NEWCASTLE United has been mocked and ridiculed this season, but former manager Sir Bobby Robson’s latest book is a timely reminder of why it remains so special to its supporters. Chief Sports Writer Luke Edwards reports.
SOME wear it as a badge of honour and others shoulder its burden with the grim resignation of the condemned. One thing is clear, it has never been easy to be a fan of Newcastle United.
The frustrating search for a trophy has grown from years to decades, the heart-breaking near misses have been replaced by long stretches of depressing mediocrity and a once proud club has intermittently flirted with the disaster of relegation and economic meltdown.
But this season has, perhaps, been even harder to take then any of those which have followed the Magpies’ last major piece of silverware, the Fairs Cup in 1969.
There have been bleaker times on the pitch, there have been other acrimonious takeover battles and there have been more outbreaks of supporter unrest, but never before have they come so quickly after a period of such widespread optimism.
Given the acrimony and turmoil which has soured this season, it is hard to comprehend that, when the previous one ended, there was genuine excitement about what the future would hold.
In Mike Ashley, Newcastle seemed to have a sensible but ambitious owner, with a long-term plan and the desire to see it through. And in Kevin Keegan, United had a manager who understood the club and its supporters better than anyone – anyone other than Sir Bobby Robson that is.
“I was born into a black and white world,” says Robson in the moving introduction to his new book, Newcastle: My Kind Of Toon. “Some of my earliest, most treasured memories are set in monochrome. Every morning my father, who was a proud colliery man for 51 years, would leave our home in Langley Park, County Durham white as a sheet and return each evening black, covered from head to hobnail boots in coal dust. For an ardent supporter of Newcastle United, as my dad was and I would quickly become, the colour scheme was appropriate.
“The murky gloom of the pits, the blinding gleam of the floodlights – they are the dominant shades of my life. As someone who has been privileged enough to win at Wembley, to play for and manage my country, to work in Holland, Portugal and Spain, I’ve seen vivid sights and been surrounded by excitement, but black and white is where it began and black and white I’ve always been.
“Even when I was managing Barcelona, that marvellous maelstrom of a football club, I’d reach the haven of the dressing room and ask someone to find out ‘how Newcastle have got on’, a query that most exiled Geordies will find familiar. Newcastle the club and Newcastle the city surge through my blood.”
Robson, who continues his long fight against cancer, will have been hurt and shocked by the crisis which has so badly shaken Newcastle United and the city it calls home.
When Keegan argued with United’s managing director Derek Llambias regarding boardroom interference into transfers last month, it unleashed a chain of events which would see the club’s manager quit in protest at his treatment, the fans furiously turn on the board – and the club’s owner frantically search for a buyer as he tries to escape the mess at St James’s Park his actions have created.
Like all fans, Robson cannot believe what has happened, but in his latest book, the grandfather of modern English football provides a welcome and timely tonic for United’s ills.
Newcastle United and its supporters have had to endure all sorts of humiliations this season, but they have also been subjected to some stinging criticism in the process.
The manager’s job has been described as a poisoned chalice and the fans labelled deluded because of their belief United should be standing shoulder to shoulder with the other big clubs of the domestic and European game.
Those who doubt such a bold declaration and those who smirk at the idea of Newcastle being a unique club should read Robson’s perception of the club he both supported and managed with distinction – Newcastle fans should not be criticised for being demanding, they should be lauded.
“Athens has the Parthenon, Newcastle has St James’s Park,” writes Robson in his book which, according to his ghostwriter, The Times’ George Caulkin, is a reminder why ‘we should be proud of who we are and where we live’.
“Visible from every approach to the city, located in its centre and looming over it, this sporting cathedral dominates the skyline of Tyneside in a way that suits the deep-seated role the football club plays in everyday life,” added Robson.
“I was at Wembley in 1955 with Elsie (his wife) to watch Newcastle lift the FA Cup and would have chuckled in disbelief at the notion that this famous team would not claim another domestic trophy for more than half a century. So fans do not expect United to win, but they want it and they yearn for it, and that emotion can be fierce.
“When victory beckons, there is a feeling of invincibility, like riding a wave of elation, but lose and the despair is subterranean. The contrast can be severe, very severe.
“Winning is the easy bit in football; so suffer defeat, pick yourself up and come back for more takes a form of courage and those long years without silverware, the barren times, the near misses, are now as much a part of what it means to follow Newcastle as the gilded history.”
Robson, who managed both in his distinguished career, believes Newcastle are the closest thing English football has to Barcelona – powerful sporting and political expression of Catalan national identity in Spain.
He said: “It has the same geographical isolation, the same philosophy, the same fervour, the same vibrant love of football and what it means to the region, and a similarly-voracious media.
“There has been so much change. Players, staff, regimes have come and gone and fortunes have fluctuated. The one constant in the Newcastle firmament has been the hordes kitted out in black and white.
“What is a club in any case? Not the buildings or the directors or the people paid to represent it. It’s not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes.
“It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city. It’s a small boy clambering up the stadium steps for the first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at the hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.”
It is a love which, despite everything, still endures.
Newcastle: My Kind Of Toon is published by Hodder & Stoughton on Thursday, October 16. Donations can be made to the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation online at www.justgiving.com/thesirbobbyrobsonfoundation or by cheque sent to Sir Bobby Foundation, PO Box 307, Heaton, NE7 7QG.