Football has a funny way of throwing up serendipitous repeat encounters – those strange second chances that work the like of John Motson into a lather. However, given NUFC’s volatility of late, the chance to re-enact our last ‘first-game-of-the-(Premier-League)-season’ became a surreal ‘changing same’. The same clubs, the same nagging pessimism, the same enthusiasm. Different players, different expectations, different result.
Just two years ago, NUFC played Man. U. At the top of the season and sneaked a 1-1 draw. Keegan was at the helm and – foolishly, with all the self-delusion of love – I was suckered, once again, into daring to dream that the Toon may – just may – be on the cusp of a new dawn; that the perennial ‘sleeping giant’ was going to, if not wake up and actually win something, then at least we might just stop rolling over in our sleep quite so often. How wrong that little daydream was proved to be is demonstrated in the fact that our next season opener was in the second tier of English football.
Fate gave us a cruel mirror of a game – West Brom. – a team favoured for promotion. This game was foreshadowed by easily the most acrimonious and down right pessimistic atmosphere I have witnessed in my time as a Toon fan. Talk was of ‘another Leeds’ and again that masochistic devil within said “good! It’s the only way to sort out a club that is still rotten to its core, despite the arrival – because of the arrival – of the false prophet Ashley!” I even cast a furtive glance at the League One (League fucking One) table to assess who I genuinely though may be our prospective opponents this season. I shudder to think of that nadir now.
Flash forward to last night and once more NUFC play (arguably) the title favourites first off. Yet this time, for the first time, I greeted this game with neither unbridled pessimism nor unrealistic optimism, but with something approaching pragmatic realism.
Of course I had those fleeting moments where I dared to dream that we might just sneak a win. I even had a tentative pastiche of Bjørge Lillelien’s famous commentary ready in my head (Sir Matt Busby, Sir Alex Ferguson, George Best, Peter Hook, James Nesbit, Rod Hull – can you hear me Rod Hull? Your boys took one hell of a beating! Your boys took one hell of a beating!) I also had those fleeting moments of dread. “we may well get destroyed. It could be eight or nine”. But, for the most part, I was fairly rational and objective (the actual duration of the game notwithstanding). I knew we’d get beat, and anything less than 4-0 would be OK.
2-0, in the real world, I could have stomached, so Gigg’s late goal (as good, speaking objectively, as it was) stuck in my throat. But other than that common sense prevailed. Cold, miserable, inevitable, depressing, common fucking sense.
But it’s OK. The season really begins against Villa next week, where a draw (some more confidence in passing and some more pointed attacks) will be expected. That was the one worry from last night – “where”, to paraphrase Alan Hansen’s well-worn maxim, “are the goals going to come from?” Carroll had a header that he should have buried, and there were a couple of long shots that Van Der Sar could have thrown his cap on, but little else.
But it’s OK. We’re not going to set the division on fire this season. But neither are we going to sink like a stone. From this admittedly early vantage point, Wigan and West Brom. look nailed on to go down (though quite how we are going to fair at Chelsea doesn’t bear thinking about just yet). That means we only need to be less worse than one other team. Blackpool? West Ham? Someone. Anyone. If we can manage that, then we’ve achieved all we can realistically expect to achieve. And what I admire about Chris Hughton’s approach is that he knows that. There seems (I hope) to be a long overdue feeling of realism at a club that have suffered from a bipolar flitting from ‘new dawns’ to ‘end-of-the-roads’ more than most.
This result is not the end of NUFC, nor is it a ‘new beginning’. It’s just another season.
 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PqZTP8-8wIs&feature=related This is brilliant not only because of its unconstrained display of that most precious of footballing commodities – passion – but because of the list of English representative name-checked.