Saturday, 13 September 2014

NEITHER GOD NOR CHAIRMAN (NOR HAIRCUT)




I started going to St James' Park with my friend Steve when Gordon McKeag was running things. Back then the chants of 'Sack the Board' were to the Gallowgate End what Hail Marys are to St Peter's - it was an act of both faith and penitence.

Much has changed at St James' in the thirty years since then, but the relationship between Newcastle supporters and the club's owners has remained more or less constant throughout.

The last time I saw my friend Steve was shortly after the announcement that Joe Kinnear had left Newcastle. I quoted Dorothy Parker's response to the news that Calvin Coolidge had died: How could they tell?

Steve let out a mirthless laugh. 'Some things in life you can always rely on: the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, and Newcastle United is run by bastards.'

This week it was suggested that Mike Ashley was looking to sell Newcastle and buy Glasgow Rangers. Ashley denied the notion and banned the Daily Telegraph from St James' Park. I wrote this during some earlier Ashley-inspired furore.





I was thinking of getting my hair cut next week, but in light of recent events of St James’ Park I think I’ll just let it grow for a while. When left to its own devices my hair twines itself into a feathery silver bouffant giving me the look of someone who ought to be hosting a daytime TV quiz show. Still, the occasional witty cry of “Let's play Mr & Mrs” as I pass the smokers standing outside the local pubs will likely be better than the alternative.

 
You see, my barber is a Newcastle season ticket-holder. Like all Geordies he is keen on talking. The minute I sit down, he whisks the nylon cape around me, pumps the chair lever, fires up his clippers and starts in telling me what – in the prevailing view of his social club – has been going on at the Toon of late. And he doesn’t stop snipping and shaving until he’s finished. At times of high drama – and they come thick and fast in Newcastle, let’s be honest – you need a buffer zone of extra hair to fill the time. Otherwise, you’re going to go in and ask for a number three at the back and sides and tidy-up on top and come out looking like Pierluigi Collina.

 

I discovered this the hard way the week after the Hall-and-Shepherd-Fake-Sheikh fiasco. There were times during those two-and-a-half hours when I seriously wondered if I was going to keep my ears, I can tell you.

 

There is another barber in the town. But I abandoned him after a previous incident. The other barber is a Newcastle season ticket-holder too, but he is altogether more febrile and less focused. I was sitting in his chair the day Kevin Keegan signed Alan Shearer. When a passing market trader yelled the extraordinary news through the door, the barber leaped in the air, flung down his comb and rushed out into the street singing that ancient Geordie hymn of praise and deliverance, “Whack your lass with a Christmas tree ay-oh, ay-oh.'


In his euphoria the barber had apparently forgotten that for the past five years he had ridiculed the Blackburn and England striker as “Billy Bigpockets”. “You think he’s avaricious, then?” I asked him once. “I wouldn’t know about that,” he replied as he squirted water on my head, “But he’s a greedy bastard”.

 
I waited for the barber to return from his celebrations, but he never did. The next time I saw him was later that evening on the local news chanting outside St James’ Park. I went away with my hair half cut and hanging asymmetrically across my brow. When I got on the bus to go home the man behind me started whistling “Don’t You Want Me Baby”. I have not been back to that barber since.

 
The peculiar antics of Mike Ashley have kept my hair in squaddie-like shape ever since his arrival in the North-East. During that time the rotund retail maverick has moved from being a seldom seen recluse to somebody who appears on national TV downing a pint and watching the football wearing the sort of blank yet benign expression adopted by the Queen when attending a break-dancing display by disadvantaged youngsters. In the meanwhile he has gradually edged away from being widely celebrated as a black-and-white saviour, to the current position in which he seems to have achieved the impossible – making Newcastle fans speak with wistful chuckles of the glorious, happy stewardships of Gordon McKeag and Lord Westwood.

 
I exaggerate, of course. Though I couldn’t help noticing that a few weeks ago my taxi driver – a wild-haired Yeti from the West Durham boondocks - referred to the former-chairman known locally as Mr McGreed as “a total shitehawk”. I feel the dropping of the words “and utter fucking' from the middle of that description points to a growing rehabilitation of the egregious solicitor.

 
I doubt, however, that Lord Westwood (AKA The Pirate) will ever again stride past The Strawberry without people yelling, “Where’s your parrot, you thieving twat” at him. And since he has been dead for some considerable time that’s probably just as well.


 
 

On my last visit to the barber’s at the end of July I was unkempt and in need of a severe trimming, so I asked him what he made of Newcastle’s lack of activity in the transfer market. “Ashley’s supposed to have all this money, “ I said, “But he hasn’t spent any.”

 
“Aye, well, we’ve weighed it up from all angles, haven’t we?” the barber said his scissors clicking demonically, “I mean, from what you hear the bloke’s been hit by the fall of share values on Wall Street. There’s been the Northern Rock business…” he continued in this vein until the floor around me was ankle deep in hair, “…and the general global economic downturn, which is all mitigating circumstances, obviously. Credit to the fella for making his fortune of his own bat, and maybe we don’t see the bigger picture and everything, but at the end of the day the conclusion we’ve come to is,” he paused for a moment to stare over my head and look me in the eye via the mirror, “that he’s a right bull's knacker.'

"Is that short enough, for you?”

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