Newcastle United: Rude awakening for the club that stopped dreaming

While Sunderland celebrate, Newcastle have lost values and a sense of history

When Sunderland’s players stepped out of their seafront hotel into the glorious sunshine of a spring Sunday two days ago, their fans were everywhere. The game they have all come to cherish was almost at hand, the one that means so much to them, the one where they face their bitter rivals from 13 miles away – and keep on winning.

After four victories in succession against Newcastle United, beating the Geordies had become a habit, lodged in the supporters’ DNA every bit as much as the failure freezes the veins of those from further north.

Sunderland fans were now dreaming of a fifth win in a row and the anticipation for the game at the Stadium of Light was palpable.

Newcastle United do not believe in dreams any more. They do not believe in cup football and they do not believe in the value of regional pride to the most northerly of this country’s football supporters, isolated from the nation and silverware but united in the passion they retain for the game and their club.

As this season’s January transfer window closed, there was not even a long-term manager to lead the rudderless ship. In previous transfer windows, most notably in 2011 and 2014, Newcastle failed to replace the stars they sold in Andy Carroll and Yohan Cabaye and wrote off half  a season.

 

They have bought one central defender since they were promoted to the Premier League in 2010, following relegation in Mike Ashley’s first full, reckless season as an owner. That player, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, was sold last summer and not replaced. They sold the left-back Davide Santon three months ago, without a replacement. They have not bought a recognised goalscorer since Papiss Cissé arrived nearly three-and-a-half years ago.

There was the stadium name change, the Wonga shirt sponsorship, Joe Kinnear’s return and, of course, the treatment of Geordie legends Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer. All justified by the pound-for-pound value ethos that dilutes the passion and feeling for the club to such an extent that it has become Sunderland’s plaything.

So, as the Sunderland players mounted their bus just after lunch on Sunday ready to ride the wave of optimism to the Stadium of Light and this latest derby showdown, it felt like a huge game. And it was Jermain Defoe, a man who would later become a part of the folklore of this fixture, who so aptly described the emotion and deep sense of childlike joy being felt.

He had not slept the night before, he revealed. Instead, he was visualising what it would be like to take this game and own it – and have a song sung in his honour for decades.

“Seeing everyone outside the hotel, wanting autographs and pictures, there were so many fans there that I felt, ‘Wow, this is a massive game!’” said the former England striker. “Getting on the bus coming to the stadium, seeing all the kids on the street and stuff like that. This game means so much to the people here.

“I love games like this when it means that much; work hard and do well and you can be the hero. I painted pictures in my mind all week, staying behind and doing finishing. I didn’t sleep on Saturday night.”

In the 45th minute of a one-sided game, the transfer- window signing struck a shot so good that it filled his eyes with tears. “When Fletch [Darren Fletcher] headed it, I saw the ball coming down and thought I would hit it at its lowest point and hit the target and concentrate on the strike,” he added.

“As soon as it left my foot I knew. It was one of those moments when you think, ‘Wow, is this really happening?’ The stadium just erupted and I got emotional. The feeling was hard to describe, special. As the whistle went for half-time and as I was walking down the tunnel I thought, ‘I’m crying and I’m on the telly’, but I didn’t care.

“In terms of how I felt when I scored the goal, I got that same feeling when I scored in the World Cup. Being at a club like this, they just love football. As a London boy, you don’t think you’ll be so far up north playing, but it was a special day and I am so glad I came here.

“I have always, from when I was young, practised with my left foot. You get chances on it. To score a goal like that, in a game like this, is a dream come true.”

And, as it has all unfolded, the history of Newcastle United and the values that mean so much to so many were left discarded and trampled, like thrown confetti on a church path in the rain.

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