Imagine moving away from your club. Then imagine moving away from your club to a place where success is flowing. Seb Ward writes about moving away from home, and into the belly of the beast, Newcastle.
You leave behind many things when moving to Uni. Your hometown, your friends, your family. Your bus route to college, your soft warm bed, your morning routine. Mornings, themselves, in fact. Hell — you say goodbye to any sort of healthy lifestyle you may have had. Summer body? Forget it. And a care for money? Stick it on the student loan, kick your feet up and prepare for a life of debt. Twenty-seven thousand to be exact.
But on top of all that it’s as if I’ve left behind my football team, which is an odd thing for someone from Manchester to say when they support Norwich, I know, but that’s how it is.
Whenever you explain that you’re a Norwich fan to someone new you can generally guess the reactions. ‘Oh really?’ ‘That’s interesting’ ‘Ooooh Delia’ and occasionally, ‘Where is that?’. I’m always forced to relay that same line to explain my own connections; ‘My Dad had me in yellow and green pyjamas before I had a chance… yada yada’. To most, Norwich are an inoffensive team. That’s probably been our problem for too long. Little ol’ Norwich never hurt nobody.
They’ve never hurt Newcastle anyway. I certainly hadn’t seen us win at St James’ Park. Two 1-0s, a 0-0 and that ridiculous 6-2 had been my experience on four separate and equally painful visits. So when it arose that the Canaries were in town in my freshers week at the university, it seemed like fate — if such a thing exists — that they would finally break that curse.
My student accommodation turned out to be next door to St James’ Park. And I mean right next door — I need not check the score on match day — instead I listen for the chorus of the crowd. Besides a conveniently placed Tesco full of all the lazy ready meals a student could ever need, the club shop is the nearest establishment.
Weirdly, the first person I spoke to upon arriving happened to be one of my flatmates. We met in the lift and by some crazy coincidence he was from Norwich, a Norwich fan, and had a ticket for the game. It gets stranger in that his ticket was for the same seat, just two rows behind. By the time the lift reached floor five we already had our Wednesday night planned out. Turns out supporting Norwich does have some benefits after all.
The stage was set then, and the theatre was just next door. The floodlights shone a resplendent white glow upon the fresh turf below. The atmosphere electric, the tension terrific.
All was going very, very well, right up until it stopped going really well, and really shit.
I’ll never forget those final five minutes. It still rings in my ears now. No, not the black and white scenes of euphoric celebration. Instead, the chilling sound of stunned silence in the away end. The blank looks between myself and my new flatmate were telling: this was the Norwich we both knew and loved. Hopeless at the back and never far away from disaster.
You get the feeling, especially looking back now, that those five minutes were rather crucial to our season. Alex’s 6-2 demons were exorcised rather than laid to rest. Confidence lost, momentum lost, points lost. This welcoming present I’d envisaged had been taken from my hands just as I began to unwrap it.
The run we’ve been on since has made even the most enthusiastic fan struggling for motivation. For me the magnetic pull wanes with the extra distance. Going from having an away season ticket to simply listening (and often sighing) to Radio Norfolk has been quite the shift. Channel 5’s five-second highlights hardly fill the gaps in either, and meltdowns on Twitter and Canary Call are generally best avoided anyway.
The problem is that I’m surrounded by football. On a sunny winter’s day the famous Gallowgate’s shadow is cast upon my accommodation. In the evenings a warm amber glow transcends the stadium from the pitch lights below, as if the turf itself is ablaze. I can watch from my window as fans pose for pictures with Alan Shearer — well one cast in bronze that doesn’t look much like him — but Shearer nonetheless. On match days the cars roll in, the TV cameras are installed, the team buses arrive and with them come the crowds. A sea of black and white. Cries of ‘Toon Army’ wrestle for airspace with the more distant echo of the PA system. Packed to the rafters is the infamous Strawberry pub — an establishment where memorabilia is plastered from wall-to-wall. An establishment where it’s a crime punishable by death to wear another team’s colours.
It’s football. It’s now on my doorstep. But it’s not my football team.
Annoying, then, is Newcastle cruising their way towards the title. It’s hard, with a bunch of new friends who support the team, not to take an interest in their upward surge. While the Geordies are disappointed to have let a 10-game win streak go awry, I’m wondering when the next clean sheet will come — or was until last weekend. They play with a swagger, a style and an efficiency that makes it difficult to predict anything but promotion. The goals of Gayle and the might of Mitro are what I wish we had up-front. A Champions League winning manager on a Champions League wage in a Championship dugout wouldn’t go amiss either.
Saturday’s win against Brentford showed a glimmer of those same qualities. The style, the swagger — oh, and that’s right — not being absolutely appalling at the back. If only we could do it just a tiny bit more, like, y’know, most weeks.
If Newcastle don’t get promoted; if the cheers of Howay! are not loudest come May; if the open-top bus is not trundling its way over the Tyne Bridge, through the city centre, through crowds of adoring fans; if St James’ Park cannot be called a top-flight stadium once more; then I will be most surprised. But if that is the case, promise me this Norwich — go down fighting. I will be rather jealous of my Geordie neighbours if not.
Until then, many more Saturdays tuning into BBC Radio Norfolk, rather than BBC Tyneside, await.
Seb Ward tweets at @seb_ward