Giving up work, home and car in the middle of a recession and spending my redundancy money on travelling the world with Wifey was always an entirely daft thing to do. It has been described as “brilliant” and “brave” by friends and colleagues when the word they were trying not to use was “daft”. Nearly a year later I have little income, strangers are living in our house in Newcastle and my only form of transport needs new tyres so I can’t even make like Norman Tebbit’s dad and get on my bike.
It would be entirely understandable at this point to rue the error of our ways and regret the whole affair. Especially in the light of having missed, first hand at least, the best Newcastle United season in years (as well as gigs in Newcastle by Rise Against, Mariachi El Bronx and Doug Stanhope). But where is the point in that? The decision was made, there can be no going back and we would do it again anyway because it was brilliant. More regret could be found in our not stopping longer or for good in places along the way that offered the opportunity for a warmer way of life than merry olde Albion. Emails from or pictures of Auckland offer a sharp stab to the heart on this latter point but in truth we couldn’t stay. The untimely death of our lovely mate Barry asked the question, “should we fly back for his funeral and if not his, then for whom?” but you think that stuff through and you would sooner see all your friends when they are alive rather than their sad families when they’re gone. So when people dear to us ask why we came back we answer “because you might die” which usually stops them asking.
So, in short, we were always going to return to England and the homeless, jobless, wet and crap bits were inevitable. Should we have taken the easier, normal path towards life’s end? I should hope the f*ck not. I don’t want to repent at leisure anymore than darling Joey Barton seems to be doing after his extraordinary behaviour at Manchester City.
(If you will allow me a brief digression: as usual too many people are keen to start battering Joey with their moral outrage. For example Mr Shearer on Match of the Day seems to forget his own European ban for elbowing an Inter Milan player was for a much harder blow than Barton struck on Tevez. And as ever many of Barton’s judges miss the point; which was that Barton at Man City was really, really funny and would have been funnier still if Barton had slapped De Jong, punched Gareth Barry in the nuts and booted David Platt up the arse on his way off the pitch. Barton’s behaviour doesn’t affect Newcastle United anymore so we Newcastle fans are all free to enjoy the comedic majesty of it. I know I was plumping up a cushion and rubbing my hands with glee as the moment approached on the Sunday evening.)
So having missed out on a frankly ill-deserved place in the Champions League, thanks to the 13 goals we conceded at Norwich, Fulham and Wigan, Newcastle United have to contend with the Europa League and all the woe that will beget us.
Games on a Thursday night, strain on the small squad, too much time travelling (that’s time spent travelling not travelling through time – suffice to say if I come across such an opportunity I will be delivering a young Peter Beardsley to Uncle Mike’s Toybox lickety-split). Losing games to crap teams on a Sunday lunchtime because we played in the Ukraine on a Thursday night might, for example, include losing to sunderland. There is very little financial gain and it would be much better to get out of the competition as soon as possible to concentrate on matters at home.
Say what now?
In response to this kind of thinking I will bark “Balls!” like Withnail. Being in Europe is f***ing brilliant. To consider qualification as the mark of a successful season then moan about it is perverse and craven. We must leap into the unknown and the devil take the hindmost.
The peak of Sam Allardyce’s achievements at Bolton was to sneak them into Europe the season before he came to enlighten Tyneside as to his genius. His replacement, Sammy Lee saw them make progress abroad if not at home so he was replaced by Gary Megson. Megson in an act of rank cowardice chose to rest most of his first choice players for a UEFA game to save them for a relegation 6 pointer the following weekend. Many Bolton fans, enjoying being in Europe for the reward and opportunity that it is, were understandably livid. They lost both games, Megson later got sacked and now two years later Bolton have been relegated anyway. They earned themselves the chance to do something special and they didn’t take it – now that is something you would regret at leisure.
Yes the modern Europa League lacks glamour for the neutral: how many of us took any interest in the campaigns of Fulham, Stoke and Birmingham this season beyond being: a) nicely surprised at how easily we beat Fulham at SJP after they had an away trip, b) laughing at Tony Pulis having his tactical pants pulled down and, c) forgetting Birmingham were even in it. The Manchesters both treated the competition like it was a drab party they were happy to be asked to leave and Arsenal fans, awful snobs that they are, looked about to need someone to pass the vapours at the very idea of being in the second tier of European football. Managers and teams get little or no credit for winning games at this level; when Newcastle won in Palermo under Glen Roeder the Sicilians were top of Serie A and even some Newcastle fans didn’t notice how brilliantly we had done.
But, like giving up your job and travelling the world, being in Europe isn’t about other people’s perceptions of you – it really is all about you. You don’t do it for other people, you do it for you and if you can live with the consequences, get on and enjoy the experience. Let other people live their lives as they will and let them sneer if they want.
Newcastle fans will have to live with the fact that we won’t do as well in the League next season, like I have to live with the fact that I might have to take a job sweeping the car park at Aldi to see any of it. But the important part of that sentence is “To Live.”
Living, not merely existing until you don’t, is surely the central most important part of what life is all about. Finding yourself or your football team in Slovakia or Istanbul on a wet Thursday night looks more like living than staying at home and damn those who think otherwise.