Loony Toons get friendly

When you're really football crazy, you go to pre-season warm-ups and cheer for the other side -
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Glenn sits in the sun, takes another pull of warm lager and totals the cost of his passion. "Not including me season ticket I reckon I'll do about pounds 300 before the season starts." The shirts, the videos, the travelling ... it soon mounts up. Glenn, who has come here to rural Northamptonshire from Tyneside, joins the crowd that has gathered to cheer Newcastle United's new footballer, David Ginola, from the team bus. Only seen previously in photographs with his stunning wife, Ginola receives a warm reception as the team arrives for a pre-season friendly. "Get ya wife out for the lads!" sing the travelling Geordies.

It isn't just hay-fever sufferers who fear the onset of summer. For the likes of Glenn the season means little more than a period of frustration and deprivation, a time of meaningless weekends spent in shopping centres or on beaches. For the type of football fan for whom supporting their team is not a case of saying "I've got the shirt but er, no, I've never actually been to Manchester", but more like "We can't get married then - it's Coventry away!", there is no solace in cricket, tennis nor rugby world cups.

I am thus afflicted and Newcastle United, my team, has more than its share of these junkies among its supporters, known as the Toon Army. Each of its five pre-season games are away from home but tickets have been snapped up within days of going on sale.

This is Rushden's big night. The couple of thousand supporting Newcastle swelling the gate to a capacity for the first time. The tiny Northamptonshire town is awash with a sea of pristine black-and-white striped nylon - one spark and the whole place could go up. Summer is the best time to wear your new shirt before Bovril, beer and Wagon-Wheel stains ruin the effect.

Locals are out in force, the thousand or so who regularly watch Rushden buoyed by hordes of others who have come to cheer their local team for the first time. Crammed into their ground, they tell Newcastle's pounds 6m Les Ferdinand what a waste of money he is - yet cheer him as he scores two goals.

Rushden and Diamonds is a special club, formed in 1992 by the amalgamation of Rushden Town and Irthlingborough Diamonds. It was then that a certain Max Griggs became chairman. Mr Griggs has since ploughed the best part of pounds 7m into the club, which is now run so professionally that it puts many in the Premiership to shame. Its home, Nene Park, holds 4,600 with plans for a two-tier stand taking its capacity nearer to 10,000. His ambition is to reach the Football League via the Vauxhall Conference, and to do so he has assembled a team that looks well capable of achieving it. The source of the money behind all this is well known to football fans: Max Griggs made his fortune as owner of the company that manufactures Dr Martens boots.

To those of us who started to watch football in the mid-Seventies, Doc Martens bring back memories of 12 or 18 holers with yellow laces: gangs of Tyneside youths with names like the Longbenton Aggro Boys tussling each other to gain control of the Leazes End so they could lead the singing. Some of them are at Rushden, now fat and 40, trying to reconcile the images of their youth with Bernard the cuddly club mascot, a giant red bear in immense Docs. There is even a shop selling the things inside the ground. As someone pointed out, "If ya forgot ya Martens for the match ya could buy them here, kick somebody's heed in, then tek them back and say they were scuffed".

There is a golden rule of friendlies that runs something like "the more of them you lose, the better the season you'll have". This is, of course, totally unfounded but it might explain the crowds' lack of interest in the actual result at a friendly. Rushden's fans cheered for us, we cheered for them. We even whooped when they managed to score. Elland Road, this wasn't.

As manager Kevin Keegan tinkered with the playing system, the colonels of the Toon Army tried out their lovingly prepared songs on the crowd. Ginola needed a song for the coming campaign and they had prepared three variations, which were all warbled in a Eurovision style so the crowd could find its favourite.

"What aboot this?" A big lad in a Supermac Seventies shirt broke into a dubious version of the "Marseillaise": "Der, der, der - dum der, der, der". Nul points.

Time to try another.

"I get no kick from champagne, mere Andy Cole does not thrill me at all. But I get a kick out of you - Ginola, Ginola ..." This was met by laughs and groans from the rest of the Toon Army, and almost inevitably David Ginola's new song came from the Kinks, "Lola, Gi-gi-gi-Ginola".

This game had a different feel from others. People had come for miles, families with parents and kids bedecked in their team's shirts. Manchester United, Leeds, Leicester, whatever, this was a match against the sort of team they only ever saw on television. As we left, a Romeo and Juliet for the Nineties was played out as a couple sauntered by, him in black and white, her in the red of Manchester United, with "GIGGS" across her back.

"Chuck her mate - she's no good for ya!" came a shout.

"She's not bonny enough to be Ryan Giggs, she looks more like Dennis Irwin."

"It should say 'Bobby Charlton's Arse' but there wasn't enough room on her shirt!"

But it's all, well, you know, friendly. And the score? Rushden 1, Newcastle 3. We didn't lose, but we're still hoping for a great season. Roll on August 19.

Diary of a Desperate Jobseeker returns next week

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