Living The Dream (for a short while)
Me? After falling in love with football when England won the World Cup in 1966, I went to my first Newcastle Utd game on April 27th 1967 as birthday present. My Dad took me to see West Ham at St. James Park because they were meant to include Bobby Moore, Martin Peters and my first ever hero, Geoff Hurst. NUFC won 1-0, but my memory tells me at least two of the West Ham trio didn’t make an appearance that day; but the huge crowd made a deep impression.
My third game was the following year when he took me to Roker Park for the Derby match when John MacNamee swung on the crossbar at the Fulwell End; talk about a baptism of fire!
The following 45 years have had a lot more downs than ups; AS for most of my life ‘we’ were a yo-yo club; with various boards of directors being financially happy with the big gates that a relegation/promotion battle drew at SJP; and as a Newcastle fan I never expected any other until…..well; until Kevin Keegan signed for the Toon!
Martin Hardy’s book Touching Distance begins with his magical debut against QPR then goes on to tell the tale of the blip in the club’s history following the day Sir John Hall shook the world of football by announcing that Kevin Keegan would replace Ossie Ardilles as manager ten years later in 1992.
Martin gives us a new angle on a lot of the stories that are now part of Geordie Folklore by getting the players, the Chairman and a couple of peripheral characters to re-tell them from an insiders perspective.
The book is part biography and part thriller but most of all a love story. A love story between football supporters, a club, a group of professional footballers and a manager.
Because the story is really about four well-documented seasons, Touching Distance gallops along at a fair old pace in what literary circles would describe as ‘a real page turner.’
As one who was ‘there’ during those four amazing seasons, it’s fascinating reading the players perspectives on what happened before, during and after certain key matches. My own memory remembers several ‘facts’ differently; for example I always thought Tino’s debut was at Ayresome Park but the books says it was the Riverside. I will bow to the meticulous research put in by Martin and the font of all things NUFC – Mike Bolam from http://www.nufc.com.
If I have any criticisms; and there are a few but they pale into insignificance against the story itself of a club and a team written off before a ball had been kicked in anger.
The first of my annoyances concerns the amount of swearing littered throughout the interviews. I’m no prude and I would expect the use of the F-word in particular would have been freely used in conversation; but this book will be read by Newcastle fans of all ages. So some judicial editing could have filtered a lot of that out making it a more accessible book for younger fans.
Another thing is the use of capital letters on the first line of each paragraph, or new subject within a paragraph regardless of whether the sentence ended or not. It’s not the end of the world; but it made my teeth itch whenever it happened.
Last but not least is the virtual airbrushing from history the part that fanzines played in the club’s resurgence at that time. In particular The Mag, which was at the forefront of everything that happened during these years, only gets one mention and that’s for selling the Bobby Lee for England t-shirts. Personally I think an opportunity was missed here; especially when Paralympian Stephen Miller gets a chapter to himself as does Graham Fenton whom scored against us for Blackburn Rovers; denting the title chase.
Back to the good stuff. I genuinely got misty eyed several times reading ex-players talk about their first impressions of Newcastle and why they still have the area in their hearts.
We weren’t short of heroes in those four short years were we? David Kelly, Brian Kilcline, Warren Barton and Darren Peacock are virtually forgotten now; but all played integral parts in NUFC at that time and get to tell their often-hilarious tales again now.
Steve Howey’s story is particularly poignant, as I’d genuinely forgot he was from the Dark Place. Then we hear from Pavel who I’d have thought played every game possible but he was actually the ‘nearly man’ being Number 2 to a variety of other goalkeepers; including Tommy ‘The Barman’ Wright and ‘Super-Duper’ Mike Hooper. I dare you read about his upbringing without sniffling; but when Clarkie gives him a ‘Pavel is a Geordie’ T-shirt will have you punching the air with joy.
There aren’t as many photos here as I’d have expected; but each one is a beauty and took me back in time like a Geordie Tardis.
The first two thirds of the book are a bit stop-start, going backwards and forwards setting the scene for ‘that season’ 1995-96 and a couple of chapters are a bit dull; but that is only when you compare them to stories about and by Sir Les, Daveed and Tino among other giants; but the one that will tug at your heartstrings the most is Peter Beardsley’s. I’ve heard Peter twice at talk-ins; but when his stories are written down they really do grab you by the throat and seem to come from another time altogether. Read about how he lets his parents in Newcastle know he was leaving Vancouver to finally play for NUFC – hilarious and a lesson in social history.
Then you eventually get to the final third which is about ‘that season.’ You know, ‘the 12 point one.’
Once I got embroiled in these chapters I couldn’t put the book down; and at least twice I found myself thinking ‘we can still do this!’
When we get to the final two weeks; the games come thick and fast culminating for with the aftermath of the Leeds Utd match and ‘that TV interview’ Kevin gave. Terry Mac’s account of events is excellent as he puts everything into perspective after all these years. I’ve defended KK’s speech hundreds of times, by saying it wasn’t a melt down because we saw it as a ‘call to arms.’ If he’d asked us to invade Poland that night; we would have mobilised the troops in Barrack Road without a second thought. Even Man Utd fans believe me now.
Well; history tells me we didn’t win the title but by Golly Gosh we gave it a good go and we won the hearts of every football fan in the Land; and beyond didn’t we?
In every chapter and on ever page every single person involved talks with huge admiration and love for Kevin Keegan; even Sir John Hall admits to having to hand the reigns (and his cheque book over) to KK.
In the spirit of those years Touching Distance is a roller-coaster of a read; and well worth every penny of the cover price. It may not win the William Hill Sports Book Prize but I’m pretty damn sure it will arrive down tens of thousands of Geordie chimneys courtesy of Santa Claus on December 25th.