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Super fans unite us all

September 15, 2014

There are, from time to time, these events that happen in the world.

They shock us.

They appal us.

In some cases they may even makes us fearful. Yet we never expect to be connected to the pictures we see on the news.

The loss of Malaysian Airlines flight MH 17 in July was one of these events. And yet as the news emerged, many of us in this city and the wider area began to hear that in fact we were personally connected to it.

John Alder and Liam Sweeney were two of the most passionate supporters of Newcastle United. The former had missed one game of any description since 1973. He was kind-hearted, thoughtful and though I never knew him too well, I will always remember the time he took pity on a naïve, let’s just say 18 year old, who’d forgotten his wallet at one game in Germany and he along with many others took me under his wing and made sure the effects the morning after of consuming large quantities of hops, yeast, barley and water were suitably well-conveyed in a highly practical manner.

Liam I knew rather better. He used to regularly steward the supporters buses that I use. He was a contemporary of mine and had basically seen the same ups and considerable downs as I had over past decades. Though his desire and willingness to get to, or at least try and get to, every game far out-stripped mine. I remember one cold evening when we’d just been turned over 6-0 if I remember in Manchester. There were some road works on the M62 and what should have been a short 3 hour hop over ended up taking us nearer to seven. I was sat with Liam on the way back. Before the coach even started its engine he was asking if I was going to Portsmouth a few weeks later. Colleagues may not realise, but having lost 6-0, it takes a special supporter to focus on the mammoth day trip to Portsmouth, armed only with some sandwiches and a single functioning coach toilet.

But it was not just knowing John and Liam that made this a deeply personal event. As demonstrated by the magnificent fundraising efforts spearheaded online by some Sunderland fans. The community that supports football felt this deeply. Why? Because we all felt it could so easily have been us. We all would have been in New Zealand if logistics had allowed. John and Liam were two football supporters off to follow the team they loved. And through no fault of their own they never came back. Not only did we lose two individuals many knew. John and Liam are a symbol. They represent something that unless you yourself share, I accept it is hard to understand.

I have a love-hate relationship with the football club. I love the club with a passion. And that love leads to a certain upset when things are not done correctly. And in many ways it’s hard to define what correctly is. Ask on a Saturday afternoon, especially when we’ve lost, at about 4.55pm. You’ll get 50,000 different answers. However, the announcements by Newcastle United Football Club to commemorate John and Liam through the unveiled garden, the events around the first game of the season (which I can tell colleagues were very tasteful and deeply moving) and through the new Alder Sweeney Community Award are not just to be welcomed, they are to be praised and encouraged and given a place at the civic heart of this city.

Too often the portrayal of football supporters in this City is done negatively. Worse it is often done in a stereotypical or patronising manner. What I can say is that for some of us not only does it matter and we enjoy it. But it is often the basis of our friendships, our social lives, and is a solid base to which many of us have turned to when needing a distraction from the realities of our day to day lives. John and Liam like all us all did not choose to follow Newcastle United. It’s always something that chooses you.

The world can be a very dark place on occasions. However the actions of Newcastle United, and the football community in general have shown that despite no, almost because of that darkness, people can come together and really show what matters in life. And yes that does include us humble football supporters.

The late Sir Bobby Robson, whose own foundation has benefitted so well from the fundraising efforts of the football supporting community once very famously said the following, which I will end on:

“What is a football club in any case?” “Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it.” It’s not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes.”

“It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city.” “It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.”

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