Saturday, August 01, 2009

Ram raid

With the start of the new season fast approaching, it's time to draw a line under our stay in the Premier League. In the first of two posts from guest contributors, Jonathan takes a toddle off down an overgrown memory lane and recalls a classic match from the Sir Bobby Robson era. File under "Back When We Were Good"...

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The email from Ben arrived sometime in early June. "We’re doing this thing on Black & White & Read All Over", it said. "Kind of a goodbye to the Premiership era. Pick any match you like from the past 15 years and write about it. You can have been at the ground, seen it down the pub, heard snatches of it on a badly-tuned in-car radio while carting a hastily-purchased set of bookshelves home from IKEA - it doesn’t matter. What matters is that, for some reason, it was a match (or a day) that stayed with you. Other than that, it’s up to you."

Well that should be easy enough, I thought. After all, the 16-season era in question had consisted of 608 games. 608 games! How many would I have attended in person? About a tenth of them, I reckon - with a good two-thirds of those concentrated in the couple of so-so seasons, spanning the fag-end of Dalglish’s joyless tenure and the entire failed Gullit experiment, when three of us shared a season ticket (you will remember, they were like gold dust,there was a blockbuster film made about their scarcity and desirability) somewhere high up in the Leazes.

Hold on, though - Ben’s email hadn’t even said I had to write about the games I’d been to - and maybe that was a good thing, as a combination of the my shortsightedness, the eagle-eye view, the average five pints of strong lager consumed before during and after each game and yes, the forgettable nature of much of the football during the season ticket era (Daniel Cordone, anyone? Stephen Glass? Alessandro fucking Pistone?) meant that I couldn’t seem to remember very much about any of the 60 or so games I had paid good money to see.

A closer examination of the memory-box (cross-referenced with the infinitely more reliable records available at .com) revealed that my recollection was even hazier than I had thought. In several places what I had remembered as one unusually eventful match was in fact a composite highlight package of up to four games, which due to some unscrupulous editing process taking place in a darkened back-office just behind the frontal lobe had been hastily stitched together - to make space for more indispensable information perhaps, such as my son’s birthday and the plots of every episode of Minder screened between 1981 and 1984.

So I decided to rule out home matches altogether - and also (despite Ben’s helpfully-intended super-wide brief) any games I hadn’t actually gone to in person. After all, if the details of the infamous 2-1 reversal to Sunderland (which I rushed from Manchester to attend, lived through with unbearable intensity, and walked 6 miles uphill in the pissing down rain to my mam’s house from) have been lost to me, what credit can I give the recollection of the return fixture the following February, when I learnt of Kevin Phillips’ late equaliser via an overheard transistor radio in a pub carpark somewhere in suburban Stockport? Not much, is the answer.

And so that initial dizzying array of 600+ top flight matches were whittled down, until we were left with just a half-dozen - the ones that took place away from St James’, and which I travelled in person to see. Which one to choose though? Liverpool at Anfield in September 2002, perhaps, when Shearer was the width of a post away from turning a 0-2 deficit into a famous 3-2 triumph? Or Coventry at Highfield Road, way back in August 1993, when Liam "Any O’Brien" O’Brien scored with one of his trademark awkward bending free-kicks? In the end, neither.

Instead my memory alighted on an away trip to Derby, back in April 2002. Unlikely as it will now seem (and you can of course thank the good folks at .com for this detail; I could only have hazarded a guess) we went into this late-season fixture four games into an unbeaten run, and fourth in the Premiership. Even unlikelier, we were far from satisfied with this heady scenario; just four months earlier, a 3-0 Boxing Day rout of Middlesbrough had consolidated our leadership of the table and the consensus was that Bobby Robson’s pacy squad might just have enough wherewithal about them to maintain a serious bid for the title. The winter months, however, had seen a slump in fortunes, and the mood among the 4000 Magpies making the journey to the East Midlands was that anything less than the fourth-place finish that would guarantee another season of Champions League football should be viewed, more or less, as a calamity.

Like I say, it’s hard to believe now. It’s also difficult to credit (because I’ve got a young child now, with the usual consequences upon available reserves of time and money) that I was ready to join that throng of 4000 myself, even though I had no ticket for the fixture, which had been sold out for weeks ahead of kick-off. That wouldn’t be a problem, said my ever-intrepid mate David - and sure enough, within twenty minutes of our arrival at the pub nearest Derby train station we had availed ourselves of a pair of pristine tickets for the face-value of twenty quid a shot. Suddenly the slightly hairy journey to the East Midlands (it had featured a noontime pintstop at a Sheffield hostelry whose entire fifty-strong clientele was made up of middle-aged hooligans in plain clothes, travelling incongnito to points North and South) started to seem absolutely worthwhile.

With tickets in hand, the rest of the afternoon began to slot effortlessly into place. At some unspoken signal, pints were downed, a beeline was made for the street, and we found ourselves in the midst of a routemarch consisting of what felt like the entire travelling support. This scenario was repeated at various points successively further away from Derby station, until we ran out of pubs and ended up in a godforsaken district which looked like an industrial estate, but which turned out to be the approach road for the city’s new state-of-the-art stadium, Pride Park.

As for the match itself - well you will perhaps not be surprised to hear I don’t remember the details, but I do recall the home side not only opening the scoring but then adding insult to injury by adding another, just after half-time. As the second goal went in, and the home fans cavorted like noisy salmons in the gangways, I began to nurse a strong if irrational dislike towards shiny new stadiums in general and this windswept, soulless hulk of stainless steel and concrete in particular. Hell, I might even have begun to question the wisdom of laying out 50 quid plus on the afternoon’s entertainment. Ticket or no ticket, this was turning into an away trip to forget.

Little more than half an hour later, all was forgiven. Not for the first time that season, Robson’s men had shown themselves to be steely in adversity, and a rousing second-half comeback had culminated in substitute Lua Lua sliding home Solano’s low cross from six yards before launching himself into a triple somersault which ended in him being engulfed in a frenzy of delirious supporters just yards in front of us. Moments later the final whistle signalled a 3-2 away win, and we filed out of the exits singing the 'Blaydon Races' in unison. It was - and I have no hesitation in making this assertion - the most voluble rendition of a Tyneside folk song ever witnessed in the access road of a midsized branch of Carpetright. Verily, all was right with the world.

If Lua Lua’s somersault remains crystal-clear in the memory, much of the journey home has become indistinct. Actually I’m not sure I understood it at the time. There was some sort of rail-related incident (Vandalism? A body on the line?) which meant we had to double back somewhere in Derbyshire, and ended up marooned in Leeds. Plans of making a night of it in the capital of West Yorkshire were hatched, then just as quickly dismissed. Eventually a route home to Manchester was identified, via a rickety cross-country service headed for Wales and stopping at every half-abandoned coalmining settlement in the Western Pennines. We arrived back at Piccadilly as the pubs were throwing out - which meant I had some explaining to do, as I had given vague undertakings to be home in time for Casualty.

And Robson’s men? The unbeaten run continued for another four games, enough to secure that "booby prize" fourth place and render the closing fixture of the campaign - a 3-1 reversal at Southampton - meaningless. As I recall, the collective response of the Toon faithful amounted to a rueful shrug and a grumbled plea for "a bit more fucking consistency".

Hell - we really never knew how good we had it back then, did we?


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