Time soon enough for the talking to end and the real stuff to take over. But after a season without the need for a Newcastle United “Who are You?”, the Toon version of the feature is back as surely as the derby itself Keith Topping*, author (40+ books) and broadcaster, is the man whose dismantling of the Tony Blair/St James’ Park myth (deserved to be true, but there you go – see footnote**) was reluctantly given prominence here a while back. Stand by for an entertaining read from someone who sees through Mike Ashley but may still believe the Mags to be “everyone’s second favourite club”…
Salut! Sunderland: Welcome back. I mean it – despite our rivalries, the common sense position has to be to want all three major North-eastern clubs in the Premier. What do you make of it so far?
Well, there won’t be three North East clubs in the Premiership next year, I think I can be reasonably positive about that! I think the Black & Whites will probably just about all right this year because I believe there probably are three worse teams than us. Might not be many more than that. I’m under no illusions that the next two or three seasons – at the very least – are going to be anything other than a slow gradual re-acclimatisation to the Premier League and a rebuilding process. I think the Red and Whites will be okay. I still don’t like your manager very much but he’s got a system that seems to work. The main problem I can see from Sunderland’s point of view is if Bent doesn’t score there doesn’t seem much likelihood that anybody else is going to do so. If I had to put money on league positions come May I’d say Sunderland about 10th or 11th and us lot about 15th. Though, to be honest 17th would do me fine. Mind you, I have a very well known – and much commented upon – inability to tip pretty much anything other than TV shows so, I’d take all that with a vat of salt if I were you.
And on those rivalries. Good-natured banter, near-religious fervour, poisoned hatred or a bit of all those things. What does the Mackem/Magpie divide mean to you?
Hovering somewhere between good-natured banter and poisoned hatred depending on the result (s) of the Saturday before. My co-writer’s a Mack so I can’t take it to ludicrous extremes! But, on an average weekend if we win then I’m not really all that bothered about how Sunderland got on any more than I am about how … I dunno, Scunthorpe got on. If we lose – which isn’t infrequently these days – then the only thing that will, briefly, lift a black, black mood is an amusing “and now over to the Stadium of Light where there was a shock away win…” type moment on Soccer Saturday.
How do you rate Chris Hughton’s achievements (praised at Salut! Sunderland, incidentally, and deserving of rather better than this week’s doubt about his future) and is he the man to ensure Premier status and move you on to higher things?
Given the state the club was in last August, I think they ought to get him the keys to the city, never mind a job. I really thought were were heading for a “Leeds” – I couldn’t see any other outcome. We had half a team of overpaid, underperforming mercenaries whose cowardice and ineptitude had contributed to relegation despite Hull doing everything they could to keep us up. And then, as soon as that happened, most of them could wait to get away quick enough. I wasn’t that impressed with what was left – and, I suspect neither as Hughton himself – but having been handed what looked like a poisoned chalice he seemed to get them together, and – metaphorically, if not literally – told them to grow up and start looking like they at least “cared” about it when they got beat.
Going through a 46-game season and only losing four games doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a great or even a particularly good side (especially as last year’s Championship was, frankly, b-awful in terms of anything like quality) but it did show that, at least, you have the ability to get the best out of limited players. I think that was what was needed just as, when Keegan brought his side up in ’93, it was with a swagger and a “wait to they get a look at us in the Big Boys’ league”. Different times call for different approaches, I think Hughton’s done an amazing job with limited resources, a moron for a chairman and – still – a strong feeling that if things DO start to go wrong, he’ll be sacrificed without a second thought by an owner who apparently believed Joe Kinnear was the answer to all his problems 18 months ago. And, therefore, whose opinion on pretty much every subject deserves to be questioned. Like I say, never mind a medal, the guy deserved the keys to the city.
You’ve waited even longer than us for a major domestic trophy. How confident are you that those days can return for you, and do you think they ever will for us?
Well, I don’t think either of us are going to be winning the league any time soon, let’s put it that way!
Football has changed so much even in the last half-decade. I mean, when we finished fifth in 2005 it was seen as a disaster at the time – ultimately, it cost Sir Bobby his job (and, contrary to a bit of Stalinist-like rewriting of history from some of our support, I don’t remember too many protests in the streets when that happened). The funny thing about much of media’s coverage of Newcastle – nationally more than locally, but it’s probably still true up here – is that they’ll give you crass statements like “Newcastle fans want attractive football at the expense of trophies” as though a) they actually bothered to ask all of us (and, if they did, I don’t remember getting that memo), b) we all answered with one voice and c) you can ever sum up 50,000 people’s aspirations with one pat statement like that. I’ll give you a great example. If you go up to St James next week with a clipboard and asked 20,000 passing Toonies a simple two-choice question, I can’t guarantee you the answer you’d get one way or the other. The two questions would be – imagine that, tomorrow, a new owner takes over United and puts in place one of two types of managers, one will be like Keegan in his first spell, or Sir Bobby in those great couple of years at the start of the decade. They’ll build a team that will be exciting, innovative, maverick, outré. And one that can’t defend, as usual. You’ll be The Entertainers again, you’ll be everybody in the country’s second favourite club (all right, maybe not so much on Wearside but, you know what I mean). There’ll be plenty of five, six, seven goal thrillers. A lot of them will be six-nil wins but they’ll be a few four-three defeats in there too. But, for all the pleasure you’ll give to punters you’re going to win nowt. You’ll be third, or fourth, or fifth every year. Maybe a decent cup run here or there and some good nights in Europe but as for trophies, nah, not so much. The alternative is that the new fellah will be like Allardyce. The team he’ll produce will be sterile, tough, ugly, hard to beat but horrible to watch. You won’t get many hidings but every game will be, quite literally, war of attrition and mid-table respectability is what you’ll consider to be “success”. Oh, and by the way, in your second year, you’ll win the League Cup. Now, you give those two options to 20,000 Newcastle fans and … your guess is as good as mine. Interestingly, give the same options to 20,000 Red and Whites as well and I’ll be pretty willing to bet you’d probably find much the same conflicting emotions.
Winning stuff is nice. Winning stuff is what makes you a fan of a football club when you’re five. I was five when we won the Inter Cities in 1969. I thought “oh, this is good, is it always like this?”. My dad said “no son, of course it isn’t. Usually, it’s rubbish.” Forty years, two Texaco Cups, a couple of Second League Championships and an InterToto Cup later and I’m still waiting!
So, anyway, I don’t think either of us are going to be winning the Premier League, or any European competitions, or the FA Cup any time soon. So, that leaves us with the Carling Cup as the only trophy that anybody other than Man United, or Chelsea is likely to win any time soon. And since – like most Premier League clubs – our managers seem to treat that as an unnecessary inconvenience which gets in the way of the IMPORTANT stuff, like the next league game – I can’t see that’s a particularly likely event either.
Trophies? They’re over-rated,
A: Is there any Sunderland player past or present you’d love to see or have seen in the black and white shirt? B: Does it hurt to see Steve Bruce in charge of Sunderland?
A) Oh, God yes. Tueart when he was at his peak. (My brother went to school with him, actually. Manor Park. Our Colin was in the year above, in the same team as Jimmy Husband.) Monty. I know it’s probably heretical to say it but if it came to a straight choice between Willie McFall and Monty, I’d have had Monty any time. Later, there’ve been the odd players over the years – I always quite liked Nick Pickering, for instance – but, ironically, most of them have either ended up at St James, or come to you from here – Venison, Bracewell, Lee Clark. I think of the current lot, Bent’s obvious quality. Although, like I say, I think he’s a on a bit of a hiding to nothing in a team that scores so few goals.
B) Hurt? No. I’ve never liked particularly Bruce as a bloke – not even when he was playing for Gillingham and he turned down the chance to play for “the team I supported as a boy” to go to Norwich instead. I think he plays that “I’m a proud Geordie boy” thing when he feels like it and it rather pisses me off. Every time there’s some bad news story about Newcastle – which isn’t infrequently these days – somebody, sooner or later, will get around to asking Bruce for his opinion. And his first line will always be “well, as a Geordie myself …” whilst, quite literally, squirting salt tears into his eyes from a pipette. Can I just stop you there Steve. Thanks. I think he was a good player, mind, don’t get me wrong. But, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that his managerial abilities are still validly open to question (he did okay at Wigan with limited resources although he left under a cloud, but he’s certainly not highly regarded by Birmingham fans I know). And, at Palace they regard him in the same way we do Graeme Sourpuss. Or your lot with Terry Butcher for that matter.
Who are the greatest Newcastle players you’ve ever seen, and which ones should never have been allowed near the shirt?
Beardsley, obviously. And Tony Green. I’m just of an age to have seen him at his peak. Magical. I like midfielders who can actually pass a ball so, people like Terry Hibbert, Rob Lee at his best, McDermott, Speed, Scotty Sellars, Solano, Jinky Smith. I always had something of a soft spot for a few of the guys who weren’t great players but put in 110% – yer Kenny Whartons and Davie Kellys of this world. We had a team full of them throughout most of the eighties. I grew up with Supermac and Hallelujah John Tudor so I like me twin strike-forces. Les Ferdinand and Shearer in tandem for a year, that was something special to watch. Cole and Beardsley together. If I had to pick one it’s be Beardsley. Tragically, the six years when he was at his absolute peak he spent on Merseyside but the eight years either side, God he was a JOY to watch.
As for those who should never have been allowed near the shirt. How long have you got? No, actually, that’s unfair, I can narrow it down to one name. Michael Owen. I’ll leave it there. I mean, after you’ve spent sixteen million quid on a player (the gross national product of a small third world country, that is) and paid him a reported six million quid in wages over four years, seen him play one-game-in-every-four because he kept on tripping over blades of grass and developed a mysterious “groin strain” two hours before a must-win relegation battle and then, as soon as you’ve been relegated watched him move faster than he ever did in a game up here to catch the first train out of town, and then sum up four years of constant shirking and malingering as “a bit of a bad spell” then some hapless fourth division-type plank who somehow found himself having the misfortune of leading your forward line pales into insignificance and, frankly, doesn’t seem anywhere near so bad. At least Rob McDonald and Billy Whitehurst tried. They weren’t any good but the didn’t take the piss like Owen did. Hope we didn’t inconvenience you and your career too much, Michael. Oh, and Lee Bowyer. I mean, point of principle and all that.
What do you really think of Mike Ashton (we naturally meant Ashley, or did once the error was pointed out)?
What, the Chief Executive of Herefordshire and Worcestershire Chamber of Commerce?
I’ve got no real opinion one way or the other. I’m sure he’s a very nice chap. Even if capitalism is wicked and wrong and will inevitably lead to the collapse of civilisation as we know it.
Any great or bitter memories of past derby games?
3-1 on New Years Day. Twice. And 2-1 in 92 at Joker Park are the obvious standouts. Obviously the worst memory was the waterpolo-match in ’99. That was a bad night. And the promotion play-off although, to be honest with that – taking a longer term view (which, obviously, nobody did at the time) that was probably the best thing that ever happened to Newcastle because it led, ultimately, to Keegan’s arrival. But … see, I don’t really like derby matches, I have to be honest. I know the atmosphere is good, and it’s the only time each season you get to sing “Wee’s Keys Are These?” all all that. And, if you win it’s, like, THE GREATEST DAY EVER. But it really is a “so much at stake” thing. I mean, I work in an office three-quarters full of Macks, I know the true cost of defeat on a highly personal level. I tend to have the attitude of just wanting to get them out of the way, have two 1-1 draws and then get on the rest of the season. Because, as we all know, our players are complete gits and never do what we expect of them. If we could actually trust them then Derby Day would be the highlight of the season. But, we all know that we can’t. Mind you, you get a game once a decade like one I remember in the 70s when you’re 2-0 down with 10 minutes left and, somehow you pull two goals back and you’re in Roker Park with a Black and White scarf on singing “The Fulwell End/Is always full!” There really are few better moments in ones life than that – all thanks to Tommy Craig chipping one in over the wall from a free-kick. I’m sure you lot will have similar stories. It’s primal!
Name this season’s top four in order, and the bottom three. If in neither list, where will NUFC and SAFC finish?
I’ve answered the second part above.
I think Chelsea will WALK the league this tear. I think there’ll be two Manchester club in the top four and another team from London. But, beyond that, I’d be guessing. Bottom three, no way. Not even if you threatened to pull my teeth out with a rusty pair of pliers. I’m a great believer in the universal law of karma – that what goes around comes around. If you shout the odds you are ABSOLUTELY setting yourself up for a damned good pricking of your bubble. So, no. I’m making no predictions about the bottom three. I’m hoping that my lot won’t be in among ’em. But, I’m open to the possibility that we will!
Is it time to abandon high-minded principles of fair play and accept that cheating – diving, feigning injury, trying to get opponents booked etc – is just part of the modern game? If not, how do we stamp it out?
No, actually I’ve become much less cynical and much more of a reactionary old fart when it comes to certain parts of gamesmanship over the last few years. I’m turning into my dad – when did that happen? Particularly players feigning injury in an effort to get a fellow professional sent off. I think that STINKS. It’s hard to police though, because one man’s double shiner-breaker with menaces is another man’s “rugged attempt to get the ball, and why not, it’s a Man’s Game”. Usually bellowed by some gormless berk that’s never played the game in his life and would shite his pants and run a mile if he saw Ryan Shawcross coming in his direction. (I mean, witness De Jong on Ben Arfa the other week and the range of reactions that provoked – particularly from Man City fans who were outraged at the suggestion that it was anything other than a fair tackle.) Thing is, a lot of fans don’t understand how the rules have changed over the last few years. The number of Sunderland fans, for instance, who’ve defended some of Cattermole’s sendings off with comments like “but, he got the ball” when, even if he did (as De Jong definitely did, when he crippled Ben Arfa, for example) that doesn’t matter. Gone are the days when you could just clear out man/ball/the lot. Whether football’s a better thing for that, I haven’t got a clue. In theory it should be, but I actually think the game’s got nastier in the last few years. More sneaky. More cynical. Christ, I AM sounding like my dad here.
Have you already forgotten the World Cup or cannot you wait for the next one?
I rather enjoyed it, actually! I was under no illusions that England were anything other than a very average second-round-or-maybe-just-quarter-final team, just the same as we usually are. What was Mitch Benn’s great line about it “We’re gonna win one, lose one, draw one we should have won, qualify for the next round then go out in the quarter final on penalties just like usual!”
That’s about England’s place in the world, to be honest. Somewhere in there with the likes of Denmark and Mexico. Not bad, pretty decent on a good day with a fair wind, but we’re never going to win anything so why worry. Although, the World Cup did ultimately end in disappointment for me. I had money on the Dutch. See what I mean about not being a very good tipper?
Will you be at the game? What will be the score?
No, I gave up my season ticket last year for three reasons (one financial, two far more personal) and I’ve only been to three matches since. Work tends to get in the way these days so, I’m afraid, after spending the best part of 40 years and more money than I care to think about on the useless shower, I’ve become an armchair fan. So, I’ll be watching it on telly. Score? Dunno. 1-1? Maybe. They usually are.
* Keith Topping, pictured on Menorca in 2003, on Keith Topping:
After 20 years in the Civil Service, I quit the day job in 2000 to go full time on what had previously been a hobby. I’m a self-employed freelance author, journalist and broadcaster – the author of over 40 books on a variety of (mainly pop-culture) subjects and, I’m currently BBC Newcastle’s television reviewer. I went to my first Newcastle United match on a Bank Holiday Monday in April 1969 and watched Joe Harvey’s Black & White Army beat Sheffield Wednesday (I think) 3-2. It was Geoff Allen’s last game before a knee injury wrecked his career and I remember Alan Foggan scoring the winner. Been to Wembley five times with them and watched them lose every single, sodding time. Just like your family, you don’t get to pick your football team, it just sort of happens organically.
Keith Topping’s Links:
Keith Telly Topping & His Top TV Tips: Monday – Friday at 3.45pm on The Simon Logan Show
Keith Telly Topping’s World Cup Trivia Page
*** Share your memories of derby games – Tyne-Wear on this occasion so save any Roker/SoL reminiscences for later inthe season – and you could win a copy of Lance Hardy’s excellent book Stokoe’s Sunderland and 1973: the story of the greatest FA Cup Final shock of all time.
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