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Geordies bemoan proud history lost in mists of Tyne



The current title favourites visit St James' Park today, 80 years after Newcastle's last league championship


Michael Walker

Monday January 1, 2007

The Guardian



Nelson Cairns can remember it, but he will be 94 soon. Tellingly, on Tyneside that is the sort of age you have to be. Much has been made of Sir Alex Ferguson reaching 65 at the weekend, but when Ferguson arrives at St James' Park today he will be struck by an anniversary of altogether greater magnitude: New Year's Day 2007 means that it is now 80 years since Newcastle United were champions of England.



"I have a very clear memory of the first game of the 1926-27 season," Cairns said. "At that time I was 12 years old and was visiting my aunt Hetty in Heaton. She had a family friend called Jack Riley and Jack asked me if I would like to go to the match with him. Newcastle beat Aston Villa 4-0 and Hughie Gallacher scored all four goals. I do not remember any particular celebrations - Newcastle had been quite successful in the previous 20 years - it just seemed a normal thing to happen. Actually, when I think about it now, it was the end of an era."

Those, indeed, were the days. When Newcastle beat Sheffield Wednesday on April 30, 1927 they clinched their fourth title in 19 seasons. Newcastle won two FA Cups in that spell, too, and lost four finals. In 1905 they were one lost final away from the first league and cup Double of the century. In terms of offside and the passing game, Newcastle were innovators.


"Intelligent, progressive, you could say they were the Ajax of their day," Roger Hutchinson said. "Where did that intelligence go?" Hutchinson is author of The Toon, a history of the club. He is also a believer, though inevitably one with a fair amount of doubt.


Eight decades of mediocrity, sometimes better, often worse, does that to supporters and yet when Manchester United reach St James' this afternoon there will be 52,000 waiting for them. It is an attendance figure that is now familiar but it should not be under-appreciated.


Old Trafford has endured its own title drought - from 1911 to '52 - but since then there have been 13, plus just a few cups. Everton, who beat Newcastle 3-0 on Saturday, have won seven titles since 1927. Those are solid, silver reasons why these clubs are well supported.


Usually Celtic and Rangers are the clubs compared to Newcastle for passionate fans, but Celtic's have been sustained by 23 Scottish titles since 1927. Rangers have won 88 trophies since 1927. That's a lot of good nights in Glasgow come May. Newcastle won three FA Cups in the 1950s and the Fairs Cup in 1969. That's four nights.


But still they come. "Ever since the 1890s when they took off," Hutchinson said, "Newcastle United have come to be a symbol of the region, a region that was cut off, and felt cut off, from the rest of Britain. It feels like pre-history but it's important because these are the foundations of the club.


"There is no alternative to Newcastle - from the Tyne Valley, north into Northumberland, east to Tynemouth and then down into Durham, plus the urban conurbation of Newcastle itself, this is an immense catchment area, unique in England I think. And the supporters are so loyal, even the slightest hint of success and they're there in tens of thousands. Everyone knows they will always turn up. You can't help but think that breeds complacency at boardroom level."


Cairns agreed: "The directors, managers and players all must take some responsibility. Probably the directors must take the lion's share of the blame. Certainly in the 1950s and 60s the directors did not seem to be in touch with the supporters."


In what seems an eerie example, on the way to winning the FA Cup in 1955 Newcastle City Hall staged a public meeting at which 2,000 members of the Shareholders' Association produced a vote of no confidence in the board. But still they came. The club had been part of Geordie identity for more than 50 years by then. The geography of apartness can seem exaggerated today but in 1927 and before it had literal meaning. The Tyne bridge had not been completed in 1927 and Geordies looked north as often as south.


That was how they got Gallacher, all 5ft 5in of him, from Airdrieonians. Made captain and No9, Gallacher scored 36 times in that championship-winning season and the Newcastle Daily Journal wondered if he did not possess "more than the usual complement of feet".


But Hutchinson asked another question: between Gallacher and the 1996 signing of Alan Shearer, name another world-class player bought by Newcastle? "Kevin Keegan was a big signing but he was past his prime, and Newcastle were in the Second Division. In the 1950s they had Jackie Milburn but he was local, not bought."


Hutchinson added: "And where is Newcastle's great manager, their Bill Shankly, Herbert Chapman, Bill Nicholson, Matt Busby? Keegan came close but he was never going to be Shankly. Bobby Robson was a major manager but he was not in his prime at Newcastle."


Historically, another reason for title failure cited by Milburn was the obsession with the FA Cup. In 1951, having beaten Wolves in the semi-final, Newcastle were fifth in the league, six points behind Tottenham with three games in hand. There were 13 games left and again it was all about Newcastle doing the Double. Newcastle won just three more times. In 1952 it was the same. But the Cup was won twice and Milburn admitted: "We stopped playing in league games after the semis."


The FA Cup had prestige then that it lacks now. Europe and the title have superseded it and but for Manchester United and Ferguson in 1996 Keegan would have ended the wait.


But that was last year's anniversary. This year's should be as painful as any. Newcastle are already 28 points behind their visitors today with their manager, Glenn Roeder, dealing with a sweeping injury crisis. Roeder is a rational man, someone who refuses to believe the club is cursed - "Bollocks" is his view of that - and someone who talks about infrastructure and long-term plans. It may yet work.


Whether Nelson Cairns sees it is another matter. "It never really occurred to me that I might not see Newcastle win another championship in my lifetime," he said. "But I'm not surprised that 50,000 fans turn up every week. I would be surprised, and disappointed, if they didn't. I do think Newcastle will win the Premiership some day but I do not want to predict when. It might bring bad luck."



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The Club IS cursed - by bad Direction/Management, complacency rules due to Over-Loyal fans who 'Demand' 'Attacking' football, which leads to trophy signings without any real check on the long-term fitness or loyalty of these players.

There is no real Long-term planning, and KK certainly was NOT Shankly - witness the over-hasty and illogical scrapping of the Reserves'Juniors instead of all-out Investment on Academies of Excellence, both home & abroad.

There always has been a lack of professionalism , which, when Liverpool were at their peak, was the hallmark of the way the Club were run under Peter Robinson - the 'Boot-Room' system pioneered by Shankly ensured continuity on the playing side, witness the seamless continuation of success after Shanks retired(in fact, the Club went on to win the European Cup AFTER Shanks had gone).

To me, Liverpool are the club most like NUFC in their geographical situation(former major seafaring City, with Football-mad working class population who share a sense of humour), but there the comparison ends - they are still run on far more professional lines, and the fans expect success - ours are simply happy with 'Attacking Football' and being proud to be Geordies.Neither of these qualities will put pressure on the club to be run successfully.

I remember Nelson Cairns being shown on Sky back in 96 when we looked like winning the Prem that year, and feeling sad for him that we fell at the final hurdles. I never expected that he would still be waiting for success now(or even, to be honest, that he would still be around !!), but I'm afraid that he will have to reach the magic ton if he is to see Newcastle as winners again.

I am nearly 40 years younger than he, but even I am not confident of seeing the title at SJP again.

Any new Board has a great deal of hard work in front, and the Game itself is corrupt.

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