Monday, 8 June 2009

What's German for Schadenfreude?

Events of the last couple of weeks reminded me of the last day of 1996/97 English Premier League season. I was doing a shift in the Newcastle pub where I’d been working for a couple of years and the Mags were playing at home.

I don’t know what it’s like now, but back then a typical pub shift when Newcastle were playing at home involved slow building pre-match chaos from midday and crowds five-deep at the bar until 2.30pm at which point people would start to drift away to the game. It always amazed me that there were people still drinking at ten to three who would then make a dash and get to their seats for the start of the game. Assuming the match wasn’t on television there was then a surreal two hours in which the pub was totally empty. This was when you got to eat your dinner and restore order to the world. Every glass in the pub was washed, breakages swept, bins emptied and shelves replenished. You’d then have about half an hour in which to (back in the day) have a few cigs and watch goal updates on teletext. By five o’clock the pub would be totally full again; how long it remained that way depended on whether Newcastle had lost or not.

On this particular day it became apparent that things had gone very well for the Geordies and the night would be long. Not only had they scraped through to qualify for the Champions League but due to final day losses both Sunderland and Middlesbrough had also been relegated. The fans were drunk and rowdy but one thing struck me more than anything that day: they cheered more about the two relegations than their own success. Perhaps they were still giddy from the Keegan era and took their lofty position for granted, but to my naive little fresh-off-the-boat ears it struck me as insane that you would celebrate others’ failures rather than your own achievements.

Talking about it afterwards with my friend, a Sunderland fan, her response was that in her opinion football is much more to do with hate than love. At the time this seemed like an overly dramatic thing to say. As I became ensconced in Newcastle life I began to understand that this concept is quite embedded in the North East. The subtext is this: it doesn’t matter how shite your team is – as long as you’re better than the other two (or one, if you follow the belief on Tyneside and Wearside that Middlesbrough doesn’t count because ‘
it’s a shit town in Yorkshire.’)

What this really tells you about Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough is that starved of success (only Boro have won a major trophy in my lifetime; the 2004 Carling Cup) the fans really only have bragging rights to play for. Each season brings new hope and promise but come May most fans in the shops, pubs, offices and factory floors of the North East know that it’s where you lie in the mini-league of three that will get you through the summer.

Having gone on to follow Sunderland for the past 13 years I always wondered how I would react if the relegation boot was on the other foot. After all, even in my modest amount of years supporting Sunderland we’ve had some pretty low lows and I’ve copped first hand flack from Newcastle fans who had, until recently, resorted to patronising pity more than actual hatred.

Now we’re here and I am embarrassed to admit that the answer is curiously muted. Devoid of any Mags or Smoggies to bait there is no schadenfreude in which to engage. There is of course undeniable pleasure in seeing Alan Shearer at the helm as the ship goes down. There's also proof of instant karma with the odious Mike Ashely standing to lose hundreds of millions of pounds as a result of his clueless reign. His time in charge has been a bit like watching Roy Kinnear in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as the father of petulant brat Veruca Salt, forever throwing money at people and problems to keep everyone (and ultimately no-one) happy.

I also think I’m still a little in shock that Newcastle went down. Perhaps I need to see the Mags running out against Blackpool and Peterborough before it really sinks in. Maybe then I’ll stop feeling a bit sorry for friends back in Newcastle who have been variously described as stupid, mindless and arrogant by the Southern journalists who only seem to want to write about clubs in the North East when things are going wrong. Their ghoulish appearance to lord over the corpse of Newcastle United has actually pissed me off rather than fuelled my amusement. Their patronising summaries of life in the North East have been ill-informed, regionalist and pointless. We don't need them to tell us what this means for all three clubs.

As for Sunderland, having escaped by the skin of our teeth, let’s hope that next season is a whole lot better. Steve Cram, (1500m Olympic silver medal winner and Sunderland fan) recently referred to the idea of being the best in the North East in
the Guardian as ‘the lowest form of ambition’. It’s easy for me to say from over here but I couldn’t agree more. Perhaps with the distraction of the mini-league gone Sunderland will focus on what is important – moving forward as a club. I never want to take part in another relegation battle as long as I live, and with their backing and support Sunderland just shouldn’t need to. For now Premiership mid-table mediocrity never looked so good. Just ask a Newcastle fan.

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