‘What can I get you?’
That’s how it started, once you’d collected a corporate ticket at the Milburn entrance, through the glass doors, in the shadow of the escalators and lifts, past the leather sofas that always remind you St James’ Park is not what it once was. Up flights and flights of stairs, through a fizz of energy of young people dressed in white shirts and black trousers or skirts. Through an executive-box door, into a different world.
‘What can I get you, sir?’
At six o’clock for an evening game there is a beer, and polite chat with those arriving and pictures on the walls of heroes who bring a football club to life: Shearer, Robson, Beardsley, men who carve history and memories into a football ground and into a football fan.
Through more glass doors, onto seats with arm rests, the stadium bright but empty, and in the eerie silence is always hope and possibility and dreams. You have come here all of your life but that magic never fades.
A meal follows, and football chat, and best players and worst, and name the entire team who played when Newcastle beat Barcelona and where were you when Asprilla jumped and headed in his third. The endless stretch of memory lane, but now sprinkled with optimism and renewed hope that a new era, to follow Robson, and more so Keegan, is coming, that Benitez is turning the ship around, steadying it and preparing for the good times that flitter so sporadically over the region’s people.
It builds from there. From those in the bars outside the ground, to those under the stand, with a pint or a pie, to those who arrive late, and to those who have been cutting the grass, sorting out the goals, checking the nets, polishing the cathedral on the hill that means so much to so many, getting St James’ Park ready, once more.
More than anything you want drama, and excitement, but you never know when it will come. Therein lies the beauty.
The passion will come when you least expect it. It is Norwich City, in the Championship, but by the evening’s finish,
Isaac Hayden will say: ‘When we scored the fourth goal the pitch was shaking. It was just unbelievable.’
Hayden first talked of the warmth of his new manager.
‘You might think a manager of his calibre might not be like that, some high-level managers and even some top players can be quite distant, but the gaffer’s warm,’ he says.
‘Rafa’s so easy to talk to, you can speak to him about anything and he’s the same with everybody: players, support staff, fans. It doesn’t matter who you are, he’s as friendly as anything and that’s really helped the lads.
‘He’s reconnected this club to the fans and the city and united it. There’s no unrest anywhere. The manager, players, staff, owner and supporters are all pulling in the right direction and, at the minute, that’s having a massive impact on our football. Everyone’s united and it shows on the pitch.
‘The England [Under-21] coaches want you to come up with ideas about how we’re going to beat varying types of opponents. They seemed really pleased with me this time, they said: “You’re coming up with different ideas from everyone else.” Again, that’s down to working with Rafa. He loves his little details and they transfer to us players.’
He talks of great differences between Benitez and his former manager, Arsene Wenger.
‘They’re polar opposites,’ he adds. ‘Two totally different people. Arsene doesn’t really say much when he’s at training, he just watches and you might hear his voice three or four times a session, max. He sees absolutely everything, though, every mistake you make.
‘The gaffer here is much more hands-on. He talks us through sessions and helps us out. I prefer that style of management. It gets the best out of me; I know exactly how he’s feeling about me and what he wants me to improve on.’
And then Hayden talks of rotation, and a comparison with how Hull had faltered when he was on loan in the previous campaign (they would be promoted through the play-offs).
‘The big difference between being here and at Hull last season is that no one’s certain to play any game under this manager. Everyone’s on their toes, there’s a lot of competition for places, everybody’s fresh, working hard in training and doing the right things and, touch wood, we haven’t had many injuries.
‘The difference was that Steve [Bruce] essentially utilised the same players all the time and it got to February and March and then the lads who’d played Saturday-Tuesday all season hit a brick wall. They were knackered.
‘In October and November Steve played the same starting eleven nine games in a row. It got to the point where some players didn’t even bother bringing their wash bags any more, you knew you weren’t going to get a game.
‘Looking at the Norwich match, the manager here keeps drumming into us that we have to keep going. We had to just keep going.’
Newcastle had started the game well. Gayle had missed two early chances, there was a headed effort for Clark and then Ritchie headed against the crossbar. In the 24th minute, a low Ritchie cross was steered in by Gayle at the front post. The same player was denied a second, but then the night turned following a clumsy challenge by Yoan Gouffran on Robbie Brady at the Leazes End. Graham Dorrans stepped up from twelve yards to equalise from the penalty spot.
Norwich found spirit after that and seven minutes into the second half a wide ball and a touch down the line and a low cross ended at the feet of Cameron Jerome and his fine shot flew past Shelvey and curled around Darlow.
In the 69th minute, it got worse, after a long-range shot from Jacob Murphy ended with Lascelles, in his attempt to block, striking the ball into his own goal, sending his goalkeeper the wrong way.
‘Can I get you anything sir?’
Just the team to care, and to win. To have heart, to find the pulse it lost before the new manager arrived.
There are the murmurings of boos. It is a crowd stunned. The game looks lost, and then, within a minute of the third Norwich goal, Shelvey strikes a superb sixty-yard ball down the Norwich left and the first touch from Gayle is sublime, and his second fires the ball past McGovern. The game is back on, the immediacy of the reply absolutely huge. Gayle grabs the ball and races back to the centre circle. It is 3–2 and Hayden comes on.
Norwich’s swagger has gone. They are a team in panic. There is time-wasting wherever you look. Newcastle press but cannot find an equaliser. The crowd stay with them.
Michael McGovern, the Norwich goalkeeper, is on a go-slow. He saves an angled shot from Gayle.
The fourth official holds a board up and it shows there will be six minutes of added time. There is a renewed roar. The clock ticks. Urgency is everywhere. Ninety-four minutes played. Anger with Norwich’s tactics. Desperation for Newcastle to equalise, not to lose.
Mitrovic, who has come on for Mo Diame, lays the ball to Ritchie and from twenty yards his shot is blocked. There are appeals for a penalty. Less than ninety seconds to go. The ball goes wide to Perez on the Newcastle right, he steadies himself and crosses and from inside the six-yard box Gouffran steals in and glances a header into the Norwich goal. McGovern cannot look and covers his eyes with his gloved hands.
There is delight, absolute delight all around the stadium. In the seats in front of an executive box, men who hardly know each other grab and celebrate.
The stopwatch you started at the beginning of the second half is being checked by everyone now. ‘How long?’ How long?’ It is the only question that matters.
The players feel it too. This could happen. Three-all from 3–1 down and in the 95th minute it is Newcastle players grabbing the ball from the net, racing past those in yellow, who look beaten. They have played their part in creating those six minutes of added time, with their slowing tactics, and now they do not look like they have the stomach to see them out. The folly of the time-waster is upon us and 47,000 supporters and every one of those in black and white on the field of play smell blood. There is a collective urge to charge and, in the 96th minute, the ball is at the feet of Shelvey, in the centre-circle inside his own half. It would be a good point, from 3–1 down, but that thought does not exist inside that stadium, at that moment in time.
Everyone is on their feet and the roar is full-throated, and with arms and fists and from every fan still standing. ‘Boot it!’ There is no call for culture now.
‘Just boot it!’
Shelvey takes aim and strikes a forty-yard ball that Mitrovic, on the edge of the Norwich penalty area, wins, with his back to goal, and he heads it to Gayle, who is in the D on the edge of that penalty area. There are four Norwich players around him. There are another three near the penalty area, as well as the goalkeeper, but there is panic written all over them.
Gayle is on the move and takes a touch with his chest. Ritchie is three yards back, and will admit later that he wanted the pass, but the Newcastle number nine is playing as a man in that shirt should, and he is seeing nothing but the goal. With his left foot he prods the ball forward and it goes through the legs of Alexander Tettey. There are still seven yellow shirts around him, two within a yard either side, but Gayle, with his head down, and his eye on the ball, cocks the trigger of his left foot and fires. The ball has so much pace and so much momentum that it flies into the bottom corner of the Norwich goal, clipping the outstretched left hand of the despairing McGovern on the way.
A small white ball crosses a white line, 58 seconds after the last time, and all around you is chaos. It is chaos. Delirium. Pure delight. Even the corporate area is going wild. People shouting and grabbing each other and punching the air. Shirts coming out of trousers, ties misshapen, strangers in a heavenly night.
A needle hits the groove and, like Hayden, you feel the earth begin to move.
Mitrovic has followed the ball’s path, in disbelief, Gouffran is there too, and he picks the ball up and smashes it into the night air in joy.
The moment has hit the players, and they charge to the corner that links the Milburn Stand and the Leazes End. You sat on a barrier next to that part of the ground, when Keegan scored on his debut. It was mental then too.
Gayle is flanked by Hayden and Ritchie and it is uncontrollable joy; the trio punching the air, letting energy burst out of their bodies. Shelvey jumps on Clark, Mitrovic grabs Gayle by the neck and almost dismantles his head, spinning him backwards and throwing him to the ground. Five players jump on top of Gayle. Two more climb on. People are still jumping in their seats, all around the stadium there is a wild delight.
It is intoxicating, absolutely intoxicating.
The 22nd shot of the night from the home side; the fourth goal, and a football stadium is erupting.
The chant of ‘Newcastle’ spreads across the stadium, like a fire with wind. Everybody is singing, smiling, adrenaline is racing. Norwich kick off, break and then shoot, from distance; the ball bounces from Darlow and there is a moment of panic before, under pressure, he grabs the rebound. The game is not finished. Ritchie kicks for safety down the Newcastle right. Finally, after more than 98 minutes of football, the last whistle is blown.
There are more hugs and more smiles and hearts are still racing, wildly, when twelve men recover their senses, tuck their shirts back into their trousers and stand around a table, with a bottle of beer and a glow.
You have been down this path before.
Leicester at home in 1990, 4–2 down and just over 20,000 there and with thirteen minutes left you watched two of your friends from school head home. And then it unfolded. One goal back, then an equaliser, and then Mark McGhee’s second. Five-four.
When that fifth goal went in, you were the happiest seventeen-year-old in the world. Jumping, just jumping, and shouting, as loud as you could. You can only know now, perhaps, what it was you felt then, free. You felt justified, of course. You’d stayed with it, stayed with your team, but the jokes about loyalty were way off.
You were just so happy and nothing else in the world mattered. Not then, as you embraced a couple of people you knew and a stack you didn’t, and shared such an incredible sense of freedom and joy. You were jumping through the clouds, so high on life. The ref hadn’t disallowed it. People were still going nuts, absolutely crazy, all around you. You were at the heart of happiness. You never wanted the celebrating to end, but you were breathless, breathless with excitement, lost in happiness; reality only peered in when your lungs were giving out. Even then, you grabbed people and shouted some more, and a breathless song for the team in black and white started. St James’ Park, filled with wonder, and happiness, and ecstasy. You didn’t want the feeling to ever end. The magic of a football getting past that white goal-line. How could so much of your life depend upon that one act?
And so many years later, how could it still?
‘You must always keep up your appearances and not lose your composure, not even in moments of the greatest euphoria,’ Benitez had said to his Tenerife players, following promotion in 2001.
On the St James’ Park grass, fifteen years later, in the half in which the ball had been launched forward by Shelvey, Benitez was picked up and bounced like a rag doll by Mitrovic, his legs helplessly swaying as the Serbian manhandled him like a reckless giant.
Even Benitez looked lost in the moment.
That was how it felt. Like Leicester, and Fulham in the rain of 1983 (2–1 down, 3–2 up), Leicester in 1997 (3–1 down, thirteen minutes left and Shearer smashing a hat-trick), Leeds in 2001 (3–1 down and 4–3 up and Bobby dancing and remembering he was 69) and Arsenal in 2001 (1–0 down, 3–1 up, top of the bloody league), and Feyenoord two years later (2–2 and out of the Champions League and then 3–2 and through, and chaos), and Arsenal again in 2011, (4–0 down and dire and 4–4 and delirious).
Some of the greatest moments of your life.
You were marvelling at the fact you could still feel that magic, that all those years down the line it was still there, something that would make your heart pound and your soul sing.
That Newcastle United could still make the earth move for you.