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Calling it soccer to football, how I fell in love with Newcastle thanks to Brown Ale.

Watching Newcastle as an American has been a nigh on 20-year passion of mine. The high for me was Champions League matches in ’02-’03. The low would be the ’08-‘09 relegation. I sure thought I would see more of those highs at the time. I also expected to never see that low again either. Ironically, we have been relegated more times than played in the Champions League since. What can you say? That’s Newcastle United in a nutshell. A common tale for anyone of Geordie descent, but for me it has been a journey from afar in America.

Let’s get that whole soccer-football thing out of the way. I certainly know the difference but will stick with soccer when talking about my American experiences and will use football when talking about the game as played by the rest of the world. From my point of view they have been two entirely different sports. I am an old school soccer supporter from the time I first played in the mid-70s as a child. When my friends at school said they were signing up, I confidently came home and announced that I wanted to sign up too. I am not even sure I understood what I was asking, but my friends were doing it, so I wanted to do it as well. My father, an avid sports fan of all kinds who had seen the great Pelé play in person, thought this was a great idea and took me to enroll. There began my energetic and mostly average career. Two seasons a year, sometimes a third season indoor. Finally ending with a shattering loss in the state championship for my high school team during my last year of high school. The US gets a deserved reputation for not being a knowledgeable football country, but something that you might not realize is that the sport is absolutely huge at the youth levels, and it has been for decades. Despite this youth popularity, for a long time, the best a person could likely do was a college sports scholarship. Youth athletics are very differently structured in America compared to England. There was no real chance for big money to be made in the struggling American professional soccer league. As a result, many athletic kids played a bit of soccer but focused on the big American sports that could offer real return. I played other sports, but those soccer seasons were my favorite. This part of my story is relatively common for its day.

Life moved on, and some years later the US hosted the WorldCcup in ’94 and the US went soccer mad. I am talking about “we're going to win the league” kind of mad. This was the point soccer went from something kids played to something that the country began to care about. Just a few years later, Major League Soccer formed up to capitalize on the soccer momentum. Lots of people of my experience figured this was the chance to go all in and be involved from the ground level and support the sport of our youths. It didn’t take long for that to grow old. Like many others, I found the matches incredibly boring. Hell, the MLS originally even had different rules. There was a rule requiring shootouts in every game in case of ties (draws). A win was 1 point, a loss was zero. There was a possession clock that stopped during dead balls. We laugh now, but at the time the US was soccering the hell out of the sport and it just wasn’t good. I wasn’t educated enough about football at that time to understand why MLS soccer wasn’t good, but take my word, it wasn’t. That excitement passed quickly, and while the league went on, I stopped watching. So did a lot of people. I figured that was the end of soccer fandom for me. A pickup game here and there would be my fate, and so be it.

I think the first time I saw the black and white stripes was on cable tv in ‘02 during the Arsenal FA cup replay. American cable TV used to be filled with odd channels and sports from all over the world at different times of day. I remember thinking, hey, isn’t that where they make that fancy imported English beer I like? I assure you that Newcastle Brown Ale was indeed both fancy and imported in my experience. It was my favorite beer at the time. Shame its no longer made in Newcastle, and not as good, but that’s another sordid story. In any case it was the recognition of the beer that started it. Also, those black and white stripes were sharp. It put the team in my mind and reminded me of the game itself. I spent a bit of time of the next year catching the occasional match of football (please note the proper use of the word at this point) on television watching different teams and just taking it all in. I remember being a bit bewildered by all the various competitions, and not really understanding the differences in league matches, cups, and European play. I also recall wondering why they sometimes play teams in other countries, and other times just in their own country. It was confusing, but interesting. I think it was my history with the game that kept me following on from time to time.

What cemented Newcastle for me was the ’02-’03 champions league matches. I didn’t see the famous goal from Bellamy vs Feyenoord, but during the next stage, all the commenters could go on about was this plucky team going further than expected. They were fun to watch as well of course. It was that last loss vs Barcelona that did it for me. The beer association, the stripes, the style of play, and the scrappy nature of the club reawakened the passion for the game. I went all in on the start of the ’03-’04 season, and I have been around ever since. Thanks soccer. Thanks Newcastle Brown Ale. God help me. I won’t cover the details of the years since; you are most likely intimately familiar with them already. I will talk about what it was like learning about Newcastle itself. Over the years I soaked up everything I could about the club, the city, and the Geordies. I loved that the club was ancient, genuinely united out of east and west end teams over a century ago. I loved the history of the teams that won the league, the teams that won the FA cup, the Fairs Cup team of ‘69, the year I was born, those teams that won promotion, and those mighty 90s teams I just missed out on. The stories of the greats down the years. Jackie Milburn, Peter Beardsley, Malcolm Macdonald, and Kevin Keegan. For me, the greatest was Alan Shearer. You know a player is one for the ages when other teams both hate and respect a player for what he can do on the pitch. And he went home to Newcastle over Manchester United? Sign me up. I met him once here in the States for just a moment, a few words, and a quick autograph. The man was class. For me, Alan Shearer is Newcastle United.

I also learned about the city and the Geordies. I felt I could relate a bit to both in some ways. My grandfather was a sharecropper farmer in southern Georgia. My father was a hard worker and the second in the entire family to go to college who raised me in the suburbs of Atlanta. My whole life, I have had a deep association to farming and rural living. Something I hated as a child when I spent time in the summers on my uncles’ farms working, but as an adult I treasure the understanding those times provided me about the value of hard work and labor. The story of Newcastle’s journey from a mining town to a modern university city with a lively center (so I hear) is relatable. I also love the Geordies from afar. I even understand a bit of the dialect these days, but at first it was often a complete mystery what they were saying. As a southern American, we are viewed a bit differently by our countrymen as well. We have our issues, but we are hardworking, inventive people, and there is a lot more to us than just the stereotypes of ignorance, racism, and rebellion. I feel like the stereotypes of the Geordies are relatable as well. No one gets to choose, but if I were English, I would want to be a Geordie.

Following Newcastle has been mostly solitary for me. There are some American fan clubs in a few cities. It’s not like I am the only American that supports Newcastle, but we are a rare breed. Seems everyone else follows the big clubs. There are some knowledgeable American EPL fans, but most fans truly are glory seekers. Try getting relegated twice, on your own. I tell fellow Americans that supporting Newcastle is only for hard men and women. I finally have one friend now who is a Newcastle fan. An American raised in Ireland, knows his football. His is another odd story, but I am glad to have someone to talk to about the team, even when we are both depressed by the results. I love it when I meet an American that supports a smaller club for some reason. You know you have a real fan there, regardless of who they support. I especially enjoy the looks I get when I tell people I have and always will support Newcastle. Their expressions of “what the hell is wrong with you” make me laugh. As I said, hard men and women only. I do have longstanding agreement with my wife to attend any genuine Newcastle trophy match, anywhere in the world, at any price. Not that that seems likely any time soon, but I can dream.

Recently, Atlanta United formed in Atlanta and took the MLS by storm. I am a season ticket holder as are many of my friends. I go to almost every game. It’s nice to have a place to go and watch the game played live. It’s nice the team is good. It’s nice to see the city so excited. It’s nice to have a great new stadium that is packed for every game. It was nice to win the league. It was really nice was to see Miggy go to Newcastle after absolutely trouncing the lesser competition over here. It’s nice see Newcastle kits around the city since Miggy went over. On the whole, Atlanta United is nice. What Atlanta United isn’t for me is Newcastle United. I told my friends from the start that would I be fine if Atlanta United never won anything, ever, just so that I could see Newcastle United win a real trophy. I meant it then, I still mean it now. These days I would settle for someone to run the club that wanted us to compete. I want the club that I started following back. That’s the club that is all those things that brought me here to start with. It’s like someone has stolen the club, locked it in a cage, and is selling tickets to watch it while it starves. It makes me angry, but I support the club itself.

One day, somehow, someway, there is hope for new ownership, and a new dawn. Until then, I will hang on. Seems strange that I care so much doesn’t it? It does to me. I have never been to Newcastle, though I have been to England. I have never seen Newcastle United play live. The timing never worked out that they were playing when I was there, and I am not going to Newcastle until I can see the team play in St. James'. For me there is only one United, and its a team I have never seen play live, in a City I have never visited. It has been a strange trip, but like the song says, one day “I’m coming home Newcastle”. I’m Newcastle till I die.

Jay in Atlanta



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