Football: Fervour of the fans for all seasons: Simon O'Hagan travels to Durham where even training lures the Toon Army

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The Independent Online
JOHN LLOYD is a television engineer from North Tyneside who has supported Newcastle United since the early 1960s. 'This is the best team I've ever seen,' he says. 'I remember feeling scared when we used to go and play people like Liverpool or Arsenal. But not any more. In the old days you'd look at the matches coming up and and wonder where you might pick up a few points. Now you wonder where you might drop them.'

Mr Lloyd is one of about a thousand people who are standing in the sunshine at Maiden Castle on the outskirts of Durham, where Newcastle United come to train. It's a lush and agreeable setting - half a dozen football pitches, grass tennis courts, and a cricket field, all surrounded by ancient trees that sway in the late summer breeze. When Newcastle are not here it is the home of Durham University's sports teams.

The atmosphere is excited but relaxed. As the Newcastle players wander back to the clubhouse, clusters of boys and girls gather round them, autograph books at the ready. There are no stewards to keep the players and the fans apart, no 'Keep Out' signs, no sense of this being anything other than a perfectly natural interaction.

But it isn't natural, or at least it isn't normal. Newcastle are unique in the Premiership in tolerating this degree of openness during training, and it helps strengthen still further a bond between club and supporter that is arguably closer than any other in the country.

When Newcastle begin their season at Leicester today, accompanying them will be the thousands of members of the self-styled Toon Army, the black-and-white shirted hordes whose travels almost always guarantee that the club they are visiting will get a full house. As for Newcastle's home matches this season, every one is already a sell-out. Season- ticket holders only - 34,000 of them - with a mere 800 seats held back for visiting fans.

Supporters of Manchester United might dispute that Newcastle mean any more to their fans than their club mean to them. Certainly in box-office terms, there is no difference. But there remains something special about Tyneside football culture. Not for Newcastle the fatalism of Liverpool or the arrogance of United - just a boisterous passion and sense of belonging that is reflected in the scenes at the training ground where on some days the traffic is so heavy that police are brought in to control it.

Barry Venison, the Newcastle defender, is well placed to judge the scale of enthusiasm felt at the club. Having spent six years at Sunderland, another six at Liverpool, and now two at Newcastle, he knows a thing or two about hotbeds of football. 'Newcastle have transformed the whole area,' he says. 'The euphoria when the club does well is incredible.'

And, of course, the club is doing well - better than it has ever done thanks to the irresistible formula of an immensely wealthy chairman, Sir John Hall, a charismatic manager, Kevin Keegan, cult heroes for players in the shape of Peter Beardsley and Andy Cole, and supporters whose powerful sense of identity with the city is further sharpened by success.

Newcastle seem to serve as the model for the way any ambitious club needs to go. You can see something similar happening at Middlesbrough - a mini-Newcastle, if you like, whose Kevin Keegan is Bryan

Robson. But it is a slightly different story at Sunderland, demographically so similar to Newcastle but where the talk at the football club, as it has been for years, is still of potential.

'We've never really built on our successes,' says one disenchanted former season-ticket holder. And when you point out that perhaps the money isn't there, the response is a darkly muttered, 'Well I'm not so sure about that.' But the fact is that Sir John Hall-like commitment is very rare, and even now Sunderland are in the throes of boardroom changes which might bring them an extra pounds 2m or pounds 3m - or might not.

Jim Montgomerie, goalkeeping legend of the 1973 FA Cup-winning Sunderland team, is now the club's youth coach. Like Venison, he is steeped in the tradition of North-east football. He accepts that at first- team level Newcastle and Sunderland are further apart than they have ever been, but he points out how quickly that has changed - that only two seasons ago they were both in the First Division.

While Newcastle, he says, can afford to spend pounds 100,000 just on a youth-team player, Montgomerie's task is to bring on locals through the club's own scouting system. 'If I can do that rather than have the club spend money then I'm delighted,' he says, and up on his wall is a map of the north of England with red dots marking the club's target areas.

While Sunderland had to settle for 12th in the First Division last season against Newcastle's third in the Premiership, the level of support they still commanded was in its way as remarkable as their rivals'. A home average of 16,934 is testimony in part to the club's highly praised community scheme. And, as Montgomerie says, 'if we had a bit of success you couldn't build a big enough stadium to fit the fans in'.

So what is it about the North-east and football? Montgomerie points to the great players it has spawned - from Jackie Milburn to Alan Shearer, via the Charltons, Bryan Robson and others. For Venison, the reasons are more sociological. Certainly when he says that 'this is a working- class area where football is a religion', you feel these somewhat overused terms carry rather more weight than they might when applied to other parts of Britain.

Like Liverpool, geographical extremity and its history of labour have left Newcastle with a sense of having been marginalised, and from that comes an acute possessiveness about what they've got. But in an age where everywhere seems to be becoming like everywhere else, there remains something different about Newcastle.

At the centre of all this fervour, trying to do their job, to win the club the Premiership and the Uefa Cup as well, are the players themselves. Does the passion ever frighten them? 'Absolutely not,' says Venison. 'It doesn't frighten us. It excites us. Sometimes you have to try to cool yourself down, or you can end up being a supporter on the field, and you wouldn't do your job properly.'

But what about all the fans coming to watch the team train? ''We enjoy it,' Venison says. 'My own kids come down. Anyone can come. We're an open club. We'll start worrying when people stop coming. The thing is the Newcastle lads have a lot of respect around here. We're like ambassadors.'

Outside, John Lloyd would agree, and he shakes his head disapprovingly about the one or two players who when the time comes to leave the training ground arrange to have their cars driven round to a back exit so they can make their getaway unseen. Such is the degree of expectation placed upon them.

But most of the players make their way through the crowds, including Pavel Srnicek, the Newcastle goalkeeper, which is good news for Mr Lloyd's two daughters, Melissa and Natalie. 'Pav' is their favourite player.

The presence in the crowd of many more women and girls is the big change Mr Lloyd has noticed since the last good Newcastle team he can remember - Gordon Lee's of the mid- Seventies. That is true of football clubs everywhere as they have made themselves more modern, comfortable, civilised places.

But while there are clubs where something vital seems to have got lost in that process, not so at Newcastle. The people's game still lives.

(Photograph omitted)

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