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!

Jelly legs is feeling his age!

It’s Monday morning and not only am I afflicted by that Monday feeling, but my body aches almost everywhere from head to toe. Worst of all is that nobody else is to blame; this is all my own fault. And now I have a busy day at work ahead teaching students aged from 11-16, not many of whom will have any sympathy for me!

So yesterday, I completed a 10km race. The same 10k race that I was banging on about a little while back in the blog on the link below, complaining that I was never going to be in the right shape for.

https://middleagefanclub.wordpress.com/2022/04/09/my-first-10k-race-of-the-year-a-month-to-go-and-i-dont-feel-good/(opens in a new tab)

It was my second time at the Pontefract 10k in West Yorkshire and I was determined to do well. But training had been far from perfect and I’d been suffering with a mixture of injury and illness in the weeks leading up to the race. However, come race day I believed that I was fit enough to get round in a time that would beat the one I ran at the same event last year. I felt that I’d managed to pull myself together just about enough in the last few weeks and had trained fairly well, completing a couple of fast – for me – 10k training runs that were only a minute or so outside of the type of time I hoped to run in the race.

It was an early start on race day in our house as myself, my wife and my son all rose before 7am in order to scramble down some breakfast and get ready to head to Pontefract, a 20 minute car journey away. The race was starting at 9am and we would need to be there early in order to get parked up before heading to the start.

I’m functional at best in the morning, so it was tough going! However, I really enjoy an early morning run, so while breakfast and getting ready would be a struggle, running – I hoped – would not!

This year’s start line was not the nervy place to be that last year’s had proved. I felt that I knew my surroundings and it helped that I bumped into a friend from work and we chatted for a few minutes until it was almost time to line up. In short, I didn’t have time for nerves. However, I still felt a strange mixture of concern about my fitness and hope that I could run a sub 50 minute 10k.

I won’t bore you with a detailed commentary of the race, perish the thought. I for one don’t particularly want to relive it anymore!

However, it’s safe to say that it was tough. It started to rain on the first long, uphill stretch and I heard someone near me let out a little cheer about this. I should have tripped them up. Thankfully, it stopped shortly after.

The course is described as undulating, but let me tell you that the undulation feels largely uphill when you’re out there. I managed to forget any race plan I might have had and instead went off quickly (for a man of my vintage and physical state, that is). My competitive side kicked in here and I was more concerned with passing people, than thinking about how far I’d gone and how I was feeling. I’d regret this later. I told myself that I’d be able to power through and just keep the pace going, but it’s safe to say that miles 3 and 4 saw me slow more than I’d have liked.

By the time we turned for home and the last couple of miles or so, my legs were like jelly, a substance which for years I was quietly convinced that they may have actually been made out of. Quite a bit of the last half of this race is uphill though, a fact that my mind had rather inconveniently forgotten, so it was pretty difficult to keep on going at any pace, although I managed. For the first time in a long time though I found myself thinking I should just stop, as a few people had. I had a bit of aa word with myself though and kept going.

The final mile or so of the Pontefract 10k is downhill and I was looking forward to just powering down the hill. However, having used up so much energy already my body wasn’t responding in the way I wanted. I imagined a Mo Farah like kick where I just passed runner after runner. Instead, I was much more akin to Moe from The Simpsons as I grumbled my way down the last stretch.

Pleasingly, I did pick up my pace a bit though and kept a close eye on the time via Strava, so I knew exactly where I was with my personal best in mind. Passing my wife and son just before the last 250 metres, I knew I had to go faster, but was convinced that there was nothing left in the legs…not even jelly. However, as someone passed me within the first few metres, something in me flicked a bit of a switch – my competitive side again – and before I knew it I was sprinting. More like a middle aged man laden down with bags on a train platform than Usain Bolt, but sprinting all the same.

I crossed the line in 51.27, a good 25 seconds better than I’d ran the previous year and inside my personal best. I wasn’t sure I’d stay on my feet or even conscious, but I’d done what I’d set out to do! Never had 250 metres felt so long!

Cramp set in as I met my wife and son, but some stretches and a stroll back to car had me feeling a bit more comfortable. But I’d forgotten how much racing takes out of me. I can run 10k on a training run and feel reasonably good hours later and more or less back to normal the next day. Running a race just wipes me out.

The rest of Sunday was spent keeping busy, while also trying to relax, but I woke up on Monday morning feeling groggy to say the least! It’s now Wednesday and although the muscles are nowhere near as tender as they’d felt for the first couple of days of the week, I’d still quite like to just be at home napping rather than at work!

Training for this race was difficult. It was very ‘stop start’ as I seemed to just keep picking up niggling injuries or colds, meaning that some weeks I’d be running 20k and others I’d do 3k at best! I think a lot of what got me through was just sheer bloody-mindedness and a determination not to let myself down. Having got through it quite successfully I’m now planning my next race, which will probably be in Leeds in July, unless I can find something earlier that appeals. For now though, I’m just feeling my age and hoping to recover by the end of the month!

“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!

My first 10k race of the year – a month to go and I don’t feel good!

In August last year I completed my first race in three years and my first one of any great distance in around a decade. Running is something I’ve done on and off all my life, but from my late thirties through to my mid forties (which, when you type it out is quite a shocking gap) it had definitely been more off than on. Then, following a health scare 4 years ago, I decided to get fit and stay that way.

Hence lining up at the start of a race in West Yorkshire at 8.50 on a cold, drizzly Sunday morning last year. You can read about it on the link below.

Forget medals at the Olympics, let’s Pontefract 10k!

The race went well and I clocked a personal best for a 10k, thriving on the competition and finishing in just under 52 minutes. I was ridiculously proud of myself and had clearly been bitten by the bug. Time allowing, I would definitely be racing more!

Time and fitness haven’t quite allowed though and so it’s taken me a while to get back to racing. And in fact, I’ll be running the same race again in just over a month (last year’s August date was a rescheduled one because of Covid).

With just over a month to go until the race, I feel like I should be in a lot better shape. My fitness has suffered a little over Winter as I seem to have stumbled from one bug to another. On top of this, I’ve just not felt right at all and have struggled to cover any great distance in training. In fact, since around February I’ve managed to run only one 10k. Not exactly ideal preparation!

A couple of weeks ago I damaged my back while doing my shoelaces. I mean, I’m really showing my age here, aren’t I? I was still able to go out on a run later that week and in fact, managed a 10k in around 54 minutes; a decent enough time. The pain seemed to ease after the first mile or so. But the past couple of months have been a bad time for niggling injuries and nagging illness and it’s really set my training back. Then this week I felt a pain between my shoulder blades as I put on a tie and it’s gradually got worse as the week has gone on. It feels much like the nerve damage that meant I was in pain for the whole of last summer, so I’m hopeful I’ve not done similar this time. In fact, I’ve even started doing the exercises that the physio set for me last year, in order to hopefully see off too much pain.

At the moment, I really don’t feel like I’ll be in anything like the shape I want to be when this 10k race rolls round. This worries me a lot. I’m a relatively competitive person and hate underperforming. I realise that at my age I have no hope of winning or even finishing close to the front of the race. But I’ve set myself a personal target of at least beating last year’s time and I honestly can’t see it happening. I’m at the end of a very long, demanding term. I’m tired and everything aches. Usually, running is the thing that cures this for me, but at the moment, it’s not.

In fact, aside from injury and illness, even my enthusiasm is presenting a problem for me. Last Friday, I’d planned to leave work early and go out for a run, as I do every Friday. I managed the leaving work bit, but halfway home it started to snow heavily. I was safe in the knowledge that it didn’t look to be snowing on the horizon – home – but it still managed to put me off. Subsequently, when I got home it was just a case of reeling off a list of excuses in order to convince myself that I shouldn’t go out. It worked. It didn’t rain or hail for another couple of hours, but I still managed to convince myself I’d made the right decision and it actually made me feel pretty terrible for the rest of the weekend.

I’m hoping that my excuses have given me the rest that I might have needed. I’m planning on going out again tonight, but only for a shorter 5k run. I’m hopeful that this will restore my enthusiasm and my faith in my ability a little bit. I really need to get my mind right and hope that my legs and my back will follow!

For the next couple of weeks I’m off work as it’s the end of term and our Easter holidays. So, the big plan is that I’ll be able to go out running at least a couple of times per week and start to build up a better level of fitness. I’m hopeful that this will help restore my enthusiasm too. It’s a lot better being able to run when I actually want to, rather than just cramming one in after work. I’ll probably make sure that I go out relatively early in the morning as it means I’ll have the rest of the day to get through any jobs that I have to do or even to go out for the rest of the day with the family. Fingers crossed for some good weather!

Another bonus about the Easter holidays is that I’ll potentially have a running buddy – my son. He’s only 12, but has always been a good runner. He too had lost his enthusiasm, but after relentless nagging from me, he’s recently started going out running again. Hopefully, for the week that he’s around – we have overlapping holidays, his last week being my first – we’ll be able to get out together. Although, I love running on my own, it’s always quite nice to have his company and it means we can chat as we cover the miles. It’s just a nice father son thing to do as well.

So the next month promises to be make or break as far as my hopes for my latest 10k race go. Last year I finished 271st out of 812 runners. The winner clocked a time of 32.46, while I ran the distance in 51.51, meaning I was a long way behind them, which given my age and level of fitness is understandable. This year, as well as improving on my personal best, I’m hopeful of moving up through the places as well. Getting into the top 250 runners would be great.

The race takes place on May 15th giving me over a month to get myself sorted out and ready to go. At the moment, I feel about as far away from ‘ready’ as it’s possible to get. It promises to be an interesting and possibly painful month!

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.

Newcastle United Stadium Tour

Having spent the morning and early afternoon of my first birthday treat touring a brewery before taking on a sampling session of wonderful beers, it was going to take a lot for me to budge from my stool on this particular Friday afternoon. To say that I was settled was the proverbial understatement and on any other day, I would have been more than happy to order another drink and carry on chatting about whatever subject cropped up next. But, a long held love was calling, not just for me, but for my drinking partner too. Newcastle United was once again whispering sweet nothings in our ears.

We’d been sitting in the Brinkburn Street Brewery and Kitchen for a few hours, so heading across Newcastle having drunk a sample of six amazing beers, it’s safe to say the legs were slightly unsteady. Not only that though, having not visited this side of the city for many, many years I felt like an alien. The city has transformed over the 20-something years that I’ve been away and this means that sadly, there’s not a lot left that I recognise. And I haven’t visited regularly enough to keep up with the changes in the skyline.

Where we were heading though, was probably even stranger to me. St. James’ Park, home of our beloved Newcastle United had been somewhere I’d spent a large chunk of my childhood and early adult years, watching any and every game played. However, reacting mainly to our previous owner and the early signs of his mismanagement but also the prospect of becoming a father of two, I stopped going to games. I gave up my season ticket early, feeling like I was falling out of love with the club and the game. Today would be the first time that I’d set foot in the stadium in nearly 13 and a half years. 4913 days, to be precise.

As part of my 50th birthday celebrations my wife had booked a stadium tour for my self and my mate David. I hope I don’t get it wrong when I say that we were both a little giddy as we arrived at the reception desk to check in. I think the beer helped a bit as well, if I’m being completely honest!

Once checked in, we put on our tour lanyards and were given an initial introduction to the tour by our guide Carol, who then ushered us in to the lifts that would take us up towards our first stop on the tour; the executive boxes.

I’ve never particularly fancied watching a game from a corporate box and although it was amazing to be inside the two that we looked at – in through Jonjo Shelvey’s and out again through Callum Wilson’s (steady at the back there fans of double entendre) – this didn’t do a great deal for me as a fan. That said, if anyone at the club or even Jonjo, Callum or any other box owning players wanted to invite me to a match to try and change my mind, I’m sure I could forget my working class roots and decades on the terraces in order to give it a go!

Our tour guide, Carol, was a mine of information at this point, letting us know everything we could wish to know about the corporate hospitality at The Toon, including the detail that would really put me off; the price! That said, if you have the money it looks like a pretty decent experience to have once a fortnight!

After the boxes it was Level 7, the highest point of the ground. You can take the rooftop tour at St. James’ as well and this was something I’d considered, despite not being that comfortable with heights. However, the reminder of how high Level 7 is made me thankful that I’d not taken that particular plunge. This was also the level where I had last had my season ticket and so walking out onto the concourse and then out towards the seats felt ever-so-slightly emotional. As far as I could remember, we even came out quite close to where I had sat in those days. However, I wasn’t going to let those kind of memories get in the way of the childlike giddiness I felt at being back in the ground, especially with everything that’s happened since October.

We took in the view, learning about the fact that on a clear day you can see the Stadium of Light – so if you’re ever sitting there, look the other way, claw your own eyes out or pray for cloud – as well as many other much more pleasant sights. We were told about the broadcasting facilities, matchday control and lots of other small details that as a fan, you probably don’t ever realise about.

After this we headed down to the dressing room area, starting by taking in the away dressing room which was a rather spartan affair as you’d probably expect. However, the best was yet to come. You’d imagine that sitting in the same dressing room as your heroes – and alongside their shirts – would be the kind of thing that would be most enjoyable to the several under 10s on the tour. Think again! This 50 year old was very excited indeed at being there and sitting next to those shirts! Ridiculous really, but what a thrill!

I had the same experience on the tour of the Allianz Arena a few years back and still found myself grinning from ear to ear at sitting next to shirts with the names of Davies, Lewandowski, Coman, Ribery, Muller and Neuer. No idea why, really, but it was umpteen times as exciting to be doing it at St. James’ Park. Isn’t it strange how ridiculously we behave when faced by almost anything to do with our beloved game? I struggled to get the grin off my face from that point onward though.

Once we left the dressing room, we assembled in the tunnel area and after a few minutes more information from Carol, it was time to make like a player and head for the pitch. Newcastle try to make that matchday experience side of the tour as authentic as possible by blasting out ‘Local Hero’ as you walk down the tunnel and even as a middle aged man, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Is that sad? I genuinely don’t care! I’ve followed this club for over 40 years, dreaming of playing for them as I grew up; of course walking down that tunnel is going to be exciting.

Seeing the whole place from pitchside was amazing and it makes you fully take in what a magnificent stadium we have. I somehow resisted the urge to skip over the rope and run onto the pitch, filling my time by taking photos and having a little sit down in Eddie’s chair in the dug out, again all done with a huge grin on my face. And then, it was time to go.

Newcastle United had made me feel like a kid again. Touring the stadium, somewhere I felt I knew so much about, was a brilliant way to spend the afternoon and I found out a lot of things that I didn’t actually know. Our tour guide Carol was excellent; the perfect balance of fun and knowledge – she knew her stuff and clearly loved her job making the whole thing even more of a pleasure.

If you’re a Newcastle fan, this is a must. If you’re a football fan (you know, of one of those other clubs) you’ll enjoy a look round St. James Park too. Either way, it made for an fantastic birthday treat and I’d thoroughly recommend giving it a go!

Marcelo Bielsa – An Outsider’s View

They say that all good things will come to an end. But we never really want them to, do we? Because in some of these cases, the end of the good thing can be incredibly painful. From the outside looking in Bielsa and Leeds parting company might have seemed inevitable. Everything comes to an end at some point, right? And most of the time, with that inevitability in mind and that awareness, we’re able to comprehend such change, prepare for it even and then move on. But despite the results and despite the inevitability of such a narrative in football, this one was a hard one to bear.

I’ve lived in Leeds now for over 25 years and have come to have a deep respect for both Leeds United and the fans. As a Newcastle United fan, it’s been difficult not to recognise the parallels between the two clubs and the two sets of supporters. I know that Bielsa’s sacking is viewed by the majority as unjust and indeed heart-breaking. Looking on from a distance, the outpouring of emotion prompted by the decision so far has been hard to watch. Seeing my wife crying, watching my son’s dumbfounded expression when I told him the news and listening to the frustration and heartbreak of my friends has felt awful, but not as awful as their experience of the whole thing.

When Bielsa was appointed as Leeds manager in June 2018 I was already reasonably aware of his reputation. A fellow Newcastle fan had seemingly been on a one man social media campaign to have him appointed as Newcastle manager for what felt like years and a little research revealed his exploits as Chile and Athletic Bilbao manager. This man was something special. This man felt tailor made for my club. But sadly, in 2015, when Bielsa was struggling with Marseille our board thought it was a better bet to appoint Steve MaClaren and the less said about that, the better.

I knew that there’d be fireworks when Bielsa went to Leeds. But I never imagined quite the effect he’d actually have.

Put simply, Marcelo Bielsa transformed Leeds United. This was a huge club that had been out of the big time for far too long and yet, gaining a place back with the elite still felt a long way off. Looking from the outside in, Leeds United felt a bit lost to be honest. Club captain Liam Cooper, in thanking Bielsa for everything he’d done called them “a team going nowhere” before he was appointed and having not played in the top division for over 14 years when Bielsa arrived, he wasn’t far wrong.

Change was immediately evident and even though the first season ended in glorious failure there was no reason to panic. From where I sat – and I would say exactly the same thing about my own club – it wouldn’t have felt like Leeds United for them to get it right first time. With clubs like ours there’s always a complication. But boy did Bielsa and Leeds get it right second time round!

We were on a family holiday when Leeds clinched promotion, but it’s something I’ll never forget. The scenes around the ground, the players singing on the steps at Elland Road, the outpouring of joy on social media and of course the video of Bielsa and Kalvin Phillips embracing while Bielsa told Phillips he was “the best”. Unforgettable scenes for me as a Newcastle fan, so I can only imagine how it felt for Leeds fans. That night, we sat up until the early hours, TV on, refreshing Twitter every few minutes, drinking in the atmosphere a few miles from our home yet hundreds from where we now sat. The excitement was still utterly tangible.

Bielsa-ball carried on in the Premier League with Leeds daring to take the game to champions Liverpool at Anfield on the first day before beating Fulham and Sheffield United and drawing against Man City. It promised to be an exciting season and it was. And all the while friends of mine who are Leeds fans watched on in disbelief as Leeds held their own and thrilled the nation. Implausibly, Leeds United – dirty Leeds – were becoming people’s second team! And no one was more responsible for this than Marcelo Bielsa. The man who used an interpreter in interviews, ludicrously detailed PowerPoints in press conferences and measured out 13 paces in the technical area for superstitious reasons, when he wasn’t sitting on a bucket to help with his back. Is it any wonder that a city fell in love?

Bielsa, as Liam Cooper said, “united a club, a city and a team”. And it’s clear that’s what has broken so many hearts. Here was a man who had time for everyone, a man obsessed by the game that we fans love and a man of the people. It wasn’t just that Leeds fell for him, but that he fell for Leeds. Amidst all the badge kissing and loyalty soundbites of the Premier League, Marcelo Bielsa fell in love with Leeds United and the fans returned that love with interest.

Last season, I found myself getting ever more jealous of Leeds United and Marcelo Bielsa. Our manager at the time – and thankfully not any more – was Steve Bruce, a man who had declared himself one of us at the merest whiff of getting the job. And yet, he struck us all as someone with no feeling whatsoever for our club. He brought an awful style of football, taking us back to the dark ages with his tactical ignorance. He criticised the fans and the players; anyone besides himself as he refused to accept any responsibility for our failings as a team. And with this and Mike Ashley’s ownership, people’s love of their club began to die.

Meanwhile, just down the road from where I live, thousands were chanting Bielsa’s name, his image was appearing on the gable end of houses, the football was electrifying, kids were wearing the white shirt with pride again and a city had got its club back. And while it hurt to watch from one perspective, from another, that of just being a football fan, it was a thing of beauty. Friends and family were waxing lyrical about this Argentinian god among men, people had a smile on their face, they looked forward to the games and felt like they could beat anyone. Having watched Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle, I knew how that felt and while I was pleased for those that I knew, I couldn’t help but feel a bitter pang of jealousy.

Marcelo Bielsa will remain a legend and a hero in Leeds for a long, long time. Probably forever. A great manager, but probably a greater man. He brought back a special feeling to a special city. Because this wasn’t just about the football club, it was about thousands and thousands of people. Many will have had their lives touched personally by Mr. Bielsa – we’ve all heard the stories, seen the photos, watched the videos on social media – but many will have just watched Leeds United winning games again, be it at the match or on the television, as a Leeds fan or like myself a football fan and absolutely loved it. Because football, when it’s played with the swagger of a Bielsa team, can change lives. And now, with his sacking the special feeling has gone and the fans and players are heartbroken.

Having watched Newcastle United as Keegan left, three times as a player and manager, I think I get it. Having seen Sir Bobby Robson assemble an awesome young team and then get sacked with us still placed highly in the league, I understand. And having all but given up any hope I had left in my team when Rafa Benitez walked, I think I know what Leeds fans are going through. But I’d say this; don’t give up. Even when it all feels pointless, carry on.

As the saying goes. ‘don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.’ Gracias Marcelo, it was nice to have known you from a distance.

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