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(Bits 'n' Pieces - some of which we actually wrote !) 



Goal joins Newcastle's fans in The Strawberry pub just outside St James' Park for a swift beer or ten before the match on the last day of the season

CarToon EricThe morning of Sunday May 5th dawns on Tyneside with a brightness the city seems keen to avoid. In the shadows around a rebuilt stadium fit for champions but home to near certain runners-up, an ill-placed and predictably defaced poster of Eric Cantona looks down. Gallic, grumpy and wearing comedy glasses, he stares across the road and into the bar of The Strawberry, the ancient and venerable drinking house where generations of Geordies have supped before the match. Not since 1927, however, have they done so while contemplating a possible Championship. The last time the Toon were top of the League at the end of the season, lager was unheard of and women weren't allowed in the bar. 

The car park behind the Gallowgate End is empty. Apart from the odd vehicle and some discarded papers, the only sign that there's going to be a football match today is the sight of Barry Davies, training coat buttoned up to his nose, sneaking across the tarmac. 

Graffiti wall The bouncer at The Strawberry has the smart but understated menace of a Croatian militia man. "Where are you from?" he asks. Goal magazine, we reply. He considers the implications. Reds? Sunderland supporters? But no, we have an honest set to our jib. "You'd best come in lads." 

Inside The Strawberry, the staff are preparing for an onslaught of drinking, wishing and maybe, just maybe, celebrating. Newcastle United may yet only come second today but that'll be the clubs best position since the '27 triumph - and what the hell, the Boro may beat them, eh lads? The first customers arrive and sunlight streams into the pub every time the doors open. 

Inside, assistant manager Nick James, 22, has a slight problem. A big problem actually. This pub doesn't empty just before kick-off but, like dozens of others in the city centre, stays jammed with those who cannot get into the game - and at the moment James is having difficulty with his channels. "I can't find Sky Two. I haven't told them yet but the live match today could be Middlesbrough versus Manchester United." Not an appetising thought, and Nick is under enough stress already. "I can't watch it anyway, I'm far too tense." His jaw tightens. "I'm as soft as shite when it comes to Newcastle." A little more flipping through the channels gets us MTV, which won't do. 

By one o'clock the bar is full. At this stage the madness has yet to set in; instead, people are talking casually, as if they're attempting to convince themselves this is just an ordinary Sunday afternoon trip to the pub. The fact that it isn't, is eventually illustrated by the arrival of a man wearing a two-foot tall black-and-white striped hat. 

The Strawberry Soon the bar is as crushed as the Gallowgate used to be. A group of lads is in deep consultation: "We've got one ticket between the ten of us." A raffle, tombola or extended spell of coin-tossing might be the usual way around the problem, but not for them. "No, we're going to keep drinking very heavily and the last one left standing gets the ticket." 

Drink is part of the whole Newcastle experience, a defining liquid asset that the Toon Army marches on. Hence the proud renditions of The Drunken Soldiery that swill out of their mouths. The Strawberry is the focus for this meeting of drink and football. Manageress Beverly Spooner has been running a competition. The prize: four tickets to the last match of the season. The rules are simple, attractive and devastating. Every pint consumed on the premises entitles the drinker to three points, the four drinkers with the most points at the end of the season getting to go to the game. The competition had been open for a while but a surge from four men drinking 300 pints each in a two-week spell proved unbeatable, despite a late challenge from some Ministry of Defence employees who took a week off work in an attempt to bring themselves into contention. Beverly Spooner has already left for lunch with the lucky winners. 

Nick is left in charge of a Strawberry that is warming up, especially since the arrival of a television crew. The world wants to watch the Geordies, to share their joy; but also, more pertinently, their misery. A new media caricature has been created since Christmas: that of the weeping Tynesider, a figure whose religious devotion is matched by his team's almost Christian inability to kill when it matters. It's an attractive cliché to those who peddle the plucky loser line of Englishness. But the supporters in The Strawberry aren't English, they're Geordie. And for now they're showing off, testing their voices for the world: listen to us, we're the loudest and the best; we belong to our city. The TV crews from the south, with their over-long hair and deck shoes, are agog at the performing fans. This is marvellous fodder for them. One lad, bevvied to his ears, approaches a camera, blinks in the arc light and calmly tells that camera, the cameraman and the world outside of Newcastle to "Fuck off." 

The chanting fills the ears and spills your beer. From the direction of the gents toilets, "Who the fuck are Man United?" comes with throaty gusto. The bar area opts for "Sing your hearts out for the lads," and the window bay for a rendition of "Toon, Toon." Then the whole ensemble joins together for "Fuck off Peter Reid, oh what can it mean, to a sad Mackem bastard and a shit football team." (Later in the afternoon Manchester United fans, long-skilled at appropriating other supporter's songs, will borrow the Geordie's inversion of Sunderland's anthem and turn it against Newcastle and Kevin Keegan.) 

Lass with kit on Continuing the exotic display of millinery, a man in a Magpies Panama hat enters, obviously prepared for a pre-season friendly in Central America. Speaking above the noise, he is the first to admit the probable outcome of the afternoon's events: "Coming second is alright, but we'll have to take so much shit off the Mackems." He shakes his head at the thought and his hat follows the movement with exaggerated sympathy, as if, saddened by the thought of Sunderland's joy, the man from Del Monte has just said 'no'. Behind him, the television screen flashes up a football ground at last. For a second, its just a blur of a green pitch and rows of seating - until the camera pans back and reveals the top of the stand, upon which 'NEWCASTLE UNITED' is stencilled in black. It's St James' Park. Nick has found Sky Sports Two only he, I and the entire readership of Goal will ever know how close he came to disaster, if not death. Suddenly there is yelping in the bar, as three lads who were without hope of tickets push in triumphantly: "Look, three platinum tickets, the best you can get, 20 pounds each, I can't believe it." Which is just as well, as a passing killjoy points out the tickets are for matches 26, 27 and 28. This is match 19. 

By now, the drink has kicked in and the region's national anthem arrives unbidden. The Blaydon Races isn't a song, it's a musical birth certificate handed out with the Farley's rusks and Pampers whether the recipients want it or not. The song bounds along and, as the TV crews flee and The Strawberry television shows highlights of the season so far, the singing reaches an unearthly crescendo, with the last note held for an age. As the song peaks, at the very moment of consummation, John Barnes is stuck in the Newcastle box, surrounded by striped shirts. While the note is held, the singers' heads naturally go up and their eyes meet the screen. Barnes dodges, looks across the box, delivers a pass and suddenly Stan Collymore has scored. 'Ah shit' isn't in the original lyric but it comes from plenty of mouths now as Kevin Keegan is caught forever ducking behind the Anfield hoarding in that cruel replay. The bar sags, then reflates its chest. The cumulative effect of this is to push us out of the door. It's that tight in there. 

Toon Nun Since we entered The Strawberry a strange change has come over the streets outside: they've been Tooned. Around the corner on Percy Street, The Three Bulls Heads pub and the building enclosing it have been completely covered in a flag that isn't so much big as immense. Geordie fans have taken over the street, bringing Newcastle's notorious traffic system to a halt. At their head - and it seems natural in the circumstances - a nun is lifting her skirts in the air and singing, "We are the Geordies, super Geordies, Keegan is our King." What isn't so natural, unless the city really is looking back to the glory years for inspiration, is the sudden appearance of four men on penny farthing bicycles. 

Flag The crowd sweeps us into the ground and... Well, you know the rest. Middlesbrough's plucky defence of their own particular brand of north-eastern honour amounts to a 3-0 capitulation to Ferguson's hordes, and try as they might against a Tottenham side still in with a chance of getting into Europe next season, Newcastle can manage only a 1-1 draw. 

They may have lost out on the Championship but Keegan and his team are given a ten-minute ovation for their effort and this time the few tears there are are tears of pride rather than disappointment. 

In The Strawberry afterwards, only one head is down. Alastair Brett slumps over his beer, his Keegan wig dipping in the froth. The day has been a double blow for him - he bought one of the platinum tickets. 

Everyone else is going to have plenty more to drink and six hours later many of them will be found draped from statues and buildings in the inevitable cavalcade of beer and bellicose singing that will take over the city's famous Bigg Market. 

For now they've got one song and one song only on their lips, and it blasts round The Strawberry endlessly: "Who the fuck are Man United?" Well, just the champions of England but then, what the hell, who cares? 

Goal magazine 

Thanks to Goal magazine for permission to reproduce this article. 





Page last updated 25 June, 2009