Newcastle United Stole My Heart by Michael Chaplin: The amazing rise of sport

Mihir Bose on the religion of soccer, in particular the cult of Newcastle United

Newcastle United fans celebrate a goal by Alan Shearer. Photograph: Clive Mason /Allsport

Newcastle United fans celebrate a goal by Alan Shearer. Photograph: Clive Mason /Allsport

 

One of the little-told stories of our times is the rise of sports both in the amount of space given to it in the media and the way its role in our society has so dramatically changed.

Nearly 50 years ago, when I first started reporting sport for the Sunday Times, the paper devoted only four pages to sport and the sports department was seen as the kindergarten of journalism. Now all the major papers have separate sports sections and in this the written media has been way ahead of the BBC. In 2006 when I left the Daily Telegraph for the BBC the Telegraph had had a separate sports section for decades while I was going to the BBC to become its first sports editor.

Within hours of Emma Raducanu winning the US Open she received a letter from the Queen and there were demands she be made a Dame. In contrast Bobby Moore, who in 1966 captained the side that won England’s only ever football World Cup, was never knighted.

Sport in our world has many advantages over many other sections of society. It supplies well attested facts. Sporting results cannot be disputed or dismissed as either rumour or planted propaganda. And in a world where many people are extremely distrustful even of well-documented facts, as witnessed by those who refuse to believe the scientific evidence of vaccinations to deal with Covid, this is of enormous consequence.

A sporting fact may not be palatable, but you cannot make people believe it is fake in the way Donald Trump could make millions of Americans believe that his election defeat was a fake. You are also not required to go to a higher authority with special knowledge to make sense of it, as you do in religion. In sport, you can nearly always find experts to back you up, but you are quite free to ignore them. And, in doing so, you are not likely to be accused of blasphemy. It is a lot easier to sack an incompetent football manager than an incompetent bishop.

The rise of sport has been helped by the wider society losing its traditional role models such as politicians, church leaders, men or women of science or letters. Sports stars have filled the vacuum and indeed filled the gap left behind by the disappearance of great church men with sport seen as a religion, even if of the secular kind. Sport can indeed supply some of the ingredients associated with religious observance: theatre, ritual, beauty, belonging, a source of hope and belief and a space to express extreme feelings, a sense of right and wrong, even a glimpse of another kind of existence.

Religious language is certainly becoming a cliche in sports writing: athletes are routinely described as immortal or godlike, stadiums regularly become cathedrals of sport.

Michael Chaplin’s book, Newcastle United Stole My Heart, is a testimony to the power of modern sport and how it reaches way beyond the playing fields.

Chaplin fell in love with Newcastle one Saturday afternoon in 1957 at the age of five when he heard the roar of the fans. Approaching his 70th birthday he is still very much in love. He divides the book into 11 matches, beginning with the first he saw in May 1963, taken by his brother-in-law David, to the 11th in May 2019. While all the matches are Newcastle victories, reflecting the loyalty fans feel for their club, there are also stories about Newcastle’s many defeats and any number of football facts.

But what makes the book special is that all this is woven round the vast changes that have come to British society, the dramatic decline in Britain’s manufacturing industry with the shipbuilding industry and coal mines that sustained Newcastle withering away, and Chaplin going through his own personal metamorphosis.

A playwright, who has written nearly 100 plays for the theatre and BBC Radio 4, he is also a non-fiction writer and has been a producer and executive at ITV and BBC. In this time he has also moved round the country, as a boy from Essex to Newcastle, then as a grown man to London, Edinburgh and back to Newcastle. But during all this time Chaplin has never abandoned his love for Newcastle, which remains the focal point of his life.

The book has many nuggets of fascinating information such as the German midfielder and now RTÉ pundit Didi Hamann being given a copy of Mein Kampf at the 1998 players Christmas party. Meant to amuse the German, it merely showed the British obsession with the second World War.

And in a perfect illustration of the irrational fervour sport can generate Chaplin mentions how, when watching Newcastle’s game against Hereford in 1972, he visualised Newcastle winning when they scored a late goal. Then instantly regretted this might bring bad luck and his fears proved right and Newcastle lost. Yet he was aware how illogical this was as the match had already been played and he was watching recorded highlights on Match of the Day. These are sentiments that all sports fans can identify with.

And a picture in the book neatly illustrates how sport is seen as religion with the caption of a photograph of Newcastle’s St James’ Park reading “The Cathedral of football on the hill”.

Beautifully written, this book should appeal even to those who do not support Newcastle or care about football. The one thing missing, and this is surprising, is any discussion of the racism that has blighted football. Through the ’70s and ’80s fans at St James’s Park made life a torment for black players with their virulent racist abuse. Black players even had to pull their shirts over their heads to avoid the spit aimed at them. Given Chaplin has interviewed many fans, players and coaches, it would have been interesting to know what they had made of the racism.

Hopefully, a subsequent edition will also cover the controversial Saudi takeover of Newcastle United, which took place after the book was published, as to whether an odious regime can use sport to improve its image, and also what such a foreign takeover does to the links between the community and its football club, a theme of this book.
Newcastle United Stole My Heart by Michael Chaplin is published by Hurst (340pp, £15.99)

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