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Book Review The beautiful, murky game

ANDY HEDGECOCK admires, with one reservation, an account of attachment to football that reflects the tough realities of working lives 

Newcastle United Stole My Heart
Michael Chaplin, Hurst, £11.99


NOSTALGIA has a powerful and dangerous influence on history, memory and the arts. At its worst, it imposes spurious coherence on fragmented memories and prompts futile yearnings for a past that never existed.

It‘s a testimony to Michael Chaplin‘s skill as a storyteller that this book — part memoir, part social history — uses the nostalgic impulse to secure engagement without shying away from the tough realities of working lives. 
The book covers 60 years in the life of its author, his football club and the city to which he keeps returning. It explains how football fostered a sense of belonging for the five-year-old Chaplin after his family moved to Newcastle from Essex; how it developed into an obsession; and how retail billionaire Mike Ashley turned it into a source of disenchantment.  

Chaplin‘s narrative is based on 11 “postcards of the past” — memorable matches that reflect the mood and values of their era as well as capturing moments of personal significance. Each game is allocated a Man of the Match and a soundtrack. The choice of music reflects the overall structure of the book. Most tracks were released in the season under discussion but, occasionally, chronology is abandoned in favour of theme. Similarly, Chaplin uses flashbacks and flashforwards to reinforce our understanding of his own circumstances and the club‘s history.

There is much to enjoy. Chaplin‘s depiction of a 1970s newsroom is as charming and detailed as his evocation of the atmosphere at St James‘ Park on matchday. His insights into the life, achievements and struggles of his father Sid — miner, novelist and editor of the National Coal Board Magazine — are touching and inspiring. 

There are incisive observations on class. An encounter with privilege at Cambridge “shaped a lifelong commitment to socialism.” Later, a frank discussion with a football coach reveals there are limited opportunities for young people whose families are engaged in “elemental struggles for survival.” And there is no attempt to sugarcoat the psychological, political and economic destruction wrought by Thatcher’s attack on Britain’s industrial heartlands.

The one area in which Chaplin disappoints is his failure to critique the 2021 take-over of Newcastle United by a consortium in which Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund holds an 80 per cent stake. At the time, the Guardian’s Barney Ronay wrote, “there is ... something wretched, hypocritical and deeply depressing in English football’s willingness to welcome into its elite members’ club the blood-soaked, repressive, deeply discriminatory Saudi state.”

Chaplin is merely relieved that Newcastle is free from the baleful influence of Mike Ashley and is undergoing “An Unlikely Renaissance.”

The apparent lack of scepticism about the game’s murky finances is a pity, not least because Chaplin’s reflections on the poor treatment of the football heroes of his childhood is one of the book’s most compelling elements.  

Chaplin’s interviews with “Toon” players and their families make illuminating reading; so too, do his match reports, family anecdotes and tales of the seamier side of life in Newcastle. This is a thoroughly enjoyable book: its recall of the pains and pleasures of emotional investment in a football club is credible, funny and life affirming.


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