Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Geordie Chronicles

The third installment of Jonathan's Geordie Chronicles, and on this occasion - as we, er, look forward to this evening's FA Cup Quarter Final at Stamford Bridge - we've timed it so that it's topical. Well, vaguely. An unlucky defeat to Aston Villa in a Third Round replay in January 2001 inspired these reflections on the "magic of the Cup", which first appeared in The Mag and on the Bonkworld site.

Up for the Cup

So this year it's Darius Vassell's turn to make me miserable. At least he thought of a novel approach, looping the ball over the hapless Harper with what looked to me like his arse. Mind you for novelty value he had a lot to live up to. Take Trelford Mills in '83 v Brighton, disallowing not one but two perfectly valid injury time equalisers. Or Stuart Boam two years previously, choosing for reasons I'm sure entirely explicable to himself to prostrate himself on the edge of his own goalmouth and play onside the entire Exeter City frontline. Or Ian Woan in '97, arrowing the winner over Srniceck and into the roof of the net from somewhere near the bastard corner flag. And I've not even mentioned the Ian Rush-inflicted defeat of 1980 - that's Ian Rush of Chester, by the way - or the Wembley finals of 1998 and '99, gruesome moments from which can still flash unbid into my mind with awful clarity at any moment of the waking day.

What am I on about? The "Magic of the FA Cup" of course. A two-foot high, unlikely-shaped tin pot, the vain and hopeless pursuit of which has been making me miserable now for the best part of 25 years.

It all started so hopefully. But then, in 1977/78, I was ten years old and a lot more innocent. I was also, for the duration of the winter, a Blyth Spartans fan. Weren't we all, as the team of plucky Northern Leaguers somehow battled through to a Fifth Round replay against 2nd division Wrexham, played in front of 42,000 at St. James', with 6,000 more locked out, and a Quarter Final v Arsenal on offer for the victors. Arsenal? Never mind them, I had it on good authority (my uncle Mike from Cowpen) that the Cup had Spartans' name on it already. The local heroes had been fitted out for their Wembley suits. Little surprise that at the final whistle, Wrexham having scraped through 2-1, I was in tears. I've been close to them ever since.

The green and white Spartans having returned to non-league obscurity, Newcastle quickly regained their rightful status as the unrivaled object of my affections. Of course, my experience with the plucky Northumbrian pitmen had taught me nothing about the dangers of placing blind, pitiful faith in lost causes - and so I fully expected my glorious cup-fighting Magpies (I had it on even better authority - me dad - that we were glorious and nationally feared cup-fighters) to launch a determined yearly assault on Wembley's twin towers. Then, of course, Ian Rush came along. Then Stuart Boam. Then Trelford bleeding bastard Mills. By 1983, I was no longer innocent, I was scarred. And bitter. And at a worldly fifteen years of age, a bit too wise to be taken in by the "Magic of the FA Cup".

Except of course, we never get wise, do we? Which is why we always believe, come the first weekend in January, that this could be our year. That Newcastle United can suddenly transform themselves from the useless bunch of goal-shy laggards they reveal themselves to be weekly in the League, and become all-conquering cup heroes. After all, you only have to win six games to lift the damn thing. The apparent surmountability of the task, of course, is what takes us in. Really, we know Imre Varadi (or Mark McGhee, or Shola Amoebi) isn't going to win us the League - that's only for the elite. But the magical FA Cup? Maybe, just maybe.

Maybe. And - to look on the bright side for a minute - there have been games when the heightened intensity of the knockout cup-tie has seemed to bring out the best in both the players and the fans; heart-lifting games which help you to understand why you put yourself through all the misery. I'm thinking of the three 1990s victories at Blackburn, each featuring massive traveling support in full song. Or Shearer's thunderous strike to end Spurs resistance in the second Old Trafford Semi. Or back in the '80s, the Gascoigne-inspired 5-0 routing of Swindon.

Yes, there've been a few glorious triumphs. But never those six together that bring the glory. In each of the last three years, of course, we've come very, very close. And I have to admit, this near-but-oh-so-far stuff is getting a little too heartbreaking for me. Which is why, in a strange way, I feel almost grateful to Darius Vassell. Because I don't think I could stand another year of Wembley torment. Another sunny train ride North from my Manchester exile on the Saturday morning, "just to be there for the celebrations". Another Sunday afternoon standing in the pouring rain outside the Civic Centre, waving my overpriced black and white flag at the likes of Alessandro Pistone and feeling wretched for even being there at all.

No, call me defeatist, but just for one year, if we're going to get knocked out, let's get it over with, as big Ron might say, early doors. For God's sake, after 23 years I need a rest from this demonic "magic of the Cup". Next year I'll come back stronger, I promise. And, as if it needs saying, with the same entirely illogical conviction as ever that this year is the year when really, our name is on the Cup. Darius Vassell's arse permitting, of course.

* * * * *

The first two pieces in the Geordie Chronicles series, "Between the sticks" and "The bovver boys", can be found here and here.


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