Date:Monday June 6 2011
I grew up in a black and white world. The t.v we watched, the football team we followed, the books I read, all of them in black and white. This was the late sixties with it`s glorious wash of colour and sound, but when I recall the past it too is in black and white. It would have been around this time, that I got married. Not to a woman, but to a football team. That team is Newcastle United and I`ve been married to them now for around forty years. Unlike most grooms I can barely remember my wedding day, but I know we played Leeds United and I`m almost sure we lost. From that day onward the union was cemented and no other suitor was allowed. In truth there was never a doubt, my father wouldn`t have allowed me to support any other team, it was unthinkable. In an ironic twist my father would spend some of his later years attempting to prevent me watching Newcastle, especially from the Leazes End, but that is another story. This story is about my infidelity, and for that I have nobody to blame but myself.
Step forward in time to the early eighties. The country teetered on the verge of economic collapse and unemployment was at a record high. The choice was simple, move and look for work or stay where you were and rot away on the dole. I moved here there and just about everywhere, eventually washing up in Brighton where I remained for over a decade, and that`s where it started. Prior to this time I`d only had flirtations with other teams. A couple of afternoons watching Leicester City seemed harmless enough, it was just something to do. I felt the same when I watched Preston North End or even Manchester Utd. They were just days out with a few mates, nothing serious. I saved all of my passion for the visits of Newcastle to whichever area I was living at the time. The years passed and I kept up my routine of following Newcastle at away games, and the odd visit home would be made to coincide with home fixtures. Although nowhere near as fanatical as I had been as a teenager I still felt it whenever Newcastle lost, and I always looked for the result at 4.40 every Saturday. Like most marriages it had become stale round the edges and we took each other for granted. I`m not making excuses, but this is how it was.
In 1992 I moved to Brighton to attend university and something happened. I can recall the day almost exactly. A friend and I marooned together in a strange town over the Christmas holidays made a decision that was to affect my relationship, my marriage. We decided to go and watch Brighton v Cambridge at the Goldstone ground. Brighton won 3-0 and I enjoyed myself. A little too much maybe because we made a date for the next game too, and the one after that. It soon happened that we were going to almost every game, people started to recognise us on our regular pitch on the North Stand terrace. I should have known then, the signs were there but I chose to ignore them. For the first time in my life I stopped looking for Newcastle`s results. The dye was set, the fix was in, all it needed was something to set it all in motion. That spark came during a midweek fixture between Brighton and Plymouth when Paul Dickov scored a last minute winner that not only sent the crowd into raptures but improved my bank balance to the tune of a couple of hundred quid. After the game, over a few celebratory pints I declared my love for Brighton and Hove Albion. This could perhaps be forgiven as the natural reaction of one who has suddenly, and quite against the run of play, had his pockets filled. I could also claim drunkenness as an excuse, but none of that makes any sense when I consider what I did next. Neither drunk, nor flush with money I attended an away game. Football supporters all know that the away crowd are the true aficionados and I was in with them. What did that make me? Was I simply having a bit of fun, or was this something more serious? Over the next couple of seasons I travelled away with Brighton to quite a few games. One night I travelled up to Leicester, taking time off from my college course to do so, and was spotted on television celebrating wildly as a Stuart Munday screamer settled the tie. I didn`t even care if my friends back home saw me singing a full throated rendition of Sussex By The Sea, let them all talk. I had fallen hopelessly, gloriously in love.
Meanwhile, far away in another part of the country Newcastle, my own true love, were beginning to stir. The previous season had seen them win promotion with a record haul of points, Kevin Keegan was at the helm, the city was bouncing, and they had a fancy new name I`d never heard before, "The Entertainers". I pretended not to notice, and tried not to care. My friends back home talked of little else whenever I spoke to them. Ever optimistic they had visions of winning the league, not to mention the FA Cup and the European Cup. One thing niggled with them and that was the lack of tickets. St James` Park had a limited capacity and tickets were hard to come by. As ever the real supporters were pushed out in favour of those who could pay upfront for a whole season. Even then there was a queue for tickets. It all seemed wrong to me, and I was happy enough to reject it and throw my lot in with Brighton. This was real football I was watching, from a terrace you could still stand on, and pay on the gate. Brighton, the home of the dirty weekend, tempted me to acts of infidelity that I wouldn`t have imagined only a few short years before. They got themselves into a filthy relegation struggle, and property developers masquerading as club directors began moves to sell the ground beneath them. None of this put me off, it may even have encouraged me in some perverse way. Whenever I passed the Goldstone ground I would sneak a look through the locked gates. The green rectangle of grass seemed to tempt me like some clip joint barker "come and watch us flirt with relegation, you know you want to". Whilst all this was taking place Newcastle were finishing second in the premier league and qualifying for Europe. It didn`t matter to me because I wasn`t part of it, and couldn`t be part of it even if I wanted to because there were no tickets. My heart skipped a beat when my friends told me that Brighton had been drawn to play Newcastle in the FA Cup. They were lying , but it forced me to think about what I was doing. Suppose Brighton got an away tie at Newcastle, what would I do? I told myself I`d be neutral, and repeated that lie to my friends. In my heart I knew that I could never take the part of another against Newcastle, despite everything they had subjected me to over the years. Hadn`t Brighton done the same thing after all? The difference of course was that Brighton hadn`t promised anything else, and expected nothing from me in return. Brighton offered a match day experience free from responsibility. After the game I didn`t go home and agonise over the result, it didn`t really matter to me. Of course I wanted Brighton to win, but it wasn`t the be all and end all as it so often was with Newcastle. As so often is the case in football a strange thing happened.
The 96/97 season was an important one for Brighton. As well as fighting their own club directors who were trying to sell the ground, the club`s supporters faced an almost impossible struggle to avoid relegation. As Brighton were already in the bottom division a relegation meant that they would drop out of the league altogether. With a handful of games to go Brighton looked doomed, perhaps the players relaxed a bit thinking it was all over, but for whatever reason they put a run of results together. Improbably it all came down to the last game of the season, away at Hereford. A draw would keep Brighton in the league, at the expense of Hereford. Now, any Newcastle supporter knows all about Hereford. They knocked us out of the cup in 1972 when they were a non league side, and the goal from Ronnie Radford is played every time third round day comes around. The BBC seem to delight in tormenting us with this result year after year. Surely it can`t happen? Can Brighton allow me to live vicariously through them and thus repair the damage done some thirty five years previously? For once the Brighton tickets were like gold dust, and I managed to get a handful. I had to be there, the circle needed to be completed. Travelling up to the game, and later on among the crowds of Brighton supporters thronging the Edgar Street terraces I felt as if I were a gatecrasher at a funeral. This was serious business, and I had no real right to be there. It wasn`t my team after all, only a flirtation, and anything that happened wouldn`t really affect me. When Brighton went 1-0 down the Brighton supporters looked destroyed for a moment or two, but they rallied and gave their team the backing they needed. And then, and then…with a rush and a push Brighton mounted an attack and somehow or other Robbie Reinelt squeezed the ball over the line. Cue delirium. The outpouring of joy seemed to go on for ever. Joy turned to panic as a Hereford striker went clean through on goal only to blast the ball straight at the keeper. The seconds ticked down and finally it was over. As people around me went crazy leaping around like loons I stood calmly among them with a smile on my face. I knew this was what I wanted, this was my way of saying sorry to my own club for sneaking away from them. In my mind it wasn`t Brighton who had beaten Hereford, it was me, and I`d done it on behalf of Newcastle to right a wrong. A sin committed by myself against the one true church.
Date:Monday June 6 2011
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