I’ve had a sense of foreboding and dread all week, a mild, manageable mental health wobble that occasionally creeps up on me. As it turns out, the week ended on a bad note, not directly for me, but for some people near me. It turned out to be a mentally challenging week that I was pleased to see end.
Saturday’s game rather got lost in the fuzz, at times like this I particularly appreciate the bubble that the club and its community provides; the familiarity of a game on Saturday, the simple consensus of our common cause, it provides welcome, necessary insulation from life’s less predictable challenges.
But, what was Saturday’s game against Newcastle? People talked about it being a great occasion, making a day of it, on the Friday night the club had Karl Robinson, Matty Taylor and Cameron Brannagan do a meet and greet at a local hotel. There were a few who fetishised the dystopian presence of VAR, like we were going to a Premier League theme park with all its horrors. The whole thing could easily have been treated as a fantasy or a PR exercise, because in a sense, we couldn’t lose, even if we’d lost.
Would we remember there was a game to play? What kind of game? Newcastle are a curious club; in the same way we were defined by the Firoz Kassam business model; tenants to a slum landlord, Newcastle United are defined by Mike Ashley’s business ethos; take a premium brand past its sell-by date, strip it of its value and sell it cheaply back to any remaining customers.
So, after a sluggish week, Friday slipped into Saturday and the yellow caravan mobilised; by car, by train, by coach. The giddy excitement of the adventure. Into the bubble, moving north. But for what purpose? In hope? Simply because it was there to do?
St James’ Park looked great, a true cathedral of football; 52,000 fans, 3,700 of us packed into the seventh tier of their huge Leazes Stand. We even loved the indignity of being exiled to a spot closer to the moon than the pitch, like captives with Stockholm Syndrome. Apparently in awe, it could all have gone horribly wrong come 3pm.
As it turned out, with the battle finally joined, we were ready. Newcastle are on the right side of the financial chasm between the Championship and Premier League and are built for one thing, to stay there. Not the entertainers of the 1990s, they’re survivors of the 2020s. Like one of Ashley’s high street shops, chugging away doing whatever it takes to survive. Steve Bruce is the perfect manager; focussed and pragmatic, building his team around formidable physical units; Allan Saint-Maximin and Joellinton as much the front line of defence when faced with Manchester City and Liverpool as an attacking threat.
They’re not built to win games, snatch them, yes, but there are few teams in the Premier League that Newcastle would simply try to outplay. Points in their last two games, causing an upswing in optimism, have come from last minute goals. A team of elite desparados.
Playing our third Premier League team of the year, our own well-disciplined conservatism is partly drawn from our surroundings, but also from our personnel. Sam Long and Elliot Moore are building careers on doing their job, not thrilling the crowd. We’re becoming accustomed to how this works now.
We allow Newcastle the ball, but they don’t know what to do with it. They’re simply not used to it. Set plays are a threat, sheer brutish physicality stretches us from time to time, but we’re not outclassed. Karl Robinson talks about exhausted bodies, we’ve played 11 more games than them this season, but our minds are fresh.
Their hope is that we might eventually wilt under the pressure, succumb to mental and physical tiredness, the occasion and the prize on offer. But, there’s no craft, Saint-Maximin burns himself out despite a couple of forays against Sam Long, Joellinton grows frustrated at his own short-comings. This is a player who might realistically hope to score no more than ten times a season, for a striker, it must be maddening; doubly so when your supporters expect double.
We don’t wilt, later on Alex Gorrin has the clarity of thought to draw a foul and a booking when caught out of position, Mark Sykes does the same a couple of minutes later. It’s a pivotal moment; when you’ve got 52,000 people howling at you in disgust it takes a brave, clear headed and mature man to accept the berating for the greater good. Sykes comes of age in that moment, Gorrin is his mentor. The fouls were cynical, but necessary, a reward for the discipline; any early bookings and those moments wouldn’t have been an option.
Into the final moments and the game loosens up, it feels like we’re growing into our more natural game while they seem to be falling apart. Marcus Browne, who looks like he has the physical match of his highly paid opponents, sees a gap, but can’t quite re-organise his feet and shoots weakly. Nathan Holland, more slender and louche, nearly converts. Far away in the sky, the noise of 3,710 fans tumbles down the stands.
And there you have it. Through all the hullabaloo, there was a match. We were ready. Physically and tactically ready, but more than that, we were mentally prepared in a way I hadn’t expected. In a week where I’ve lived mostly in my own head, it’s a joy to see the team using theirs; the clarity and maturity and the reward at the end. Saturdays are a gift for the difficulties that life can throw at you, players often praise the commitment of the fans, but sometimes we understate the importance of their efforts and the impact they have beyond the 90 minutes on the pitch. Saturday’s result and performance illustrated that perfectly.
Still in the Cup, always in the bubble.