Aston Villa (h) 20.02.2017


(The following is an extract from “Rafa’s Way”):


Running, always running. You never dawdled up the steps. Past the shrubs, side-step the open-air loos. Up more crumbling steps. The Scoreboard on your left. Your city behind you. Through the gap and then into your very own concrete heaven. Steps and barriers, proper concrete. Hard, unforgiving. No roof. Home.

The Gallowgate End was like a rock-solid centre-half that you came to love. Uncompromising. Built for a purpose, and sometimes squeezed so tight that you moved with your feet off the ground. It exploded when Keegan scored on his debut. If you were ten when that happened, it never left you, that image of delirium, of people going absolutely berserk. You did your time and then you moved on to the Gallowgate End. You lived your youth there. You got wet there, you got cold there, you risked getting hurt there, you were thrilled there and you had some of the great- est moments of your life there. You spoke about Friday night there. You stepped into adulthood and the soundtrack to your life was black and white, played out in front of you. The pain and the glory, it all came together. You loved it. You loved it when it was full, and the noise and the passion and the delirium were so brilliant that you never wanted to grow up.

The Corner was to your right and that was where the lunatics went. You couldn’t watch the match in the Corner, and that was fine, because some of the football was awful, but you chose the Scoreboard, and next along was a section with a floodlight and next to that was a bit where it was said people took their lasses. The Scoreboard and the Corner were the heart of the Gallowgate End, the heart of St James’ Park even, once the Leazes End had its roof torn off and its terrace shredded in size.

It all changed when Keegan came back and with Sir John Hall built a football club. Part of that had to be the ground, and you marvelled as the new stands came up, at the Leazes End, and then at the Gallowgate. A new stand, but the memories never went, of standing with your cousin and your pals.

You eventually grew up, sort of, you changed and the Gallowgate End did too. Life went on.

At least it was still the spiritual home of the club. The Gallowgate stood and so did St James’, and slowly, over time, the Corner became one of the noisier sections of the all-seated ground, as it used to be.

The shadow now it casts upon the city seems apt. Like the club, it is inescapable from the conscious as well as the subconscious, where it lurks. There are giant pillars and a club shop and a bar where once there used to be brick walls with spikes on, rusty turnstiles and the crumbling steps that sent you to heaven.

There is glass and kiosks and bars on the first level. It is a world from what it once was, a big, long terrace, but at seven o’clock, on Sunday, 19 February 2017, you could feel its soul stir. You can never be sure what a player wishes for when they sign for a football club, or indeed join one as a child. Legacy is a new sporting phrase and it is rarely used in the context of footballers. Boxers are always aware of how they will be remembered, who they fought, their record, their honour. A footballer has something different to leave; it is in the memories, the warm glow that a game or a goal or a run or a tackle or a shirt thrown into an away support will stir in a fan for the rest of their life.

You can’t believe any of them chase immortality.

You do not know what they all would have made of the floor of that concourse in the Gallowgate End at seven o’clock on Sunday, 19 February, but you imagine they would have filled up, with tears or with pride or with both, a Geordie field of dreams cast in front of them, giant flags, tenderly prepared for the following evening, lying side by side, from Robson to Supermac, to Shearer, to Seymour, then Keegan, Harvey, McCracken, with Veitch and on to Milburn, Gallacher, Beardsley and then Moncur. Still remembered, still loved. Forever adored.

To one side of them lie 200 black and white flags. To the other a new flag, bigger than the heroes even, with two enormous poles, and stood in its glory. Eleven months in and Rafa Benitez’s impression on a city and a club is there as he looks down on twelve men who will never be forgotten. Perhaps the image will move him. His flag has moved 24 hours later, to the corner, almost regally, watching over events.

It is a strange walk, from the press box, down next to the home dugout, along the cinder track, towards an area of the stadium that you have not stood on for more than two decades. At 7.45, fifteen minutes before kick-off, there is the hum of expectation, bright lights beam down from the underside of the roof the Gallowgate End never had when you were young. Scarves are back for the night, so black and white is a striking, visual colour around the necks of many of those in a stand that is almost full. Fans and pitch, so close, within touching distance. Karl Darlow is saving shots from Simon Smith, the goalkeeping coach. A huge net protects those behind the goal from a rising drive. They play in front of goals that will be moved for kick-off, the real goalmouth protected. The lights burn you they are so bright. You feel renewed appreciation for the bottle of a footballer. There are no hiding places here. Television cameras track their every move. It is a live game, another notch for the game to move up.

The Corner is full, and it feels like an away end: noisy, excited, songs building, energy, a buzz of electricity that touches a charge deep within your soul. Walking up the steps is like walking back in time, like Ray Liotta as Shoeless Joe Jackson, emerging through the corn, back to your youth. Years disappear with each step. It is a genuinely magical moment, one to stand still and inhale; back home. That feeling of belonging. The feeling of a fan.

All around flags are being waved, the unique black and white backdrop, of your football ground and of your life, played out once more.

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