Yesterday’s victory for Newcastle United over Wigan Athletic was a nervy affair to say the least. It was a pretty poor performance, especially defensively and had we been playing a side better than Wigan, we would have lost that game within the first half. That said, a win is a win and thanks to Burton Albion’s injury time winner against Huddersfield Town, the cushion between us and 3rd place is now 10 points. With only 7 games to play it now looks like only a catastrophic collapse will see us slip out of the automatic promotion places.
However, I don’t want to use this article to talk about the game itself, instead I want to focus on the atmosphere at St. James’ Park. Much has been made of the poor atmosphere this season but I would argue that it has been poor for years now, it was poor long before Mike Ashley took over the club.
This season, fan groups have been setup (Gallowgate Flags and Wor Hyem 1892) in an attempt to improve the atmosphere and I admire both groups’ attempts – especially the Gallowgate Flags initiative. Whilst not directly improving the atmosphere as a whole, they do put on a hell of a show before the games, a real visual extravaganza which is going from strength to strength thanks to some great fundraising events and schemes. Wor Hyem 1892’s aim is to improve the atmosphere as a whole, to “bring back the noise” but in my opinion this is easier said than done as whilst most fans, no, all fans would love to have a crackling atmosphere every single game, a lot of the factors that cause such an atmosphere are completely out of their hands.
I’ve either had a season ticket or had a match ticket for most home games over the last 25 years. I went through a spell where I fell out of love with the club when Sam Allardyce was in charge – I just hated going to the match and felt absolutely no affinity to the club, however, this did also coincided with the births of my two kids so getting to a match was that little bit tougher. I don’t attend away games for related reasons and also my finances simply don’t stretch that far but there is clearly a massive difference between the home and away support following Newcastle United. Away support is world class, we always sell the allocation given by the home club and often request more. Whether the game is on TV, on the south coast on a Tuesday night or we are bottom of the league, it doesn’t matter, the Newcastle United away support is magnificent.
Home is a different story though and I’ll put my take on it.
Regardless of our league position, or even the league we are playing in, we pretty much have a sell-out most games, or certainly around the 50,000 mark, there are rarely empty seats; in that sense the support is magnificent. There are pockets of the crowd that are more vocal than others, the Gallowgate east corner, or simply “the corner”. They sing throughout the match but it is rare that the stadium joins in.
The main factor contributing to the lack of atmosphere for me is nerves; last season it was nerves about being relegated, this season it is nerves about not being promoted. I go to the match nervous as I know how much is riding on the game, especially at this end of the season. I sit tense through the match until we are winning and even then I then can’t help but think the worst. The pressure is on at Newcastle United and it has been for a decade now. Most seasons we have been fighting relegation, 2 seasons we have been chasing promotion, a couple of seasons we have been mid-table but there has always been nerves and for as long as I remember as a fan at SJP, a nervous crowd is a quiet crowd.
Another factor is quite simply the quality of football, yesterday being a prime example – we may have won the game but there was very little to shout about. I celebrated Ritchie’s goal loudly and wildly but it was more a feeling of relief than anything having seen so many odd results at home this season.
This season is different, we have a manager that is adored and the fans are completely, 100%, behind. We all know we could be on the brink of something special. We have all felt the pain of relegation before and coupled with the seemingly lack of ambition there really hasn’t been a lot to shout about and this brings me on to the factor that I feel most contributes to the lack of atmosphere at SJP; the feeling of the unknown. We are odds on for promotion, we look likely to win the title and we have Rafa Benitez as our manager, but can anyone else sense that something bad is just around the corner?
This season has been great, we have 81 points and are flying high but the season ends in a little over a month’s time and every single one of those 50,000 Newcastle United fans in attendance yesterday has a small nagging feeling that Mike Ashley could pull the rug from under our feet at any time. Rafa could go – whether it is his decision or not, I am not confident at all that all is ok behind the scenes so as soon as I get even a little bit excited about the future of Newcastle, my heart sinks when I think what could happen this summer. That’s a really unhealthy way of looking at things isn’t it? I should learn to enjoy the football and just live in the moment but I have deep, deep scars, not just Mike Ashley but from Newcastle United over my lifetime. I love them but boy do they know how to hurt you.
Newcastle United can take a step closer to promotion on Wednesday when we face Burton Albion at SJP. We could go in to the match in second place as Brighton have the chance to go top when they face Birmingham City at home on Tuesday night. Whilst I don’t think promotion will be mathematically confirmed until later in April, depending on how the next couple of matches go and how Huddersfield fare against the sides they are facing, it might be the case that we are “as good as up” when we face Leeds United on Good Friday. We all know the atmosphere at SJP has been flat this season but we all know how a rocking SJP feels and I have a sneaky suspicion that SJP may just erupt when we face Leeds United in front of the Sky TV cameras in a few weeks.