The Last Word: Toon Army are finally beaten... by indifference

It must be bad when even Newcastle fans give up on their team as a sense of despair envelops North-east
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The Independent Football

If anyone wants to observe how humans behave in deep and sore disappointment, he should be with North-east supporters who have travelled to see their team... and who are waiting for train time far away from home with the taste of defeat fresh in their mouths.

This is how Arthur Appleton begins his introduction to Hotbed of Soccer, his classic football book about the North-east and its passion for the game. It was published in 1961, and that Appleton felt it appropriate to start his rhapsody with disappointment embedded in the first line is instructive. If only he knew.

If Appleton knew then that Newcastle United, thrice FA Cup winners in the 1950s, would spend the next 48 years yo-yoing between the top two divisions with only the 1969 Fairs' Cup to show for it; and that Sunderland would fare worse, relegated from the top flight seven times, and even once to the third tier, with only the 1973 FA Cup to show for it, what would he have thought of the Hotbed of Soccer?

John Arlott wrote the glowing preface to the book, but as Tyne and Wear collide this afternoon at St James' Park, Appleton and Arlott would be united in their despair at how times are in their favourite football corner. Arlott wrote of cycling 17 miles as a boy to Reading in 1927 simply to witness Middlesbrough's "picture of a centre-forward", George Camsell. Camsell scored 345 goals in 453 games for Boro, who after yesterday's goalless draw with Blackburn remain the Premier League's lowest scorers, and in the relegation zone.

There is no complacency among followers of Newcastle and Sunderland that Boro are alone in their despondency. To be with Newcastle fans in the away end at Manchester City on Wednesday night was to witness again Appleton's deep and sore disappointment. But there was nothing fresh about it. Here were more than 2,000 people paying £30 each to watch a patched-up side deliver a rambling display that culminated in more serious injuries (Michael Owen and Joey Barton) and major personnel withdrawals (Charles N'Zogbia and Shay Given) than goals.

In such situations it pays to have a sense of humour, and when City fans struck up a chorus of "We've got Robinho", a Geordie tongue lashed back loudly with: "We've got hepatitis.And syphilis."

When the time came to launch into that favourite chant, adopted by all English fans from Rangers' original – "Hello! Hello!" – Newcastle supplied their version with gusto:

"Hello! Hello! We are the

Geordie boys,

We're gonna win fuck all again,

We're gonna win fuck all,

We still follow United."

Delusion is often a frequent accusation laid at these fans' feet, but a lack of self-awareness was not in evidence on Wednesday. City fans, intoxicated by their Arabian wealth, retorted: "We'll buy your club, we'll burn it down." Many Geordies think their team, their club, are already going up in smoke. Once, in fact as recently as August, Newcastle's owner Mike Ashley stood among them. Replica jersey on his back, pint in hand, Ashleycould be seen enjoying the banter, posing for photographs.

A reluctant public speaker, it seemed Ashley did have a good ear. When, at Wigan on Boxing Day of last season, Newcastle lost 1-0 with Sam Allardyce the manager, 5,000 fans in the away end sang in unison: "We're shit and we're sick of it." Ashley was there. A fortnight later, Allardyce was sacked.

But Ashley is no longer on listening terms with fans. They think he listens to Dennis Wise, who is about as popular on Tyneside as Kevin Phillips. Wise is viewed as the man who forced Kevin Keegan out of the door, and when that "Cockney Mafia" banner was paraded around the concourses in September, Wise was as much a target as Ashley. At Eastlands, Ashley sat in the main stand, presumably wondering over and over how Sir John Hall, a knight of the realm, took £90 million from his wallet.

Joe Kinnear was not on the radar then. He is now, and he could not be said to be surfing a wave of local optimism. But September's rebelliousness is on hold. There is unlikely to be any dirty linen washed in front of Sunderland today and, last Wednesday, even among the diehards, there was a sense of indifference. They could feel a defeat coming. An anti-Ashley chant was tokenism.

Appleton wrote of "bitter swallowing", but maybe they have swallowed so much the feeling is numbed. There was still the energy to bait Joe Hart, the home goalkeeper, with the ditty "City's No 2". But even that was a warped reference to the fact that Shay Given, Newcastle's No 1, is expected to usurp Hart. It was further recognition of loss.

Gianfranco Zola spoke last week at Hartlepool of what Scott Parker "represents" to West Ham, and Given represents something to Newcastle. It is old-fashioned: commitment, decency, loyalty. But Given no longer likes the club he loved. He is not alone.

How long can this go on? It is a question which is being asked seriously on Northumberland Street. Longer than you think, is one answer. As Appleton's conclusion began way back then: "How easy it would be to write a morose chapter bringing the story up to date."