenhutll wandering round the jungle in the Republic of Congo, looking for a right back. Come to think of it though, Ralph Hasenhutll sounds way more like an old time explorer than a football manager so maybe it’s a more accurate phrase than we imagine.

Similarly vague is the new kid on the block as clubs are now often described as ‘preparing an offer’ for a player. I mean, how much preparation is needed? It makes transfers sound like one of those property shows where the house hunters really want the property but are encouraged to make low-ball offer after low-ball offer, pushing the money up by a thousand pounds every time until they get to a ;point where the seller will actually let the house go. Or is it just that so much money is involved in transfers these days that everyone at the club is encouraged to search down the back of their sofas to club together any pound coins they can find? Or do some managers just not really know what to say when it comes to transfers? Maybe there are some painfully shy bosses that we just don’t know about yet.

Some of the more old school phrases still get used around transfers today. One of them revolves around the idea that clubs have ‘swooped’ to make a signing. Again, it’s ridiculous, implying as it does that there is some kind of eagle-like quality to managers or even football clubs. Personally, I’d love to see some managers being urged to run off the side of a cliff wearing some home made wings, but that’s got nothing to do with the transfer window.

With a day or so still to go in the summer transfer window there’s still time for someone to invent some new jargon with which to entertain us. It’s certainly allowed me to conjure up some strange scenarios over the last couple of months. Anyway, here’s to my club Newcastle pouncing tiger-like or maybe even ambushing their way into one last signing before midnight on Thursday.

Grassroots Grumbles: Here’s to a new season!

It’s that time of year again; we’re approaching another season of grassroots football. Nothing particularly remarkable about that, but given that I’ve felt like quitting on a number of occasions recently I’m a little surprised that I’m writing this blog.

Last season was dominated by a feeling of joylessness and repeatedly asking myself the question, why am I bothering? Of 24 games played (22 league and 2 cup) we won 2. We drew a few and really didn’t deserve to lose in others, but largely, and for a number of different reasons, standing on the touchline during games of football last year was simply horrible. And so, the thought of doing it all again for another year wasn’t one that I approached with any optimism at all.

The sound of the last referee’s whistle of the season may well have still been lingering in the air when the first of several players said that they were leaving. This was followed by another and another and before I knew it, I’d lost 5 players. In fact, from the squad of 18 that we’d stated the season with, we’ve actually lost 7, while another seems to have disappeared (and he’s not even the first to do that). So we’ll call that 8 then! And whatever your knowledge of football, you’ll probably realise that 10 players doesn’t make a squad.

There has been some good news since that point. We’ve been helped out by our A-team coach – nothing to do with Hannibal, Face, Mr T etc, just the other team in the club at our age group – who’s sent 6 players our way who weren’t going to be good enough to play for his team, given the division that they play in. Further to that, our advert for players has gained us a couple of other players, including a goalkeeper, which was the position that we struggled with last year. So, in many ways, that signing alone means that we’ve struck gold. All in all as I write, we have potentially (so far nothing has been made formal) 18 players for a squad for next season. And who knows, the lad who disappeared might well pop up out of nowhere again!

We also have a little bit of hope elsewhere too. Firstly, our best player from last season – one of those who left – is considering coming back to us. I’m not building up my hopes at all, but also can’t ignore the fact that he came and played in a friendly match for us and has openly said that he just misses being part of our team. At the moment, he’s thinking about exactly what to do next, but he knows that he’d be welcomed back with open arms, so we’ll be keeping our fingers crossed as he really would make a difference.

We also had a response to our advert for players just this week that has intrigued me. It was from a girl and we’ve been trying to encourage girls to join us for years. In the developmental sense, I just think it’s good for the game that more girls join in, but also we’re just very aware that there are some excellent female footballers out there that can’t always find a clear path into a team. England’s Lionesses winning the recent European Championships has undoubtedly helped with that pathway, so I’m hopeful that we can find our first female player soon! Again though, it’s really just a case of keeping fingers crossed!

We played our first pre-season friendly match a couple of weeks ago and in contrast to how things felt at the end of the season, this was a really positive experience. We only played against our club’s Under 13 team to help them out as they adapt to playing at 11-a-side, but we had 20 players available, including our best players from last season, who as I said earlier had only just left!

It was difficult to juggle the numbers and we ended up splitting the game into quarters and just using almost separate teams, but it worked and we were able to try players in different positions and get a sense of where new lads might fit in. Since then we’ve struggled for availability because of holidays and so we haven’t had another game, but we’ve kept training chugging along, albeit it with smaller numbers.

The next step is to start registering players. So far everyone seems keen, so it’s only the notoriously difficult internet registration site to get round. It took several visits and around a week to get it all done last year, but I’m hopeful that with some players returning from last season, at least their registrations will represent minimal work!

Another big job will come with trying to get a new kit. We need a new away kit, as a lot of lads just haven’t got one as they joined the club late while others have simply grown out of theirs. We need to attract a sponsor and while in my head that could be difficult post-Covid, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that our old sponsor will simply give us the go-ahead – aka money – to get another set of kit ordered. If that happens and the registration of players is at least quite straighforward, then we can just concentrate on training and organising friendly games. It would be nice just to stat being able to work on building a team, given that we’ve lost four who were regulars in the team for the last four years. But in the ever complicated world of grassroots football, I’ll stay just a little bit cynical about those prospects!

One of the bright spots of the last couple of months worth of scrambling around trying to get new players was the offers of help. Other coaches at our club have said they’ll keep their eyes and ears open for any possible players and as I said earlier, the other Under 14s coach has sent players our way. But the one that was most positive was the offer from another coach at a different club in our division. One of the teams at our age group had folded due to lack of numbers and despite the distance between the two teams, he actually passed my details on to parents of players left without a club because in his words, he knew I’d look after those players.

As it turns out, I’ve not heard from any of those parents, but I’d like to think that’s because it’s a good 30 minute car journey to get to us and there are probably other clubs that they can go to that are a lot closer to where they live. It didn’t matter; it was nice to know that your hard work gets recognised and that there’s respect between coaches. It was something that helped make up my mind about carrying on coaching the team this year and it was nice to be reminded of the good that’s out there in grassroots football. (So thanks Rich, if you ever stumble across this blog).

So we’re just under a month from kick off in grassroots football here in our corner of Yorkshire. There’s a lot still to do, but I feel like I’m approaching it with at least the tiniest bit of optimism!

NUFC Season Tickets

So, another new era NUFC milestone was reached this week as the club put around 1000 season tickets on sale. It was reported that over 30,000 people were sat in an online queue at one point, all patiently waiting, Willy Wonka-like for the chance to get their hands on a golden ticket.

Given the hysteria around the club for the last year or so, the numbers weren’t that much of a surprise. If you take into account the whole feel good factor created by things that range from being as small as team photos and painting the concourses in the stadium to being as big as signing world class players or indeed any players in what I’m reliably informed is called a ‘transfer window’, then it’s no wonder people want to watch their team again.

However, while it might seem simple that people want to see attractive football again, a lot of people still aren’t particularly happy.

For me, it seemed a simple equation. If you sit in a massive queue – nothing like the numbers that Everton get for Under 23 games or the launch of new mugs at the club shop mind, but massive all the same – trying to get something that’s available in a limited amount, then you might well miss out. And yet, still people seemed outraged.

Some said that they had a greater right than others to getting season tickets, while others bemoaned the size of the stadium. So here’s my take, for what it’s worth.

First of all, I’m not that sure that anyone has a greater right to watch a football team than anyone else. I’ve always been a bit of an advocate for supporting your local team, but even then I realise that people from other parts of the UK and the world have a connection to the club. And that connection makes it perfectly natural to want to go to St. James’ Park and see your team. It might not be perhaps as obvious a connection as being local, but it’s a connection all the same.

I was born and bred in Newcastle, growing up in Blaydon while spending a considerable amount of time with family in both Byker and Walker. I never thought I’d leave, but then a combination of university and Margaret Thatcher deciding the region didn’t deserve investment or jobs happened and I moved away, first to Stoke and then back north to Leeds. So was I only passable as a season ticket holder or even a supporter to some while I lived in Blaydon? It’s a silly argument really, but I guess some people are a little blind to real life at times.

Then we come to the question of what some see as loyalty. Some will tell you that season tickets and indeed any kind of matchday seat should go to those deemed the most loyal. But then, how do you define loyalty? Is it a simple matter of attending every game home or away? It can’t be, surely because again this is an area where life can get in the way. What if you work shifts or occasional weekends? What if work takes you away for periods of time or what if you live too far away to make it practical to get to every game? And what about the fact that there’s only a finite certain amount of people that can fit into the stadium or an away allocation. What if you can’t be ‘loyal’ because of that?

And as for loyalty, what even is it? If you’re going to every game because we’re successful – probably difficult to imagine, I know – then that’s an easy version of loyalty. I’d hope I was loyal during enough of the awful football that I’ve witnessed over the years to be able to be respected for boycotting when I’d had enough of seeing how badly my club was being run and the foresight, perhaps, to see it was going to get worse. So while I’d salute (not literally, that’s be daft) those who stuck with it, I’d argue that the reasons myself and many others had for stepping away were equally admirable.

Lots of people have had a real issue with those of us who boycotted because of Ashley’s ownership. It was an early and reasonably easy choice for me to make. Having held a season ticket for years, I was driving up from Leeds and my first thought on taking my seat was often, ‘What am I doing here?’ I was getting more and more frustrated by the lack of ambition and by what I felt like I could see was going to happen to the club. To paraphrase a now famous banner, I didn’t want a team that won all the time, I wanted a team that tried and from the owner downwards, I couldn’t see that. Everything came to a head for me at the fateful home game versus Hull, just after Keegan had resigned again. Here was my childhood hero being roundly abused by Ashley and his cronies. In fact, we were all having the piss taken out of us. I’d had enough. That was my last game. Even during Rafa’s time, despite the pull of something a bit brighter, Ashley kept me away.

Staying away has genuinely hurt. There’s something missing in my life every time we play. Tears have been shed over all manner of issues – various protests, Rafa leaving, Wor Flags displays, the takeover, Wilson’s goal against Spurs after the takeover was done, sometimes even just the sight of someone like Justin Barnes was enough to bring a tear to the eye! I’ve missed the social side of games, I’ve missed the atmosphere, the expectancy, the hope, the sight of The Angel signalling that I’m nearly home again on the drive up, Local Hero…all sorts of things. But I knew it was important to stick to my guns.

For people to now be telling me (or us, the ones that walked away, heartbroken) that I have no right to a season ticket is a bit of a joke. In walking away, what we did was incredibly difficult, but it had a purpose and I’d argue it had to be done. I couldn’t continue to give my money to Ashley and the thought that if he was denied our money he might sell up seemed reasonably sensible to me. So, I gave up one of the biggest things in my life and something that I’d been utterly in love with from an early age. It wasn’t a simple matter of having had enough and waiting for us to start winning and signing big names again. It felt like it had broken my heart.

As it happens, I’ve not applied for a season ticket. Somehow, I’ve got to the age I’m at and found that I lead a bit of a busy life and the thought of driving up and down the motorway to get to games just felt a little bit too much at the moment. My health hasn’t been fantastic over the past few years and so this was an extra strain that I felt unwilling to put myself through. I suppose I’m finding out that sometimes in life, the time just isn’t right, no matter how much you want to do something. But, I’d defend anyone’s right to try and go back, who’s been in the situation I’ve been in. Ashley’s season ticket giveaway of a few years back suggests that there’s a lot of us too. Like me, a lot of those will have been long term season ticket holders when they decided to boycott. Like me, a lot of them would have done plenty of time following Newcastle home and away over the years. That love, that loyalty and that history can’t just be switched off. Nor can it be ignored or cheapened.

As Newcastle United fans, it seems odd that so many are determined to have us divided. I understand that everyone has a view, but I’d also suggest that people don’t criticise or judge too much when they haven’t walked in the shoes that they’re so eager to denounce. Everyone has a view, but everyone has a story too, whether it be about why we love Newcastle United or why we had to loosen our grip a little bit. When it comes down to it, we all want the same thing; the hope and the pride that comes with supporting a competitive and ambitious Newcastle United.

Grassroots Grumbles: Preparing for the season that might even not happen.

When I last wrote about the junior football team that I coach, we were really struggling. Come to think of it, I’d probably written along the same lines with the time before that as well as it’s a subject that I blog about reasonably regularly! Well, we’re still struggling, which is quite some feat when the season has ended! So, it’s safe to say that last season was nothing short of an absolute nightmare in terms of results.

We eventually finished at the very bottom place in our division; division 6 of 7 divisions in our league. I say eventually, but we were stuck there from around January. Now I don’t know the exact protocol as I don’t think there’s necessarily automatic relegation, but I still suspect that we’ll get relegated to division 7 next season. I believe there’s a bit of a consultation process, but I’ll be honest, I don’t think we have much of a case to see us stay in our present division. We had huge problems with Covid and injuries, but we still managed to play all of our games eventually and the results don’t lie.

During the final couple of months of last season I began to hear rumours of certain players being unsettled. And let’s get this straight, by ‘unsettled’ what I mean in a couple of cases was that they were sick of losing and happy to blame anyone but themselves for the results. I was hearing that at least a couple of players were planning to leave our club and worst of all, that while we toiled and struggled for numbers, these kids were training with other clubs at times. Sure enough, now that the season has ended, they’ve left. But it gets worse, another two have gone and one of them was clearly our best player. Add in the two that just stopped coming from around December time and we’ve now lost 6 players from an 18 man squad that clearly wasn’t big enough in the first place! I also fear that there might be one more considering moving on as well.

So, to put it bluntly, we’re in real trouble! There’s a genuine chance that the team could fold, hence the title of the blog!

At the end of the season I was sorely tempted to quit coaching the team. It was taking up far too much of my time, I wasn’t particularly enjoying it and due to the weekly scramble to get a team together because of injuries and just a lack of reliability in some cases, my mental health felt like it was suffering slightly too. As a football obsessive and a keen competitor, seeing us turn up with no substitutes once again or even not enough for a full team and suffer the almost inevitable defeat was getting me down. There were times when we were competitive, but they only ever seemed to lead to a false dawn before hopes were dashed once more. I’d often spend hours on a Sunday brooding about results and trying to figure out where we were going wrong.

Despite all of this we’re continuing to train over summer. I think we’ll take a break eventually, but at the moment the focus is on attracting new players. I don’t dare take a break in case we get an enquiry and I have to risk losing a potential new player because we’re not training for a couple of weeks! We have actually gained a couple of new players though as two have dropped down from our ‘A’ team, with the promise of another on the way once he’s recovered from a knee injury. That still only leaves us with 15 players in the squad, which is still short of the maximum number allowed on a match day.

We’ve just put a new advert out on social media and hope to attract people from that, but it’s an avenue we’ve explored in the past that’s not always been very successful. Despite repeated adverts, we didn’t have a goalkeeper for the whole of last season and it cost us dearly. We still just have one of the lads filling in as a goalie even now. I mean, am I asking too much for a 6ft 13 year old with hands like shovels to step forward? I’ve had several promises that kids will definitely be coming to training to try out, only for said kid to never show. It can feel like such a let down when you’ve built your hopes up! However, such is our desperation this season that my assistant coach even put last year’s advert out a couple of weeks ago, despite the fact that it was the wrong season and age group! Predictably, we got a response, but we’re still waiting on the player showing up! We’ve got everything crossed in the hope that someone, especially a goalkeeper turns up any day soon though!

I really want to do my best by the team this year. As with every year, I suppose. There are boys in the squad – including my own son – who I’ve now coached since they were 8 years old and I can’t let them down. So, although it was tempting to call it a day and perhaps hand the reigns to someone else, I became more determined to carry on and do my utmost to put together a more successful and competitive squad of players. But even that, with the best will in the world, is problematic.

In the majority of cases our squad are limited in either ability, attitude or both. I hope that doesn’t sound disparaging. Like I mentioned, we finished bottom of our division and some of that was simply down to the ability of the players. (I’ll crash into the thought process of some readers here though and add that, yes, I understand that some of this comes down to me as a coach as well).

We happen to have a lot of small, slightly built players too and were easily the smallest team in the league last year. And when you’re coming up against teams that look like they’re fielding 5 or 6 18-year-olds it must be quite daunting when you’re less than 5ft tall! As a coach I found myself frightened on their behalf at times! It often meant that we were simply bullied out of games last year though.

A lot of our training last season and so far during this pre-season is dedicated to time on the ball and becoming more comfortable with the ball at their feet so that they could take a touch, control the ball and then pass it on or drive forward with it. But even then, training was regularly disrupted by poor behaviour or kids with bad attitudes just wanting to either mess around or simply do what they wanted to do. So when the instruction was to limit yourself to 3 touches before moving the ball on, we’d have the West Yorkshire Mbappe trying to dribble round a whole team and taking 104 touches into the bargain amidst the soundtrack of two coaches shouting “Touches” repeatedly. (Which when working with children could be seen as a dangerous thing to shout if it’s not heard correctly!)

And this permeated its way into games where we’d find that even when training had gone well and when we thought we’d drilled a message into the team about exactly how we wanted to play, they’d defy all logic during a game! So instead of not panicking on the ball and simply passing to an available team mate who had moved into space, we’d be losing the will to live, watching kids just launch the ball as hard as possible down the field to no one or setting off on a mazy dribble that would lead to them losing the ball or just shooting wildly from 40 yards out! And don’t even get me started on taking quick throw-ins, which you’d think would be a simple one to master!

I think confidence dropped and lots of the boys were just frightened of making a mistake, so just got rid of the ball as soon as possible. So the focus now has to be on praising them and building that confidence back up.

It’s time to put last season and past players behind us though. As a coach, I now need to concentrate on fostering good habits with the ball, building everybody’s confidence and getting my squad as fit as they can be by September. The last few weeks of training have been different and enjoyable. The attitude of the squad and the atmosphere on the pitch has been positive. Training has been well received and drills performed with enthusiasm. There definitely seems to be a determination to do better and I’m hopeful that we can build a decent team spirit in the coming weeks too. Best of all, the boys are training with smiles on their faces.

Ultimately, I want my players to enjoy their football and to feel comfortable as part of the squad. Obviously, I want results to start going our way too and we’ll be arranging friendly games in order to work on just that soon.

We have to hope we’ll pick up more new players, otherwise we may not have a team to put out next year. So we have a bit of a battle on our hands, but after a few weeks of reflection and a bit of sulking about it all, I’m determined to face it head on! If we can pick up more players, improve those that we’ve got and have an enjoyable, but hard working pre-season, I’ll be thrilled. If we’re still short on numbers by the start of August though, we could have a real problem.

I’ll be sure to keep you informed!

As ever, feel free to leave a comment as it’s always nice to hear people’s thoughts.

Newcastle United: Some reasons to feel the love.

It’s been an incredible season. A season that started out cloaked in a sadly all too familiar pessimism, has somehow (almost) ended in an almighty celebration. No trophies – and you’ve been following the wrong club if that’s what you got into it for – and nothing hugely tangible to show for it, but still every cause for celebration.

But this isn’t an article about the takeover. Nor is it about being ITK and pretending I’ve got the inside track on some stellar summer signings. There will be a bit about our owners and their takeover, but largely this is just inner workings of my mind whenever I think about Newcastle United at the moment and the fact that not so long ago I’d almost fallen out of love with them. It’s about the little things. And the little things are often the best (or so the anti erectile dysfunction advert campaigners say). So here’s a list of 20 little NUFC related things to make you smile.

  1. The owners – meeting and greeting anyone and everyone, smiling, engaging with the fans, going to the games, trolling each other on social media, looking like they’re pleased to be here, enjoying the club and the city and setting about running our football club professionally and like they care. And it’s been that way ever since Amanda Staveley emerged from a hotel in Jesmond smiling and waving to everyone there. God bless the bloody lot of them!
  2. Team spirit – it looks like a joy to play for our football club again and I for one can’t remember a team spirit like this. No bad eggs and no scurrilous stories in the tabloids. The squad and everyone around them have big, beaming smiles on their faces and it’s just utterly refreshing.
  3. Eddie and his staff – for the first time in a few years we have a group of people running the team that take great pride in what they do, see it as a privilege to work at our club and are more than willing to go the extra mile in order to bring us some kind of success. Eddie and his staff obviously appreciate the fans too and I think that to a man, woman and child, we love them right back!
  4. Player Renaissance – under the previous regime it felt at times like we had a squad full of players who were rapidly falling out of love with the game. Many struggled for form. It almost felt like paddling pool recovery technology, wheely bin ice baths and a sulky, face pulling coach just weren’t enough inspiration anymore. However, since the dawning of the Eddie Howe era several players have scaled new heights. Ryan Fraser, Fabian Schar, Sean Longstaff and Emil Krafth are all good examples of players who’ve discovered scintilating levels of form since January. But of course, we can’t forget Joelinton; a man who has found himself receiving nationwide recognition for the upturn in his form. I’d add more, but you can read precisely what I think on the link below.

“He’s Brazilian…” – The Remarkable Rise of Joelinton.

5. The future – I mean. I wouldn’t class myself as any kind of optimist, but it’s bright isn’t it? 6. Bruuuuunoooo – it’s been a while since a player of this quality graced our team. It’s all been said by others, so I won’t write too much, but the boy’s a bit special. Cabaye is probably the closest we’ve seen to someone of Bruno’s class for a long time, but I truly think that those comparisons do him a disservice. A current Brazilian international who scores back-heeled volleys and sings his own terrace song around the house – Bruno is the stuff that dreams are made of. 7. The return of Wor Flags – again, it’s all been said before really. But what a spectacle! What a place St. James’ Park is again! And let’s not forget there’s a ‘BMX4sale 42 kwid o.n.o’. Genius. 8. The Jealousy of other fans – Look, there are certain issues involved in the ownership of our club that people are going to pick up on. Rightly so, too. But in many cases it’s just the green eyed monster. The amount of fans of other clubs who seem to have developed an overnight social conscience is only just dwarfed by the amount that didn’t realise how transfer window worked up until January. And you can bet that these are the same people who said we’d be the richest club in the championship too. Get used to it fellow Newcastle fans; these people are going to be crying river after river after river for years to come! 9. Shearer’s statue – the victim of another petty decision by the previous regime, Shearer’s statue is back inside the boundaries of the stadium, where it always belonged. It was an easy win for our new owners, so they did it. Seems simple really, doesn’t it? What a shame Ashley never understood. 10. Team Photos after a win – the target of hilarious snide comments from fans of other clubs, but the thing that we love to see. Birthplace of our knowledge of the Burn/Fraser bromance, while also humiliating those of us that carry a little bit more timber than we’d like with just the sight of some of the abs on show. I mean, Paul Dummett…who knew? Eddie’s simple idea is another thing that has made us fans fall back in love with the club (those of us who fell or almost fell out of love with it anyway) and I for one have looked forward to them after every fantastic win that we’ve been able to put on the board! 11. Sean Longstaff’s defence of Joelinton – straight after the home draw with Man Utd, after Joelinton had been awarded Man of The Match, the interviewer told Big Joe, “I didn’t realise you were that good.” After Joelinton’s cheery but bemused reply up stepped Sean. HIs defence of Joe was fantastic and showed the spirit in the camp, something that has deserted Newcastle frequently over the years. Longstaff said that the treatment of Joelinton had been disgraceful, revealing that everyone wants to be on his team at training because that means they’ll win! In an age of media trained monotony, this was refreshing and would have had many of us Toon fans shouting at the telly! 12. Big Dan Burn – put simply, I’m not sure there’s much better than a successful Geordie coming home story. 13. The Fraser/Burn bromance – with their immediately noticeable difference in height, I’m sure Ryan and Dan were the first to find those pictures funny. Surely standing together during those team photos was done on purpose? Same with the order in which they come on to the field. It’s a beautiful thing! More than that though, I hope it’s a sign of the spirit in the squad – two players prepared to have a laugh at themselves in order to promote a bit of harmony. Alternatively of course is the fact that they might just really get on and that their height doesn’t affect them being mates whatsoever. Still, it’s put a smile on more than a few faces. 14. Sam Fender offends mackems – a home town gig, Wor Flags and Local Hero. Cue social media meltdown on Wearside. Apparently though, they didn’t like him anyway (presumably they stumbled into a ticketed gig by mistake, having boarded the Metro to Newcastle by mistake), he was far too full of himself, there was no place for flags at a gig (maybe atmosphere’s not a big thing in Sunderland?) and where Sam was from wasn’t allowed to matter to him…just them. Very strange. But remember, we’re the ones that are obsessed. 15. Actual transfer windows – for much of the last 14 years these have been the stuff of legend, the place where other football clubs did business and bought players to improve things. For us, these were pretty desperate, yet predictable times. Lots of futile speculation, little or no action. The birthplace of the phrase, ‘we just couldn’t get it over the line’. January showed us how things could be and this summer promises to be memorable to say the least. 16. Jason Tindall’s tan – often to be found standing near to Eddie in a technical area, Jason is the tall, dark, handsome one whose skin tone resembles lump of teak. A thing of beauty. 17. Bruno referring to Joelinton as “bastard” on social media – it doesn’t seem to happen too much anymore, but for a short while it was funny and showed that Bruno’s English lessons, although a bit left-field, were paying off. It made me think he might have been taking Spender as his English inspiration. 18. Hawaiian Joelinton shirts – a stroke of genius really. Castore could learn a thing or two from those lads. 19. Owners’ kickabouts – it’s almost like they’re enjoying owning the club. But surely that can’t be right? I mean, Mr. Ashley made it sound like really hard work and now these lot are out after the game having a kickabout and filming it for social media. I do worry about their expensive shoes on that pitch though… 20. No more Sports Direct signs, talk of ground expansion and training ground improvements – there’s a lot that could be said about this, but for me it just shows that a top flight football club should be loved and invested in and not just treat as the world’s biggest billboard. Our owners seem to have fallen in love with the club and they are more than keen to improve it. It’s the stuff of dreams!

So there we have it. 20 daft things to love about the Toon. It could have been a ridiculously long list as well. For the first time in well over a decade times are good at Newcastle United. I hope you’re enjoying the ride!

“He’s Brazilian…” – The Remarkable Rise of Joelinton.

Some months ago, I was on the verge of writing a blog about Joelinton, It was to be headlined, ‘How do you solve a problem like Joelinton?’ and while it would be sympathetic – I really don’t like to crucify Toon players – it would also highlight the fact that here was a player that initially, no one seemed to have craved and yet now we were all stuck, the player included, not knowing what to make of him. I’ll repeat though, that my aim was never to hang Joelinton out to dry. I mean, I couldn’t if I wanted, given the size of my audience, but content is king with this type of thing and it had gotten to the stage where I felt like I couldn’t not write about him.

Something stopped me writing that blog post. I’d love to say that I knew Joelinton would come good, but the truth is, I didn’t. I think I just didn’t feel it was right to be so openly critical. Even when watching matches, I never found myself screaming and shouting about him. It was clear that he was working hard and that he wasn’t hiding from the ball. And he kept getting picked too. So, I just didn’t feel like it was being productive to be critical. I recall commenting on a Tweet that someone had sent out of a picture of Joe and his partner flying off to Brazil. I just put, ‘I hope she’s a striker’s coach’ and it was definitely just in jest more than being critical. Yet still, a few fans jumped on it like I’d just insulted their mothers. It was a joke at Joelinton’s expense and about his prredicament. But it was only a joke.

As a Newcastle United fan, I always wanted Joelinton to do well, but he was becoming a lost cause and the more I willed him to do well and he didn’t, the more he reminded me of similar lost causes that I’ve adopted over the years. One in particular sprung to mind- Kevin Dillon. Dillon was a mackem midfielder played for us between 1989 and 1991 and seemed to do everything he could not to score for us. I’d go to games, tipping him to score, week after week after week. Sometimes, when watching from the Scoreboard, a goal would go in at the Leazes end and I’d swear it was Dillon. It never was. Clearly though, Joelinton is no one’s Kevin Dillon!

On top of this, it seemed clear to anyone watching – apart from the likes of Bruce and the Steves, Mike Ashley etc – that it just wasn’t working out for Joelinton. It didn’t make me angry, it just made me feel sympathy for the player. He wasn’t scoring, he looked awkward even when just running and no system or position seemed to suit him. Even when Newcastle’s social media posted videos of him doing stuff like scoring in training, it looked like an accident. I began to notice the times he spent sitting getting treatment during games, thinking ‘here we go again’ but never once considering the fact that he was throwing himself into challenges that I’d just run away from!

Fast forward 6 months or so and I’m so pleased that I didn’t write that blog post! Joelinton is clearly a player reborn, seemingly brought back to life by our Lord and saviour, Eddie Howe (and his disciples Tindall, Jones et al).

As we’ll all no doubt remember, Big Joe’s redemption began in earnest on Tuesday 30th November 2021, in the game against Norwich at home. Ciaran Clarke’s early sending off forced Eddie Howe into a quick tactical change that saw Joelinton drop deeper into midfield, alongside Willock and Shelvey. The hope seemed to be that he could slot in there and do a job with his undoubted physicality. However, it was immediately apparent that Joe was going to provide much, much more than this. I remember watching and as each minute passed, just feeling more and more impressed. And I think we were all just delighted for him.

That night Joelinton was a hero. His work rate was phenomenal and he operated more as a box to box type midfielder than anything, linking things from back to front really effectively. He bullied the opposition midfield and his legwork allowed Jonjo Shelvey more time on the ball. Importantly though, in a game where we could easily have been picked off by a team with an extra man, he never allowed Norwich players to settle. If he was within touching distance, they were going to feel him challenging them. That night, after Clark’s dismissal, someone like Billy Gimour could have ran the game from midfield, but instead Joelinton took charge.

Four days later in the next game, against Burnley at home, Newcastle won their first match of the season. In what was a physical grind of a game, Joelinton again played in midfield and again put in an all action performance the like of which surely none of us had seen coming! Perhaps more importantly his status as a cult hero was growing as this was the first home match to hear the ‘He’s Brazilian’ chant.

In the final game of 2021, following on from a run of three heavy defeats, we played Manchester United at home. Not quite the daunting prospect that they once had been and yet no easy task for us, especially once Callum Wislon pulled up injured and had to be subbed off just before half time. Allan Saint Maximin had given us a lead early on, but Man Utd came after us in the second half, equalising with around 20 minutes still to go. It was all hands to the pump to secure a valuable point and once again Joelinton was brilliant with Eddie Howe commenting “I cannot praise him enough” afterwards. Howe’s influence has been amazing and he’s made it known just how valued Joelinton was from pretty much his first week in the job, which must have been a boost for the player after having to endure the poor man management of Steve Bruce.

However, it was Big Joe’s post match interview that would not only make headlines, but cement Joe’s place in the hearts and minds of Newcastle supporters. After a now typical all action performance, our Brazilian was awarded the man of the match by Sky. All good so far. But then the interviewer, Patrick Davidson, opened up with this,

Joelinton, can I be completely honest? I didn’t realise you were that good.”

To his eternal credit Joelinton seemed to see the ‘funny’ side of what the interviewer was getting at. As I mentioned earlier, probably not many of us could honestly say that we’d seen anything much in Joe, apart from a price tag up until that Norwich game. But this was disrespectful, sly and designed to get under the skin. I was disgusted when I heard it, as were a lot of other Toon fans. However, Sean Longstaff – stood alongside Joe for the interview – spoke for us all, telling Davidson how good Joelinton actually was and pointing out that “the disrespect he gets is a disgrace”. The revelation that players loved being on Joelinton’s team in training because it meant they always won also told us a lot about the player. I guess what you see in matches is never really the whole story. It felt like a night and a moment that helped to galvanise us all. We remained 19th in the table and now had 11 points, but there had definitely been a shift in momentum and performance levels, with Joelinton very much at the heart of it all.

It wasn’t all plain sailing for Big Joe though. After all, he was in the side that lost to Cambridge in the FA cup and also played in the Watford game, after which I for one could only see us going down. But reinforcements were being brought in and fortunes were about to take an upturn.

After getting injured against Leeds, by the time we beat Everton at home Joelinton was back in the team and performing brilliantly. And now, in Bruno Guimaraes, he had a Brazilian compatriot in town too. We’d signed a Brazilian international midfielder who was about to be kept out of the team partly by our a Brazilian who we’d questioned as a player not long since. Joelinton’s rise was almost complete.

For me – and I’d imagine loads of others – one of Joelinton’s brightest moments of the season, and maybe of his Newcastle career, came in the away victory at Brentford at the end of February. Once again, he was dominant in midfield, but he also scored our opening goal, rising to meet a cross from the left by Ryan Fraser and plant a bullet header into the net. And then, brushing aside his team mates, he ran the length of the pitch to celebrate in front of the by now adoring Newcastle fans, some of whom were dressed in fantastic Hawaiian shirts bearing Big Joe’s face. No one could be in any doubt about Joelinton now! At the end of the game, Joe returned to the fans, giving his shirt away and then being serenaded by the ‘He’s Brazilian’ chant for a good few minutes. At this point Newcastle were now 14th in the table with 25 points.

Eddie Howe has gone on record as saying that they saw Joelinton as more of a number 10 than a box to box midfielder, but there can be no doubt of his influence on Big Joe. It’d be unfair to say that Joelinton didn’t having the backing of the previous management who tried to incorporate him in various positions and systems. But whichever way you look at it, Steve and The Steves never got close to realising the player’s potential.

As I write, we’ve just got through a remarkable Joelinton dominated weekend which has certainly helped to illustrate just how far he’s come in his time at Newcastle United. His performance against Norwich proved something else about him. And it’s something that we probably all very much doubted initially, especially when he was given the number 9 shirt. Joelinton’s got a goal or two in him!

Joelinton’s two goals against Norwich proved that there is a striker’s instinct in there. His first – a stunning hammer blow into the top corner of the net – showed power and precision that for me personally, was evident in his first ever Newcastle goal, a crisp left footed finish against Spurs away that arrowed into the net. Similarly, the first against Norwich was a great connection that no keeper was stopping. Then his second goal was the type of close range finish that good strikers will see as their bread and butter. I thought he showed great awareness and a cool head with that one.

Once again, Big Joe was serenaded by the travelling fans and stuck around, enjoying the adoration for a good few minutes. I wonder what was going through his head as he stood their clapping? Imagine the delight and the weight steadily lifting from his shoulders in these past couple of months. One minute you’re finding the shot that you’ve just tried to hit smacking you in the face and then, in what must feel like the blink of an eye, almost everything you touch is applauded and thousands of Geordies are singing your name week in, week out. What a time to be Joelinton! If there’s not room for a statue, surely there should be a Bielsa style mural of him soon?!

All we need now is to see him getting called up to the Brazil squad and maybe even to make the World Cup in Qatar and the remarkable rise of Joelinton will be well and truly complete!

Super Sporting Sunday? It was anything but!

Sunday 3rd April should have been a glorious day for me. As a sports fan, it promised much and although it would prove tiring, I was aware of the fact that it could send me back to work on the Monday in a fantastic mood. And here begins a lesson in not building your hopes up!

Last Sunday was a day where sport dominated. Nothing hugely new here, I’m afraid, as sport has probably dominated much of my life. But on Sunday I was due to be ‘on the go’ with sport from early morning until well into the night. It should have been the stuff that (my) dreams are made of. A day away from the pressure of work where everything would come together and provide me with some reasons to be cheerful. Well, the day away from work bit was right anyway…

With a game for my Under 13 football team in the morning, Newcastle United away at Tottenham in the Premier League live on Sky in the afternoon and then a trip to watch Leeds Knights ice hockey team in their final regular season match, it should have been a fabulous day. But sadly, the gods of sport had other ideas.

I should have known. When we booked tickets for the ice hockey, I didn’t bother to look at the football fixtures. Nor did I pay any attention to the date and time of the hockey. You’ve guessed it – fixture clash! Newcastle would kick off in the Premier league at 4.30pm, while Knights would face off at 5.15, meaning that I wouldn’t get to see a single second of the football. Sadly, I only realised this on the Friday before and because we have adopted ice hockey as a family sport, there was no getting out of it. I didn’t want to either though as I’m really enjoying watching hockey this year. But I was gutted at missing out on the Newcastle game.

When we set off on the 13 mile trip up to Horsforth in north Leeds on Sunday morning, I was optimistic. It was very much an optimism that was hanging by a thread, but it was optimism all the same. Having endured a tough season so far, we went into this game bottom of the league, but facing a team that were only a couple of places above us. I also knew that they were struggling for players and form, so initially I’d hoped we could make it a fairly straightforward win. And then I put the message out about our own availability for the game. Out of a squad of 18 players only 11 were available! One of the stories of our season; despite having a good size squad, we’re almost always short on numbers. With only 11 players it meant that we couldn’t make any substitutions. Only 11 players meant that injuries – another key theme of the season – would cause us all manner of problems. Fatigue would also enter the equation now too, as no one would get a rest. To add to the problems, two parents had messaged to say that they were concerned about injuries with their sons!

It turned out to be an awful start to my sporting Sunday. We were beaten 1-0, but we outplayed our opposition for some of the first half and the entirety of the second. Our players were beyond frustrated, one even leaving the field crying at the end, having put in so much effort. We created chance after chance, but just couldn’t put the ball in the net. Had we scored one, we would definitely have gone on to win the game. I made sure to put out a message later that day on our WhatsApp group, thanking parents and players and telling them how proud I was of our team, their boys (and mine). But we still hadn’t taken a point from the game and it played on my mind for the rest of the day.

I should have known that it would be downhill all the way from this point of my sporting Sunday. But hope springs eternal and I was still thinking optimistically about the two fixtures to come. Little did I know that a narrow, perhaps unjust defeat in junior football, would actually turn out to be the highlight of my day.

I was already at the ice hockey arena when Newcastle kicked off their Premier League game against Tottenham. Armed and ready with the live updates of the match on my phone, I still thought we would be able to get something from the game. Sitting waiting for the hockey to start, I was checking my phone every couple of minutes, half expecting a Tottenham goal any second. And then, my phone buzzed. I pulled it from my pocket to check and found, to my amazement, that Newcastle had scored. This sporting Sunday might just be taking a turn for the better!

As the ice hockey began, I was only partly engaged, hoping that Newcastle could get to half time still ahead, surfing a tiny wave of optimism. Checking my phone once more I crashed off my imaginary board and was sucked under by this particular wave; Tottenham had equalised.

At half time in the football I was able to fully focus on the hockey. Leeds were more than holding their own as the puck flew from end to end and chances were created and missed on both sides. Was it possible that I could have some kind of fairytale ending to my day (not that a fairytale ever involved Premier League football and NHL English ice hockey)?

My question was answered with a resounding ‘NO!’ shortly afterwards. Three minutes into the second half of the football, Tottenham scored again. Then it felt like they just kept on scoring. Soon, Newcastle were 4-1 down and what little hope there had been had long since left the building.

Then, just when I thought things couldn’t possibly get worse Leeds Knights conceded! The game had been fairly scrappy and the Knights had had a couple of players sin binned for silly fouls. Gradually the tide had turned and it was Sheffield exerting all the pressure. Their goal was inevitable, even if I’d taken my eye slightly off the puck in favour of sulking about Newcastle.

The day ended with yet more negativity. Newcastle ended up losing 5-1, our first heavy defeat in a while and one that leaves us looking over a shoulders just a little bit at those behind us further down in the relegation fight. Leeds Knights would concede another and then labour through the rest of the game without ever looking too close to scoring, losing 2-0 in the end.

As we got in the car at the end of the match, I thought about how badly my sporting Sunday had gone. Three defeats in a day is quite something! Eight goals conceded by my various teams and only one scored…and I didn’t even see it! Sometimes sport can be cruel. Here’s to next week though, when I get to put myself through sporting purgatory all over again. Never lose hope, folks!

Grassroots Grumbles – The Great Escape? Not if the last few months are anything to go by!

It’s been a long season of grassroots football. Long, tough and frustrating. High points have very definitely been at a premium, while low points seem to have continually plumbed ever lower depths. And now we’re entering the final straight.

With just four games remaining of a season that started in the middle of September last year, we have very little left to play for. In fact, we’re really just playing for pride. Whatever the outcome of these next four matches I will feel that we’ve achieved very little across the course of the season.

In many ways, I can’t wait for it to end, yet in others I wish it could carry on for a little longer. We haven’t won a game since 17th October 2021, coming back from 2-1 down at half time to hammer our opposition 6-2. There’s no doubt that we peaked that day though. This was the day that we played our best football of the season and in truth, we’ve rarely hit anywhere near those heights since.

It’s been a brutal season for me as a coach and obviously most of our players have had it tough too. As usual the weather has played its part in disrupting things and we’ve played in hail, driving rain and snow on waterlogged pitches, as well as having to call off several games for exactly the same reasons. Around Christmas and New Year it felt like we’d never get a break. Games would be called off when we had a full squad and would go ahead when we were struggling for numbers.

Covid and injuries have had a terrible impact on our team this season. In December and January, if we played it was often with just the first 11 and no subs (sometimes we only had 10), but there were several postponements when we could only muster 6 or 7 players. This would mean we’d have to prepare for games regardless before finding on the day before or in one or two cases on the morning of the game, we didn’t have anywhere near enough players.

On top of all of that we’ve had our main striker injured for around 6 weeks and other key players missing consistently with injuries too. This has often meant fielding a team with 3 or 4 boys who only really started playing football in June of 2021 and the gap in quality in those games was all too clear. In one three week period we were beaten 12-0, 14-0 and then 16-0. Bad for a coach’s moral, but disastrous for our players who are 12 or 13 years old! On a couple of occasions the opposition rubbed this in our faces; players and coaches. You certainly learn about people in these situations. But, we’ve kept going.

Over the past few weeks we’ve had a mini revival in form. We’ve still not managed to produce a win but in the last four games that we’ve played we’ve drawn two, narrowly lost another and we’re well beaten in our latest game. So, I’m hoping we can finish the season strongly…relatively speaking.

Four points separates us from the team above and I’m hoping that we can catch them. I’m not entirely sure how we do it, but we have at least a couple of winnable games out of the last four. We’re training well and there’s a new found enthusiasm among the squad. Even though we suffered a heavy defeat last time out, we still created chances and definitely should have got more out of the game. This week we’ve worked on defensive shape with our defenders and midfielders and shooting drills with our more forward thinking players. Now we just have to hope and pray and keep everything crossed and see if we can produce better performances.

We go again on Sunday morning. We already have a few players unavailable, but I’m still going to go with optimism. We may get relegated this year and it may mean that some players will leave – I’ve already heard one or two rumours – but I really want us to end the season on at least a reasonable high!

As for next year, I fear that we may no longer have a team left. Other teams in our position have folded across the season as kids just get sick and tired of losing all the time. We’ve tried to recruit this year, but despite some enquiries we’ve not been able to add even one more player. So Summer promises to be tough and busy as we first of all see who’ll be signing up again and then start the process of trying to recruit others so that we have a big enough squad for the next season. If we don’t, then my time as a grassroots football coach could well be over.