Here is my latest football article for the Irish Examiner. It's a heartfelt piece on why, after 50 years, I am on the verge of giving up on Newcastle United and, indeed, on football itself. The Examiner does not put its pre-season supplement online so if you can't read the page, the article is below.
My 50-year affair with football is going through a sticky patch. In fact, it may be the end. It has been going wrong for years but last season things came to a head.
The affair started in 1964, when Newcastle United were in the second division. My brother took me to my first games, Newcastle were promoted and I was smitten. I was nine. The train journey from Whitley Bay, the walk through the narrow lanes up to Gallowgate Hill, the singing in the Leazes End, the closeness of the players, all heroes, gave me a sense of belonging. I went to all the home fixtures and, as I grew older, many away games. I went to every home game in the glorious Fairs Cup victory of 1969. I bunked off school to see Bobby Moncur bring the trophy back to St James’s Park. Lately, I have taken costly corporate tables. My three sons have sported every kit the club has thrown at us. If I counted how much I have spent over 50 years, I could have bought a villa in the South of France.
I played too, for my school, college and workplace. When I stopped I set up a boys' club and took my coaching badge.
So what went wrong? The unease started with the players, using the club to get a Premier League foothold. They were no older than my kids and were swaggering around in flash cars, behaving badly. There were other irritations. Two club directors called Newcastle’s women ‘dogs’ and laughed at the fans for paying over the odds for shirts. It was an early indication of the lack of respect for the city.
Then along came Mike Ashley. In his seven-year tenure the high street retailer has fallen out with those we hold dear, specifically Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer, sold Andy Carroll, appointed Joe Kinnear, who made the club a laughing stock, and changed St James's to the Sports Direct Arena.
And then came last season - getting into bed with Wonga, banning the local newspapers and Alan Pardew headbutting a player. This is behaviour I would condemn in any other walk of life. On the pitch the team were the first Newcastle side to lose five consecutive Premier League games and were beaten twice by Sunderland. The club also made it clear, to fans desperate for silverware, that cups were of no interest. Premier League survival is the limit of the ambition.
So, watching a lack-lustre parade around the pitch after the last home game, I decided I'd had enough. I have no respect for the management, its business methods or its money-motivated players. I deplore the disdain the club has for the supporters. The only thing I admire is the history and the shirt.
My lack of respect isn't just for Newcastle United, but for football itself. I fear it is rotten to the core. Bribery, corruption, the fixing of bids, the selling of favours and greed hover over the game like a toxic cloud. The 2022 World Cup in Qatar is a joke. And any organisation that has the preposterous Sepp Blatter at its head, does not deserve my support. That's not to mention, the racism, a man who regularly bites people in the workplace but is feted as a hero, the diving and absurd ticket prices.
Last season, football and me were through. I thought the World Cup would reaffirm my stance. But England and Luis Suarez aside, I enjoyed it. Newcastle's close season signings have also been promising. Nine players, including Remy Cabella, who I have seen at Montpellier, and Ajax captain Siem de Jong, have joined. The outlay, while not in the same league as Arsenal. Liverpool or Chelsea, has been more than €33million. Of course they are mainly players looking for a lucrative ride on the English gravy train and Ashley will be looking for big profits. But at least there are new faces. I am also receiving calls from friends asking which games we are going to.
I was wavering … but one event changed my mind. It was the deaths of John Alder and Liam Sweeney, blown up on flight MH17 as they travelled to New Zealand to watch Newcastle play. The reaction has been remarkable. Rival Sunderland fans have raised €40,000 for the Bobby Robson Foundation and the Marie Curie Hospice in Newcastle. John and Liam will be commemorated at the opening game against Manchester City next Sunday. An Alder Sweeney memorial garden is being built at the ground It took me back to 1964 and why I fell in love with the game – a sense of belonging. So whereas every rational cell in my body says walk away … I will be giving football, and Newcastle United, one final chance. Even though I have no doubt they will let me down.