Geordie nation resigned to life in little league
As a shot from Aston Villa's Gareth Barry took an exaggerated deflection off Damien Duff and headed for the bottom corner of their team's goal, the Newcastle United fans looked like those who, after knowing it was coming for an age, had finally been given a date of their own execution. They did not appear surprised or angry or exercised by the unfairness of it all. Rather they stood, open-mouthed, silent, bereft, like they had been expecting this for some time. "I tell you what," said Dave, a fan in his fifties wearing a vintage replica shirt. "If it doesn't happen today, it'll happen next year. We're doomed. Simple as that." It was a beautiful day on Tyneside for an execution. All over the city, those fans who hadn't made it to Villa Park to watch the death throes of their team's 16 year Premier League life, were peeling off their replica shirts and exposing to the sun physiques that even their mother would have difficulty describing as attractive. But then, as someone pointed out, they do that in February up here. Hundreds turned up to watch the game on the televisions in Shearer's, the largest licensed premises in the city, which runs half the length of the Gallowgate End underneath St James's Park itself. Inside, this was a nervy congregation, quiet, subdued, about to spend 90 minutes snacking on their fingernails. "You lot in the media seem to think every Newcastle fan is laughably optimistic," said Elliott, a student at Newcastle College. "But they're not. They're really pessimistic. Specially this year. I don't suppose there's many in here who thinks we'll win today." He was right. Most fans in the place seemed long ago to have resigned themselves to relegation. "There's a big myth about expectation in this town," added Mark, whose job is to scout for locations in the area for film and television productions. "But I don't expect nothing. Listen, we've not won anything for 40 years, so why should I? The best I'm hoping for is the team to represent our town properly. And right now, this lot don't." Mark remembers when they did, however. In the late-Nineties, under Kevin Keegan, the buzz of a team competing for honours reflected the regeneration of the city: together club and town seemed to be going places. He used to be inundated with film companies anxious to enjoy a slice of Newcastle's renown. And they always wanted to know about the football club. In those times, the players were the ambassadors of the Geordie nation, a nation on the march. Now, the story coming out of Newcastle is one of despair and decline. And the rest of the country tends to view the city and its football team through the prism of the rentamob who turn up outside St James's Park to get their wobbly jowls on Sky Sports News at every opportunity: the bloke with the enormous head, the man who claims to be Alan Shearer's cousin, the couple of lads who can't spell "boycott", a pantomime cast suitable for football's most comical soap opera. And if you want to know who the locals blame for all this, who they feel reckon has sent their club on its downward spiral, you don't have to look far. Midway through the second half, as their team failed to muster anything remotely to match the passion of its followers, the club owner Mike Ashley's face came up on the screens dotted around Shearer's. Suddenly the place erupted into fume-specked fury. The boos were insistent and angry. One fan threw a pint at his face. Like the team's shooting, though it was woefully off-target, and splashed down his mate's back, causing a momentary internecine push-me-pull-you. "It's all Ashley's fault," said Mark. "He's sold off our best players, brought nothing in and if we go down with him still in charge it'll be bloody hard to get back up. The man's made all that money in business yet appears to be a complete idiot when it comes to running our club." As the game progressed, however, even the energy generated by anger at Ashley began to ebb. Newcastle's woeful season did what the club's loyal supporters had long feared: it petered out. In Shearer's, the final whistle at Villa Park was greeted with silence. A profound, unhappy, dispirited quiet gripped the place. "Aye, I'm off to realise my investment," said Dave, when he could muster the energy to speak. "I've bought a load of rope and I'm ganna sell it to folk on Tyne Bridge." Outside the television cameras lined up to record the funeral. But no-one was in the mood to give them the pictures they expected. No-one was blubbing, no-one protesting. Instead, they wandered off to drown their sorrows somewhere, anywhere else; somewhere where they wouldn't be putting money in Ashley's pocket. And, as the fans made their way from Shearer's, the last of the afternoon's sun was catching the top of St James's Park. It looked magnificent up there on its hilltop dominating the city, its white tubing roof glowing, a shameless monument to local pride, and now the biggest stadium in the Championship.
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