Dictated by market forces, played out in front of fans contemptuously treated as consumers, and reciprocated by fans craving instant gratification, modern football holds little place for sentimentality. Our teams are filled with transient mercenaries, brazen in their contempt for the history of the club, the shirt, they play for. Fans in turn have grown used to despising the men they once cheered, dismally aware that the only real bond linking player and club is his wage packet. Modern football no longer holds any room for heroes.
Above all, it conjures a fearsome Jackie Milburn shot rippling the back of the opposition net. Milburn, Ashington born, deserves to be credited with igniting the enduring love affair between the supporters and shirt. A bastion of stoic post-war masculinity, he was a man whom the masses could relate to and idolise in equal measure. The three FA Cups – 1951, 1952 and 1955 – his goals led the Magpies to still linger.
Milburn’s record of 200 league and cup goals lasted until 2006. The intervening years saw the legend build. The swashbuckling bravado of Malcolm McDonald exhilarated 1970s Tyneside, before Kevin Keegan’s perfect blend of endeavour and artistry forged a relationship which bordered on the messianical. His industrious zeal resonated with the hard-bitten working-classes for whom St. James Park on a Saturday was liberation from a desperately bleak time in northeast England. His goals transcended them from the stultifications imposed by a ruthless Thatcherite government.
Better still, he returned as manager, saving the team from the abyss of the Third Division, before producing a swashbuckling, quixotic team which came this close to winning the most implausible, romantic of Premier League titles in 1996. His commitment to attack in management innately understood the demands of his adoring fans. Little wonder they remain one of the most fondly remembered sides of recent years.
Fittingly only one man could break Milburn’s record. Alan Shearer, arguably the prototypical English centre-forward of modern times, led a staggeringly undecorated career. Just one Premier League winner’s medal collects dust in the attic at his family home – even then only earned as a Blackburn player in 1995. No matter, he insists. He happily trades trophies for the satisfaction of living the dreams of thousands of aspirant Geordie boys. Each goal he celebrated in front of the Gallowgate End, he celebrated as a fan.
The legacy thus falls to Papiss Demba Cisse, Newcastle’s recent £9 million acquisition from Freiburg. On his arrival, he is not so much a focal point in Alan Pardew’s team as the embodiment of a city’s collective past and future dreams. Football increasingly motivated increasingly hostile to heritage, Cisse is the man with the opportunity to write himself into one of the few enduring footballing legacies. For the sake of romance left in the game, one hopes he can.
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