The Byline: Wild Beasts’ Hayden Thorpe On Newcastle United

Wild Beasts' singer and adopted Geordie Hayden Thorpe speaks to Andrew Fenwick about the joys, sorrows and injustices of supporting Newcastle United under Mike Ashley and Alan Pardew. Hayden Thorpe photographed live by Valerio Berdini

I grew up in Kendal, a pocket of England surrounded by big footballing cities. As kids, without a real team of our own, we had the pick of the Manchester and Liverpool teams as well as Leeds, Blackburn, Wigan, Preston, Carlisle and Newcastle. It was during the bombast of the Keegan era, when I was about ten, that I really became engrossed in football. Newcastle had style, charisma, flair, pin-ups and hometown heroes. One day I was Shearer kicking the ball as hard as I could against the wall, the next I was Ginola rolling it under my foot or Beardsley spraying passes around the street. Newcastle United caught a child’s imagination. They were the team for me.

Growing up in the Lakes, there was certainly a sense of detachment with football. It was difficult to find a stretch of ground flat enough to be able to play a fair game, everyone’s name ended in a variation of Wilson or Braithwaite and chicken korma was only for the most maverick of palates. So it was awe-inspiring to see those beautifully manicured pitches, and men with names like Asprilla, Zola and Cantona being watched by twice as many people at a single game than were living in your entire town. For me, it was a window onto the world.

Football, I think, mirrors the joys, sorrows, injustices and victories of our own lives, but we can watch it unfold before us mostly unharmed. It is a grand soap opera you exist in for just long enough to forget your own troubles. You leave yourself in a game, and when you return to your own skin it doesn’t itch so much; that load you were carrying was relieved from you for a short while and now you can bear to shoulder it again.

I remember entering St James’ Park for the first time in the 1997-98 season. The scale of the place and sheer volume of the crowd actually frightened me. I wasn’t used to seeing grown men become so angry or so happy in such a short space of time. And the man I was sitting next to had a very distinct odour about him – the kind that usually demands that person changes their underwear and takes a long shower. All in all it was a pretty brutal awakening, quite unlike the genteel chat of Des Lynam on a Saturday night.

The pace of the game also took me aback. It seemed to happen so quickly I missed every goal of a 3-3 draw with good old Leicester City. I remember spending a long time studying our left-back John Beresford, who ended up scoring the last minute equaliser. It baffled me then, and still baffles me now, how the guy was a professional footballer. He had the fitness of a pub landlord. We loved him for it.

I remember Shearer during that first season, when he was officially the most expensive player in the world… before the blown knee he sustained under Dalglish. Every match he played seemed to gravitate around him at that point. I was in awe of that beautiful technique he had when shooting, as if the ball was a flat and lumpen thing to be punished for its misgivings. A cross, then a darting run and finally thwack, the right hand raised in the air and a number nine shirt blustering down the touchline. A truly wonderful sight.

It was inevitable that things would change. I think what we are witnessing now is a modern version of hyper-masculinity, whereby a footballer is expected to be a gargantuan muscle-bound athlete, but one who plucks his eyebrows and dyes his hair. It’s an almost Roman version of masculinity, where warriors spit blood and wrestle tigers before passionately fucking one another.

I went to the Madrid derby at the Bernabéu recently and was fascinated to see old women taking their grandsons to the game, kissing the stewards on the way to their seats. This was a glamorous upper-class version of a football club, where you come to grumble your misgivings at glossy-haired millionaires who mostly seemed to perish under the weight of expectation. Undoubtedly, the Galácticos culture has bled into the British game, and I have to admit to being partial to it myself. But, we have forgone some valuable aspects of our game to allow for the buzz of a big-name signing. The main issue is an obvious one – homegrown boys don’t get to play for big hometown clubs so much anymore. That’s a loss. But not an irredeemable one.

I also think the top earning clubs should give back more, and a proportion of the board should be individuals who have been elected by fans. At grassroots level, just a little more money is needed – a speck-on-an-oligarch’s-shoe type cash.

When it comes to the national team, I’m most definitely a doomsayer – all the faith has been squeezed from me. It’s hopeless, a shambles beyond shambles. A running joke we are no longer party to. Maybe I’m just being superstitious because thus far optimism has only brought a plague unto the England football team, one that paralyses and breaks boys once full of thunder and heart.

I’m deeply suspicious of Greg Dyke too. I’m not a fan of boring souls who play too much golf. The padded seat culture is one of the ugly sides of how corporate the game has become. Go manage a supermarket, I say.

I think being in a football team growing up taught me some valuable lessons about the dynamics of relying closely on other people when trying to realise your own personal dreams. You can’t play beautiful football on your own, neither can a single person make a beautiful band. I guess practice was instilled in me – I wasn’t a naturally gifted footballer but spent my whole youth booting a ball about and got pretty good on small-town farm-league level. Just as I don’t feel like a natural singer or performer and certainly wasn’t gifted as a youngster, but I can now do what I want to do with a song after years of squealing and strumming.

In the early days of the band, we actually recorded a tune called ‘Woebegone Wanderers’. It’s a heartbreak song essentially, just one that concerns love between men and their team rather than love with a girl. Indeed, the peculiar sensation of loss tempered by a little hope that occurs when your relationship is falling apart is all but the same sensation you feel when you watch your team collapse. There is a sequel in existence, quite what we’ll do with it yet I don’t know, but the saga continues, much like Alan Pardew’s seemingly unstoppable reign at Newcastle.

I think up until his Jesus-like reincarnation, he was a goner, a dead man walking. He couldn’t wash the stink from himself. I’ve enjoyed this season so far, though; a zero-to-hero story is always more compelling then one without redemption.

Having said that, I think both Pardew and Mike Ashley have rightfully been savagely set upon. Not many tongues dissect a person quite so mercilessly as a Geordie one. The men just lack class, they’re tactless and difficult to love. A blundering double act, neither sure of his own lines. One of those marriages where the years seem to be ground out and whatever form of love there may have been is slowly contorted into a bond of mistrust and celibacy. History will file this under the Wonga era at Newcastle United. A time of hardship, little hope and no romance.

As Newcastle fans, some afternoons we forget that a certain sense of pride and belonging was ever lost. I will forever hold out some hope that those kind of Saturdays may be less fleeting in the future, that I may instead forget what it feels like to not be proud.

I wholeheartedly believe that Newcastle is a big club, a giant whose sleep has slipped into a coma that will take some intervention to revive. Ashley isn’t loyal, there’ll be no badge kissing. The right bid and he’s on the next chopper to Glasgow. One day soon, though, on some continent far from here, a restless tycoon will throw a dart at a map and it’ll land at the mouth of the Tyne.

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