However, the good news was that football tickets had yet to go on sale. And attending a football match meant that we could avoid going to London altogether, but still see an Olympic event. Now, Dave is a massive football fan, and has spent his whole life following his home team, Carlisle United, through numerous trials and tribulations, and even the occasional moment of glory. But I grew up largely oblivious to the game. I was never allowed to play it school (girls did netball at my primary school while the boys did football, and I went to a very old-fashioned all girls’ secondary school, where football definitely wasn’t on the curriculum). My dad and brother had no interest in it. I remember watching my brother playing in a match at primary school and he could be plainly seen running away from the ball.
But then I moved to Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Football on Tyneside is an obsession. A religion. A way of life. There is no escaping it. The locals live and breathe it. It’s all they talk about. The crowds descending on the stadium at St James’ Park on a Saturday afternoon are a sight to behold. Every match is a sell-out. You see the black and white stripes of the Magpies’ kit wherever you go. Everyone has a Newcastle United top, young and old. A teacher friend of mine there said that even Santa wore black and white stripes in her pupils’ Christmas drawings. For me, it was astounding, even alienating.
The year I lived there, Newcastle United, under the helm of Ruud Gullit, were doing very badly. Even though I was doing my best to avoid football and took a while to become properly attuned to the Geordie accent, it was impossible not to know this. Striker Alan Shearer had been out of action pretty much ever since he’d cashed in his whopping transfer fee, thanks to a nasty knee injury. But he was still revered. He was God. His photo was in every shop window. If you think I might be exaggerating, here is what the bar is called at St James' Park today:
And then, unexpectedly, Newcastle United got to the FA Cup Final. They lost, of course. The city erupted in riots. All those shop windows with Alan Shearer’s photo in were smashed. But the team still had a victory parade the next day. I was there, watching from outside the university library. I saw Alan Shearer on the open-top victory bus and have a photograph somewhere to prove it.
I had a wonderful year in Newcastle. When my head of department in York suggested I think of doing my Master’s degree there, I was sceptical. But then I travelled up to Newcastle on the train, sweeping over the river Tyne on one of its stunning bridges on a glorious spring day, and my heart skipped a beat. Hopping on to a shiny Metro train to Haymarket and the university campus, it felt cosmopolitan and buzzing. The Georgian squares and terraced hills looked grandiose and important. The RSC did a season at its theatre. Magnificent, beautiful Northumberland was right on the doorstep. The Department of Speech offered me a big fat cheque to study there. It was just impossible to say no. Thanks to this ERSC scholarship, I was financially independent from my parents for the first time, which meant I could go out and have a lot of fun guilt-free. I was also properly single for the first time in years, which meant I could go out and have even more fun. It is slightly ironic that I met my future husband at the end of my second week in Newcastle, but if you’d told me that then, I’d have probably laughed in your face.
But anyway, let’s not digress too much from the subject at hand. Football. That summer, when I was writing my Master’s thesis (I did eventually decide to do some work), the World Cup was happening in France. Beckham got famously sent off, England was eliminated, and after everyone in Newcastle had calmed down, it was safe to go out again. I gradually learned, desperate for a break from the library, that going to drink beer in the right pubs while watching international football was actually a pretty enjoyable way to spend an evening. I slowly got hooked. I handed in my thesis just before the night of the final, Brazil vs France. I was exhausted as the adrenalin of writing and nervous energy of the past few weeks faded, so planned for a quiet evening at home, a couple of beers, and watching Brazil trounce France.
Those of you with football memories will know that that didn’t happen. But I have said ever since that I would love to see Brazil play live. And here we were, looking through the Olympic football schedule, and Brazil were due to play New Zealand at St James’ Park in Newcastle on 1st August. Tickets were available. The challenge was saved.
Charlotte loves kicking a ball around the park at the moment, so we’d bought her a ticket for the match too. It only cost a pound. But then we got all the security information through with our tickets, realised we couldn’t take a push chair, were going to be seriously discouraged to bring any sort of bag or liquids and were expected to get there two hours in advance (was this a football pitch or an aeroplane?), and the prospect of taking her suddenly seemed very daunting indeed. Thankfully, our good friends in Gosforth offered to look after her for the afternoon and she had a lovely time playing with them and their two children. So our live sporting event also ended up as a bit of a date! How about that? Dave did take me to see Carlisle United play once (it was early on in our relationship), but this was going to be loads better. Cattle weren’t burning in the fields all around us for starters.
|Out for a date|
|Look, it's me at the Olympics!|
|National anthem time|
The match was very one-sided, as we could have expected. A grumpy New Zealander behind us yelled, “Who’s putting money in your pocket, ref?” (Only he pronounced it “riff”.) But the Kiwis were never going to be a match for mighty Brazil. A Brazilian band was marching along the stands, and Mexican waves started rolling around the stadium. A blue man appeared at one point. No one knew why. The game seemed to fly by in this party atmosphere. Truth be told, however, the match wasn’t quite as exciting as I had hoped. We weren’t seeing Brazil at their best. We didn’t need to. They were treating it all a bit like a walk in the park. One of their players got sent off for diving. But I only found myself wishing I’d brought a book along once. And Dave only rolled his eyes a couple of times at my ignorant questions. And at one point I did correctly manage to identify when the ball went off-side, so gold star please. Final score - Brazil 3, New Zealand 0.
|The match gets briefly exciting when a stretcher comes on|
|The blue man|
As it turns out, the Olympics aren’t the embarrassment we’d all feared. The opening ceremony was genius. The venues look stunning. The empty seats at events aren’t the fault of Transport for London. It isn’t even that hot. Team GB are currently fourth in the medals table. And now that it’s good after all, I wish we’d been able to go to London. I’m feeling very nostalgic about the city that was my home for the best part of a decade.
I may never be the world’s greatest football fan. But thanks to this challenge, at least I can say, “The Games of the 30th Olympiad. In London. I was there. In Newcastle.”