Who are you? We’re the Mags

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No woman no cry. Sound advice to any lass, especially those daughters of Newcastle who felt aggrieved when the distinguished former Toon dream team of Freddy Shepherd and Douglas Hall were caught calling them dogs.
For Garry Steckles*, long-time exiled Geordie, the phrase evokes Bob Marley, the subject of his newly published book on the late Jamaican superstar. In the first of our looks at this weekend’s Wear-Tyne derby, Garry forgets reggae, remembers his roots and coyly prescribes a draw….

Before I start, I should point out that I don’t really have any memories of Tyne-Wear derbies. Most of my Newcastle memories are from the Fifties, and while I might have been at one I can’t honestly recall anything about it. From 1960 until I left for Canada in 1968, I was working every Saturday during the football season, either in the office putting out a paper or at a match covering it. Since 1968, I’ve been more or less a long-distance fan. Anyway, I think I can write around all of that. Here goes………

I’m dating myself here, but I grew up thinking I was destined to be a fan of a winning team. That’s because my earliest memories of Newcastle United are of the days when they were a winning team – when the FA Cup, in those days THE biggest prize in English football, was next to a permanent fixture in the North East of England, and not, thank goodness, adorning the board room at Roker Park.

I’m talking, of course, about the majestic Newcastle team of the early to mid-Fifties, and about names like Bobby Mitchell, Alf McMichael, Joe Harvey, Len White, Ronnie Simpson, Frank Brennan, George and Ted Robledo and Jimmy Scoular.
Just making sure you’re paying attention; I haven’t really forgotten Wor Jackie, and more about him in a moment.

One of my earliest football memories is being perched on my father’s shoulders in the heart of Newcastle, one of thousands of fans welcoming back The Lads and The Cup. I can’t honestly remember the year, but think it was probably the 50-51 edition (for the record, we beat Blackpool 2-0).

A few years later, I was deemed big enough to be taken to matches, and was one of the hordes of tousle-haired kids taking up the prime real estate behind the goal at the Gallowgate End, where, in those innocent days, parents could safely take their youngsters and leave them with their peers in the certain knowledge that they’d find them there at the end of the game.

From there, I saw some of the immortals. It was a long time ago, and I’d be lying if I said I could remember the nuts and bolts of every match. But I do remember seeing Stanley Matthews, on the right wing for Blackpool, running circles around what in those days was a seriously solid Newcastle defence. And my most vidid memory of all is of a young team who everyone said would soon be the best in the world. They wore red shirts, and among the names were Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton, Jackie Blanchflower, Tommy Taylor, David Pegg, Dennis Viollet and Harry Gregg. A few months later, I was rushing to catch the train from Monkseaton Station to West Jesmond, on my way to school, when I spotted the headlines that told a stunned nation that eight members of that Manchester United team had been killed when their plane crashed trying to take off in Munich.

My Newcastle-watching days ended in 1960, when I was hired as a junior on the sports desk of the Shields Gazette. After that, my Saturdays during the football season were spent either working in the office putting out the football edition, or covering matches.

And I was nowhere near experienced enough to be covering Newcastle United, although I would occasionally be sent to Redheugh Park to report on the misfortunes of Gateshead, where one of my frequent companions in the press box was Jackie Milburn, who worked for years as a reporter after his playing days where over. Like every kid on Tyneside (and every grownup, come to think of it), I’d revered Jackie as a player, and was overjoyed to discover that the class he’d shown on the field was very much in evidence off it. The statue of Jackie Milburn on Northumberland Street isn’t there just because he was a great player, it’s because he was a great Geordie, and I’m proud to have known him.

Oddly enough, the last time I saw Newcastle play at St James’ was also against Manchester United. It was in December of 1968, and I was spending a few weeks with my parents before flying to Canada for what I thought would be a year and turned out to be much of a lifetime. The weather for most of that winter was vile – nothing unusual there – and the pitch was the proverbial sea of mud; this, remember, was long before the days when ground-keeping techniques guaranteed lush expanses of green turf from the beginning to the end of the season.

That Man U team included Munich survivor Bobby Charlton, by now England’s greatest forward, a goal-poaching Scot called Denis Law and a fairly talented young Irishman called George Best. They slaughtered us.

Just over a year later, in the spring of 1969, I was back in the North East for a few months after the death of my father, and working on the news desk of The Journal in Newcastle. I was also doing casual shifts on the Sunday Sun, and wrote the front page headline on what remains the team’s last trophy victory.

It was the old Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, and they beat Ujpest FC 6-2 on aggregate in the final. I’m still rather proud of the headline, which was splashed in huge type across the front page: IT”S WOR CUP.

Soon after that, I was back in Canada, and, since then, I’ve been a long-distance fan, following Newcastle misfortunes from Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Chicago, Barbados and the Caribbean island I know call home, St. Kitts. But I’m still a fan, and, like Newcastle supporters everywhere, I still start out each season brimming with confidence and end it confident that next year’s going to be the big one.

Now for your questions:Garry


What did you think of respective clubs’ prospects for this season?

As always, I thought Newcastle might be on the verge of the big breakthrough, at least into the Top Four if not the Top Two, given that Keegan was back and we seemed to have plenty of money to spend on top players. Obviously, the ways things have panned out I’ll be happy if they stay up, and mid-table would be a bonus. What did I think of Sunderland’s prospects? To be honest, it’s not something I’ve ever given a huge amount of thought to. I’ve got nowt against them, and if they ever win something I’ll be happy for them, but it’s not something I pay a lot of attention to.

What do you make of the present situation at Newcastle?

I feel sorry for the real fans; it’s bad enough for long-distance supporters like me, but my real sympathy’s with the poor buggers who cough up their hard-earned money every week and get let down again and again and again. One part of me says it’s time for a serious fan revolt; teams like Newcastle, the Chicago Cubs and the Toronto Maple Leafs keep on losing and drawing huge crowds, and the results are obvious. But I haven’t been putting my money where my mouth is, and if the fans keep on turning up I just hope their faith and perseverance are eventually rewarded.

What do you think of Mike Ashley?
I’ve honestly been embarrassed at seeing him jetting all over the world trying to dump Newcastle on the first unsuspecting multi-billionaire he can find. I don’t know a huge amount about him, but he’s a filthy rich southerner, and that’s about all I need or want to know.

Do you want to see Keegan return, or Shearer as manager?
I’d be delighted to see Keegan return. He nearly pulled it off in 95-96 – and I’ve always been convinced that if we’d won the league that season it would be the beginning of a new golden era. He’s come as close as anyone, and I’d like to see him given a real chance. As for Shearer, he’s the most popular player we’ve had since Jackie, and rightly so. He also comes across, from everything I’ve seen, as highly intelligent, serious and decent, he’s got a Geordie accent, he’s one of us. If Keegan doesn’t get another chance, I’d love to see new owners turn to Shearer.

Have you been to the Stadium of Light?

No. Never had the chance. I haven’t been to St. James’s in almost four decades, so I’m not about to set foot in enemy territory before I’ve revisited my home ground.

What do you think of Sunderland?
Only got there once or twice, and my memories are rather vague. But I have seen an awful lot of County Durham, mainly from my halcyon days covering South Shields Reserves in the Wearside League, when I became seriously familiar with the delights of just about every pit village with a colliery welfare team. Roker Park? I think we drove past it once, but my dad made me look the other way.

What do you think of this season’s new signings?

Truthfully, I haven’t had much of a chance to see them. I’m working in Abu Dhabi, where one of my bosses – and it hurts to say this – is a Mackem, Colin Randall or something like that, and when he heard there’d be a Geordie coming on staff he made sure I’d be so grievously underpaid I couldn’t even afford a TV. Jealousy’s a terrible thing. But I’m still a Geordie and he’s still a Mackem, and there’s nowt he can do about that.

Do you regard Sunderland in the same way Sunderland fans regard Newcastle, or are you more grownup about such things?

Despite everything I’ve written here, no. I wouldn’t be unduly distressed if you actually won something (at least I don’t think I would be, and there’s no sign of that sentiment being put to the test any time soon). I even managed to be polite to Sunderland fans when they made themselves known at the bar and restaurant my wife and I ran in St Kitts for 13 years. Mind you, they were spending money, so I didn’t have much choice.

Any special memories of players?
Mostly the Newcastle greats of the Fifties. I can still see Bobby Mitchell dancing down the wing, Joe Harvey or Jimmie Scoular running over some unwary opposing foward, Ronnie Simpson flying through the air to make an impossible save, Jackie letting loose a scorcher from outside the box. I also have memories of Joe Harvey as a manager. I was working for the Chronicle in the Sixties. My beat was non-league football, but once in a while, when John Gibson was on a day off, I used to get sent to St James’ to do the daily story on Newcastle (the paper had a rule that there would always be one on the back page). I was scared half to death of Harvey, and he knew it; he had little time to waste on a raw kid – I was in my early 20s – and I was inevitably struggling to fill the space.

What do you make of the big takeovers?

I guess it’s all part of the commercialisation of sport, and that’s not something I’m wild about. It was ridiculous what players like Jackie, Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney and the like were making in the days of the 15 pounds a week maximum wage; and it’s ridiculous what they’re making today, just like it’s absurd what they make in baseball, the NFL, basketball and hockey. I’m a believer in a happy medium, and when you’ve got Russian zillionaires lashing out tens of millions on players that doesn’t qualify, at least in my books. And I have to confess to being somewhat old-fashioned – I kind of like seeing English clubs owned by English people. Having said that, I’d rather have seen Newcastle sold to the Abu Dhabi people than have the club in the state it’s in at the moment.

Do you follow other sports?

England in cricket and football, the Montreal Canadiens in ice hockey (I lived in Montreal for about 12 years, mostly in the Eighties), the Williams sisters in tennis, Lewis Hamilton in Formula One and I’d love to see Andy Murray win a slam, preferably Wimbledon. And I have something of a soft spot for the hapless Chicago Cubs; I’ve worked in Chicago a lot, and as a Newcastle fan I had to feel some empathy with a club that hasn’t won the World Series in a hundred years.

Who’ll win the Tyne-Wear derby?

I should say Newcastle, but I suppose I’d settle for a draw. These days, mind you, I’d settle for a draw against Whitley Bay Reserves.

* Garry Steckles on Garry Steckles:
Born in the Hillfield Club, Grainger Park Road, Newcastle (opposite the General Hospital) in 1944. My grandfather was one of Newcastle’s leading bookmakers between the wars, and owned many pubs and clubs, including Balmbra’s, of Blaydon Races fame, and the notorious Uncle Tom’s Cabin in North Shields. My parents were publicans, and among the boozers they managed and I was brought up in were the Station Hotel, Killingworth, the Rockliff Arms, Whitley Bay, and the Portland Arms, Manors, Newcastle. My mother also worked as a barmaid at the High Point Hotel, Whitley Bay, and retired at the age of 83 after working for about 25 years at the RAOB Club, Whitley Bay.
I became a journalist in 1960 at the age of 16, earning 30 shillings a week on the sports desk of the South Shields Gazette. Also worked in the UK for the Sporting Life, the Daily Mail, Manchester, the Evening Chronicle and The Journal, Newcastle, and, as a casual, at The Sun and the News of the World. Worked in Canada for the Toronto Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, the Montreal Gazette and the Vancouver Province, in the States for the Chicago Sun-Times and was founding editor of Caribbean Week, published out of Barbados and circulating throughout the West Indies.
Main hobby: Caribbean music. Have promoted reggae and calypso concerts, written about the music for major magazines and newspapers in North America and the Caribbean, and hosted Caribbean radio programmes in Montreal and St. Kitts. Have just written a biography of Bob Marley, published in North America by Interlink Books and in the UK and rest of the world by Macmillan Caribbean. Check it out at the Interlinks books site**
** Or buy it at a bargain price via Salut! Sunderland by going to this link from the Amazon bookshelf.

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