One of the things that fascinated me in the early days of the Stadium of Light were the flags from branches around the world. Most continents were and still are represented in spaces where other clubs would be selling advertising space. It’s a fantastic touch and I do hope it not only remains but grows.
At the World Cup, representation from around the country was present in the St George’s flags accompanied by local club banners. At cricket matches across the world you can see The Howard Arms flying proud. Being part of this club means something, and I have absolutely no idea why. When Flanagan signed it was a pretty unremarkable signing but the backstory about his friends from London who had chosen to support Sunderland despite having no connection with the club added a certain colour. Why would you choose Sunderland?
In the early nineties Sunderland and a certain other North East team were pretty much at the same level in terms of support, albeit Newcastle dipped significantly prior to Kevin Keegan taking over. Football in the area was in a very sorry state and it had not been that long since the administrators had padlocked Ayresome Park shut. In fact, you could say that English football as a whole was in a bit of a dip. Fast forward a decade and the football world changed.
In 1992 the Premiership launched. Sky saw an opportunity to take a limp beast and turn it into a show pony. Money was poured into English football via television rights and the global market grew. It just so happened that whilst Sunderland were revelling in the glory of a cup run that would see them appear at Wembley in the true spirit of what football means to fans, Newcastle were getting on with business. Eyes on the bigger prize. Within a few years ground expansions and the return of the “Geordie Messiah” had brought all the detritus out of the woodwork. You will now find “lifelong” Geordies who swear blind they were there through the dip, even though the club had crowds of 10k (Oxford at home) back then.
What also happened at that time was a resurgence at Old Trafford. I am not going to be as naive so as to say that Man Utd were not always a big club; similarly, Liverpool and to a lesser extent Arsenal. What I will say is that the advent of Sky television, coupled with a very entertaining Cup Winners’ Cup run from both Man Utd and Arsenal, suddenly helped lift the English game. That is a good thing and has benefits for all in the top flight and, possibly, beyond. What emerged, however, was the armchair pundit. The fan who knew more about football because they spent hours watching their team on Sky and analysing everything the commentators and studio said. They learned from ex pros about what was the right way to play football, what the trend in tactics was and most importantly who the best team to support was. The fact they never really went to matches was neither here nor there. They knew more. Their team had won more than your piddly little club, so they had a soapbox and boy were they going to use it.
At first, we could just get away with calling them glory hunters. But then the media started too. Every game was analysed from the perspective of the remote viewer. HD, 3D, pay per view. The game suddenly became geared to the most lucrative market and that market was not sat on a red or pink seat. That market was sat on an Ikea sofa with a massive flat screen tv. If you have ever tried to get into a football debate with an armchair fan you will know the futility of extolling the virtues of being part of the experience, because you probably don’t have all that much to add to a discussion around the merits of gegenpressing over a play from the back methodology. You just want the lads to win.
Similarly, if you have been to old Trafford or The Emirates you will know how sanitised and corporate those crowds are. You will see tourists taking selfies. You will see a plethora of fresh home shirts bought for the day out. You won’t see faces with lines hewn into them like ravines from the despairing groans and grimaces of following a team that delivers little but disappointment.
Similarly, though, they know nothing of pure joy. They know nothing of that moment when Borini scored at Wembley and the feeling that bursts from your chest when it happens. If you live your life in the sunshine, the rain is a massive blow. If you live your life in the rain the sun is a gift. More than a gift, it is a beam of light, a reason why you have endured. It makes everything worthwhile for that one moment. I’ll take that all day long. For those at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge and The Emirates, I’ll let them argue about the best formation to play to accommodate a false number 9 as they face up to the disappointment of only winning the FA Cup. As for Newcastle. 1955 and counting lads.