Neil Blackmon reminds that the “BPL” returns to action this weekend.
“Can’t See Nothing In Front of Me,
Can’t See Nothing Coming Up Behind,
I make my way through this darkness,
I can’t feel nothing but this chain that binds me…”
– Bruce Springsteen, The Rising
Two and a half years ago, at a cozy and wholly authentic pub called The Queen’s Arms in Gainesville, Florida, I was a tenth man watching nine English men bleed and shake with agony and despair. Newcastle United were being relegated that morning—and this was the final blow, the end of miserable campaign and fall from grace.
What was worse—it wasn’t a Hollywood script fall from grace—a “That really just happened” Leeds United type drop.
It was a grinding lesson in decay. The nine men, including the pub owner, were lifelong Newcastle United fans and as the minutes ticked away the drinks were poured with stiffer elbows and the emotions ran across every wavelength: hope, remorse, anger, sadness, regret, shame, acceptance.
An ocean away—the misery of Tyneside was present.
From its opening, The Queen’s Arms had transformed each weekend morning from lone watering hole in a posh Gainesville community called Haile Plantation (former University of Florida football coach Urban Meyer and current, legendary basketball coach Billy Donovan call Haile Plantation home) to right and proper football pub–where the only cynical glances you received were if you weren’t ordering Boddington’s at ten in the morning.
It was the type of place I’d looked for in all my years calling Gainesville home, and of course exactly the type of place, given my luck, I found after I’d moved on in life. On that day, the usual festive atmosphere was more requiem and wake—complete with open bar. It’s a wonderful place, and on that cool morning and many mornings thereafter, it is where nine men from the northernmost city in England gather to watch their beloved Magpies.
The relegation year was a particularly brutal one–the sporting definition of a slow death. These nine men were among thousands upon thousands who struggled with them. It was more than the simple loss of top division football for a proud and storied club. It was the manner in which that loss occurred. Gerald Nanson, who manages The Queen’s Arms (and who, unlike most Newcastle supporters, also carves space in his heart out for lower division Carlisle United), moved to Florida with extended family a few years prior to that fateful campaign. Fiercely proud of where he had come from, Nanson said the decision was more rooted in economic reality than a grand vision of the Florida sunshine.
“The city itself is rightly proud of its isolation, its industrial history and identity,” Nanson told me on the telephone this week. “But the city was in an economic stalemate with slowing coal and shipping industries, and it seemed the best time for us to make a new start elsewhere, before it was too late.” Times are still hard in the Tyneside region. The shipping industry is recovering slowly but the coal industry is still decimated by Europe’s transition to green energy and dying mines. Unemployment is high and flight from a region in England where laying down roots was the norm is increasingly common. It is a city that is being forced to change, to adapt to the new global economy or face the continued experience of a “slow death.” That fateful year, as such, was sport as metaphor, according to Nanson. “It wasn’t that we couldn’t accept that Newcastle were going down. Relegation is part of football. The tragic part was the manner in which we went down. We were watching a football club that mirrored the condition of the city. And that was enough to make grown men drown in their pints.”
“Lost Track of How Far I’ve Gone,
How Far I’ve Gone, How High I’ve Climbed,
On my back’s a sixty pound stone,
On my shoulder a half mile line…”
Unlike other clubs with storied and proud traditions—Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday come to mind– Newcastle’s collapse didn’t involve a lengthy battle back to the top flight or a drop to further anonymity. In many ways, the Magpies structurally were too strong to allow that to occur. Although not financially among the league’s well-off- they aren’t Oliver Twist beggars either. It’s true that there’s been no hardware since1969, and no titles in nearly a century. But this was a club that would consistently challenge for Europe. It was a club with the reputation of a big club. And it was one that because of its regional isolation was everyone’s rival. From a marketing standpoint—it is sometimes good to be hated.
In addition, St. James Park is one of the bigger venues in English football, a 52,000 seat monument on a hill that, given fanatical support, could hold twice as many. Ticket sales, even during the championship campaign, weren’t a problem. And Newcastle had the financial wherewithal to keep key pieces of the side together during the Championship campaign. Manager Chris Hughton did a masterful job guiding Newcastle back to the top division in a year—thus quelling any discussion of the dreaded “two year window” a relegated side is rumored to have to get back to the top division before a footnote in misery becomes a permanent part of club history.
The question, then, as Newcastle took to the Barclay’s pitch again in 2010-11, was whether they could manage to stay up with limited resources, and whether Toon fans would need to adjust to a “new normal”—one where relegation battles, not top half and fighting for Europe, became part of their existence.
The answers we received last year were varied. Sure, there was the brilliant 4-4 draw with Arsenal- one capped by the stuff that makes you a St. James Legend- Cheik Tiote’s first goal in English football to secure a point despite playing down a man. But there was a great deal of misery and mediocrity as well: the predictable and at times toothless attack, the continued struggles of Ryan Taylor, a player who drew the ire of the faithful from Shearer’s Pub at the St. James to The Queen’s Arms in Gainesville, the 35 million dollar pound of fan favorite and local bad boy Andy Carroll, which at the time made the owners, already viewed cynically as London outsiders by the Tyneside faithful, seem at worst incompetent and at the very least questionably committed to improving.
To top it off, Newcastle sacked manager Chris Hughton, hired a certifiably crazy person named Alan Pardew to manage them, and entered the 2011-12 campaign trying to sell certifiable crazy person and lone star Joey Barton. What’s more—Newcastle did very little to in the summer except lose the beloved Kevin Nolan and sell players majority owner Mike Ashley felt had unsustainable salaries—the only additions were recovery projects like United cast off Gabriel Obertan and Demba Ba. These weren’t exactly names that inspired confidence. Gerald’s son, Nick, a bartender at The Queen’s Arms, put it this way-“Heading into the year, we felt as if the inmates were running the asylum, and the nickname Toons seemed entirely too realistic.”
“Come on Up For the Rising,
Come On Up, Lay Your Hands In Mine,
Come on Up For the Rising,
Come on Up for the Rising Tonight…”
As it has turned out, Newcastle’s cost-effective owner may have known what he was doing after all. And the man who manages them, another dreaded outsider from London, Pardew, hasn’t deployed a particularly beautiful brand of football but it has been devastatingly blue collar and effective—an image of Newcastle, the city, at its zenith. When you aren’t scoring too many goals, and the Magpies have only seventeen in eleven Barclay’s Premier League matches—winning can proceed quietly. As such, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that it took until about the sixth week of the year for your writer to notice something was happening that was newsworthy at Tyneside. Each 1-0 victory, or grind it out draw, like the 0-0 opener at home against Arsenal, raised a quiet eyebrow but didn’t generate eyes wide open. Yet here we stand—eleven fixtures in—and Newcastle have zero defeats and sit third in the table, off to their best start in nearly twenty campaigns. It’s a rising indeed—and one that bears reflection.
Like most great clubs, Newcastle defend with vigor. If you aren’t going to score a great number of goals, you better defend- and this is Pardew’s Sermon On the Mount—and one his players have taken as gospel- conceding only eight goals in eleven games, best in the league. Defender Steven Taylor has earned cries for an England call as the key cog in that defense—but it’s the players no one really expected to hear from that are the “What’s more” in the tale. Long time laughing stock signings like Ryan Taylor are playing inspired football—Taylor’s winner against Everton this weekend is just one example of a player smugly staring down the cynics. Demba Ba, brought in on a free, has made Ashley look like a cost cutting genius, scoring four times the number of goals Andy Carroll has netted for Liverpool. Andy Carroll’s goal against Everton—a sitter from five yards—received more critical acclaim and social media love than any of Ba’s—but here’s betting the Toon faithful could care less—and you won’t hear many of them crying over their pint about the Carroll sale these days.
Togetherness, long a trait of the better Newcastle sides, is perhaps this club’s finest characteristic. There are absolutely better back fours on paper than Newcastle’s typical grouping of Taylor, Danny Simpson, Ryan Taylor and Fab Coloccini, but they play with great discipline (leading the league in offside calls drawn) and what Pardew dubs “inner belief in execution.” Glue man Cheik Tiote isn’t a brand name like Yaya Toure, Lucas Leiva or Nigel de Jong, but he’s played well enough in front of that central defense and distributed the ball efficiently to lead a counterattack that is sneaky and efficient.
The sturdy defense has been complimented by an attack that has played with a more creative impulse and heartbeat than last year’s version, despite departures. Summer addition Yohan Cabaye has brought creative passing to the side, and he’s found a suitable partner in Jonas Gutierrez, who makes darting and unpredictable runs that have left more than one defense guessing. Demba Ba, fourth in the league in goals tallied, deserves praise yet again in this paragraph, if for no other reason than he’s been deathly efficient in his finishing (fifty percent within the eighteen!) and his work rate has answered questions about his desire and competitive spirit. Recently, as injuries have started piling up (Cabaye among the most concerning with a lingering groin issue)—Newcastle have shown surprising depth as well—the kind capable of sustaining a long run at European football.
“Sky of longing and emptiness (a dream of life),
Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life (a dream of life).
Come on up for the rising,
Come on up for the rising tonight…”
There is, of course, work left to be done. And the Barclay’s Premier League is full of tales of dreams turning to emptiness in the dead of winter. But you have to admire the Magpies sense of belief. It starts with the manager. “We are doing all right. Who would have thought we’d have been here after 11 games?,” Pardew told Mirror Football. No matter that the lone teams above them in the table—Manchester United and leaders City, lurk ahead on the road. “Whatever I put in front of them they think they are going to win. Inner belief is very important and it is that belief we will take to City and onwards,” Pardew said.
That inner belief extends from the supporters groups at St. James (surprisingly complacent, given results, in their protest to the park’s new name, SportsDirect.Com at St. James Park) to pubs in posh neighborhoods in Florida where one wouldn’t necessarily look for ten Tyneside transplants. “We’re enjoying it, that’s for sure,” Gerald Nanson tells me, and I hear the pride through the telephone. “Pints of Boddington’s and Cider all around,” I ask. “Pints of Boddington’s and Cider all around,” he says. “And of course, Newcastle. More a well-rounded beer than a perfect pint.” Kind of like the side then—more well-rounded than perfect.