The agony and ecstasy of a city on edge

No place in Britain has its emotional and economic health tied closer to the fortunes of one football team than Newcastle. And tonight its health is put to the test once again. By Jim White
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The Independent Online
It is hard to avoid football in Newcastle. In Manchester, United and City play in stadiums on the fringes of town; in Liverpool, Anfield and Goodison Park are a three-mile walk from Lime Street station; in Islington High Street you can enjoy swordfish puree with seaweed pancetta in a sparsely decorated restaurant unaware that Arsenal are playing half a mile down the road. But in Newcastle, St James's Park is bang in the centre of the place, opposite the bus station, in a high vantage spot where most cities have their cathedrals.

On match days the city centre is thronged with 35,000 fans, decked out in the black and white striped replica team shirts apparently issued at birth in the town. Before games, downtown pubs heave with cottonesque fabric, bar staff are uniformed in United's change strip. As kick off approaches, almost the entire population of the town seems to be sucked towards the grey concrete stadium. And those without tickets are on their way to cinemas for closed-circuit television link-ups with the shrine of St Kevin.

It seems like it is almost the entire population of the town because it is almost the entire population of the town. Unlike other conurbations where you might have a choice of five or six football clubs to support, in Newcastle there is only one: everyone supports United. Moreover, unlike at Manchester United, Arsenal or Liverpool, outside St James's Park there are no coaches bringing fans from Devon or Cardiff; 80 per cent of the 35,000 congregation lives within a five-mile radius of the ground.

Thus in Newcastle is everyone infected by United, ill with them. When they do well the bars of the Bigg Market throb with triumph. And for nine months of this football season the tills have been ringing like never before as the team marched to the top of the championship table, offering the tantalising prospect that for the first time in an aeon all that devotion might actually be repaid with a trophy.

"On Saturdays when we've won," says Alan McDonald, a bar-man in a Bigg Market pub, "it's like a gold rush town here, people seem to spend without heed to tomorrow." But Toon fever is an unforgiving virus. Over the last month a blanket of despond has enveloped Tyneside, an all-pervading assumption that fate is conspiring against the town. The cause for the fatalism has been United's remarkable decline as the title reaches its climax, not just throwing away a twelve-point lead at the top of the league, but doing so by losing in the last minute of vital games. Tonight, against Southampton, there is a chance to hold on to the dream, but no fan will be surprised if they lose in the 89th minute.

"After the Blackburn game I felt so empty," says Dave Smith, a 33-year- old United season ticket holder. "It was like a great kick in the bollocks. All sorts of nonsense was talked after that game about jacking in my job and going round the world. It was the lager, but I've honestly never felt that bad. But somehow I knew it would happen, when we were 12 points clear I was tempted to go out and put a tenner on Man United. Typically I didn't." Newcastle is an isolated city, stuck up in the North-east in not quite Scotland, within easy reach only of Sunderland. Like many island communities, its people are fiercely proud of the place, anxious to proselytise its virtues as if to explain why they have never moved to the mainland. In the past their Geordie identity was tied up in the industry that made the place world famous. Ship-building, coal, armaments, these were muscular, strong, masculine businesses that spoke of a sense of purposefulness and self-sufficiency. When the industries died in the Eighties there was nothing the place was known for any more except long-faced television detectives, a nightlife that was Ibiza-esque in its exuberance and three bridges across the Tyne sited too close together for sensible explanation. That and a famously under-achieving football club, an outfit that, like the town, seemed to be living on half-remembered glories from a long-forgotten time when they actually meant something.

Sir John Hall changed all that. The man who had made his fortune from a shopping mall the size of a small Alpine state on the city's fringes took the football club over in 1990. Hall's role model was not Martin Edwards, who made a pile from owning Manchester United, but Italians like Silvio Berlusconi or Gianni Agnelli who used their clubs as power bases. He had his money; his ambition now was that Newcastle United would put his town on the map. He invited Kevin Keegan to be manager, opened his wallet to invest heavily in players and infra-structure and endlessly reeled off his mantra to the press: United is Newcastle, Newcastle is United and both are going places.

While Hall was the public relations mouthpiece, plenty of others connected with the city worked on his idea. The council, for instance, put together an economic regeneration strategy two years ago, which included as a senior partner, the football club.

"The club is a symbol of excellence for this town, no question, but you have to build on it," says Tony Flynn, leader of the council. "I don't want to make too strong a comparison with Liverpool, but a successful football team doesn't necessarily mean you'll automatically get a successful town."

In crude commercial terms, success on the field might mean the bars sold more beer, the two specialist shops in the Metro Centre couldn't keep up with the demand for Toon souvenirs and Newcastle Breweries saw Brown Ale sales go up nationwide on the back of their association with the club, but what everyone seemed anxious to ensure was that bigger investment in the town followed the lads on the field's pioneering.

"You have to work at it. Anything that raises the profile of the city we will exploit," says Michael Mitchell of the North East Chamber of Commerce.

One triumphant till-ringing spin-off of United's wins has come in selling the city to Scandinavia. Last year, 170,000 Norwegians came over on weekend football, shopping and cheap beer packages, a 25 per cent increase on the previous year.

"Sadly we can't capitalise on that market as much as we'd like," says Ron Woodman, Marketing Manager of the Metro Centre, "simply because there are not enough spare tickets for games at St James's. Last weekend, for instance, we sent a party of Norwegians down to Middlesbrough for a match because we couldn't get them in here."

According to Michael Mitchell, Newcastle United have helped businesses to exploit the opportunity created by their pre-eminence.

"For instance," he says, "when we played in Europe Sir John Hall organised a mission of businessmen to fly on the plane with the team, and we established trading links with businesses in Bilbao as a direct result."

Perhaps the most spectacular success, though, was the decision by the Korean electronics firm Samsung to site a new factory in the area, a contract won in the face of competition thanks to the promise of a box at St James's Park. A buoyant United, it seemed, meant jobs.

"Everything else had to be right for Samsung, the site, the workforce, the communications," says Michael Mitchell. "But United was the icing on the cake. And if that swung it, why not."

Still, though, there is the minor drawback that the club has not won anything. So far it has all been talk, delivery is proving a tougher proposition. And when the banana skins started to appear and the team started to stutter, a sense of Geordie fatalism, the idea that it was all too good for the likes of us to hope for, was quick to re-surface.

"It's a shame because we were all looking forward to the night we won the title," says Dave Smith, who, typically, talks in the past tense as if it is all over when any Manchester United fan will tell you it isn't. "It wasn't the thought of seeing the trophy being lifted. It was the thought of the whole town out partying down the Bigg Market."

Peversely it is this sense of solidarity that makes the present nerve- shredding all the more difficult to take. As there are no supporters of rival clubs in Newcastle's factories, offices or shops, there is no-one to let off steam against. No-one is taking the mickey up there. The Newcastle rumour factory, probably the most efficient manufacturer in the town, has been working over-time to construct tangible reasons for the team's decline: drugs, fights, even, bizarrely, rent boys. But really everyone agress what's going on: those malign partners fate and the rest of the world are conspiring against them, as they did to destroy the local industry. "Not fair," "what do you expect", "no justice" these are the most frequently heard phrases around town. Even the blip which saw Manchester United lose at the weekend and the opportunity to win the title open up once more, was interpreted by many supporters as nothing more than another twist on the torture rack, hopes raised only to be dashed more cruelly at a later date.

"In the light of what happened at the weekend I feel marginally happier with life," says Dave Smith. "But we still won't do it. I've got a bet with a mate that Newcastle will never ever win anything in my lifetime. I think my money's safe."

A hint of what will happen to the town's morale should Newcastle finally fail could be seen last month, after the Magpies lost at home to Manchester United, and the doubts began to crystalise in Geordie minds. After that game the bars down the Bigg Market were full of lads in football shirts and smart shoes ("no trainers" are the house rules). But they were contemplative, sober; whole cases of brown ale brought up from the cellars specially were left unopened by barmaids who, for some reason, were dressed only in micro-swimwear. Looking across the bars, what you saw were heads shaking as the defeat was re-lived time and again. They looked, in short, shell- shocked. In Newcastle football may not be a matter of life or death, it seems, but your next job could depend on it.

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