Geoffrey Phillips: The Toon is another country

Only in Newcastle does a city identify so much with its football team. But does Kevin Keegan’sreturn reveal a deeper local need for recognition, asks an expat Geordie

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Kevin is back. The messiah has returned. It is his Third Coming (latest score: Kevin Keegan 3; Jesus 1). The news that KK is once again manager of crisis-racked Newcastle United has seized most of the North-east of England (bar Sunderland) in convulsions of joy and excitement.

Citizens interviewed on the streets of Newcastle have warmed the microphones of TV and radio reporters with heartfelt effusions. Tyneside is in a state of euphoric meltdown. The rest of the nation looks on with bemusement. Exactly where is this event on the Richter scale of sensational news? Osama bin Laden arrested in a bedsit in Surbiton? Victoria Beckham to head the World Bank? For the good folk of Newcastle, the return of KK is, in comparison, seismic. Football is a great passion everywhere, but nowhere is the fusion of the population and its football club quite as intense and all-embracing as on Tyneside. It is not simply a matter of football: it is a social phenomenon. Why is this?

After all, the club's real glory time was the 1950s, yet the fanaticism lives on. Then, in the Jackie Milburn era, United won the FA Cup three times in five years. They also won the Fairs Cup [the equivalent of the Champions League] in the 1970s but otherwise, Keegan eras apart, performances have been mediocre and have taken second place to the parade of haunted men whirling through the turnstile of the manager's office. The old story: promising much only to disappoint. A bit like that other Newcastle institution Northern Rock. In other words, nothing to match the great, not to say, grandiose expectations of Tyneside. So what is this weird electricity that arcs between Kevin Keegan and the Toon Army?

Let us look first at the man. Keegan, the son of a Durham miner, was a dynamic player for Liverpool and England in the Seventies, when footballers boasted sideburns that were longer than their shorts. In the twilight of his career Keegan signed for Newcastle, struggling in the then Second Division. Keegan and supporters bonded instantly. Within two seasons they'd won promotion. Keegan then retired and, after a testimonial game against Liverpool, left St James' Park in a helicopter, amid a fireworks display. His first ascension. And, without Keegan, the fireworks soon fizzled out.

By the early Nineties, Newcastle were back in the old Second Division and a calamitous 1991 season saw them barely avoid relegation. Time for the Second Coming. The new chairman, Sir John Hall, flew to Marbella to persuade Keegan to become the Newcastle manager. Cue fresh outbreak of Keeganmania. And promotion back to the Premiership. Keegan gave the fans was what they wanted: a team with flash and dash. It would have won the championship were it not for a dramatic Devon Loch-type collapse in the final straight. The strain of surfing all that passion eventually became too much even for Keegan, and he retired again.

What Keegan had given the fans was the soccer equivalent of grand opera. It was Aida and Tosca every weekend. With him gone it was back to the old music-hall routine with the regular de-trousering of leading characters. Sir John's ambition was to turn Newcastle into a super set-up like that of Real Madrid. The result, post-Keegan, was more Real Cock-up.

Why such an intensity of hope that appears to frizzle every manager, apart from Keegan (and even his extraordinary charisma has been singed at the edges)? Cue the remark of Barrie Thomas, who played centre forward for Newcastle in the early Sixties and one of the many, many who tried to shrug into the No 9 shirt of the great Milburn. Barrie, ex-Scunthorpe, was fast, you had to give him that, but it was usually he that ended up in the opponents' net rather than the ball. No matter: when asked by a local reporter what he thought of the Newcastle area, Barrie replied: "It's a great country."

And that's it. Tyneside is, like the past, another country. It has been that way for centuries. It is the only area of England not included in the Doomsday Book. This is because of the rough manner in which Norman tax-collectors were handled. Result: William the Conqueror put the region to fire and sword. A laying-waste without equal in the history of England, (if one excludes the efforts of Margaret Thatcher).

Tyneside is, and feels, a long way from London. By TGV one can get to Paris in less time. It desperately wants to be more than the place you pass through on the way to Scotland. And it is only through its football club that it feels it can make its mark in the world.

There are two major statues in the centre Newcastle. One is the traditional columnar Grey's Monument, which is topped by an effigy of Lord Grey. If asked, passers-by would probably have to rummage through their memories to recall the early 19th-century Prime Minister, most notable for electoral reforms. If indeed they ever knew.

The other statue is smaller, but greatly revered – it is in Northumberland Street and is of Jackie Milburn – Wor Jackie (wor is "our", as in "wor lass", my wife). He was, and remains, the Great Geordie Hero. A local lad and a prolific goal scorer but a man who remained modest and unassuming. He once injured himself falling off his bicycle, a far cry from more modern times when the Great Gazza was more liable to harm himself falling over a night-club bouncer.

Who are these people who appear to be willing to plug their very souls into the erratic wiring of a football club? The Geordies are a tribe apart. The best word for them is one usually found in Lands' End clothing catalogues to describe casual sweaters: nubbly. Chunky, homespun. The dialect is, at its thickest, impenetrable. Legend has it that Peter Beardsley is the only English player to have his after-match comments subtitled.

Andy Capp is a Geordie of course, and the comic Viz, which features such cultural icons as Sid the Sexist ("Yer divent sweat much for a big lass, pet") and Johnny Fartpants, was born in Newcastle. There are Geordie males who think that Viz is a lifestyle magazine and not a comic, but the social knit is rather more elaborate. Well, slightly. Tyneside might be a long way from London but it has strutted its stuff on the screen. There was Get Carter (with that well-known Geordie Michael Caine), Stormy Monday and, on TV, When the Boat Comes In.

But the best insight into Tyneside character was provided by the great sitcom The Likely Lads. The main characters, Terry, the artful dodger, and Bob, the earnest striver, symbolise the Geordie yin and yang. In real life, Jimmy Nail (very nubbly) is a Terry, Tony Blair a Bob, Robson Green a Terry, Jerome Flynn a Bob. And Sting? Probably a Bob by now, even if he started out as a Terry. Ant and Dec? Hard to tell. In football, there are the Charlton brothers, Jack (Terry) and Bobby (Bob).

The sad thing about Tyneside is that the language is something of a barrier. The pungent Geordie expression "Haddaway and shite, man" has few equals as a term of scornful rejection but it cannot be said to travel. Which is why star migrants tend to iron out their accents. And why, consequently, thanks to its comparative isolation, linguistic or geographic, the North-east remains sensitive to criticism. Or indeed any statement construed as working its way towards being criticism.

Unequivocal endorsement of their aspirations is what they like. Before Keegan, the biggest wow on Tyneside ever was Jimmy Carter. The US President, on a visit to the North-east, started his speech outside Newcastle Civic Centre with a broad grin and the words: "Howway the lads!"

Newcastle folk are in general very warm and friendly but the Toon Army, it must be said, has a long hate list. Sunderland, and all its contents, occupies the first 10 places followed by Manchester United (too successful) and Arsenal (snooty Cockneys, even if they are now so French as to be Frockneys).

So then: warm, friendly and touchy, your Geordies. And really, truly, deeply aching for Wor Kevin to take The Lads in hand and lead them to success. Not just ordinary success but success with dash, flash and flair. And class. And... the list of requirements is long.

Tyneside may be wreathed in smiles now, but one suspects it may all end in tears again. Never mind, pet. It will be fun while it lasts. And there will be no shortage of nubbly headlines.

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