Every weekend, from the age of seven, Neil Mitchell would wake up with only one thing on his mind. Newcastle United.
Saturdays were sacred. It’s match day, for the day three generations of his family.
With his father, a former youth player at the club, and his grandfather, a battle-hardened supporter who hitchhiked to three cup finals in the 1950s, the trip to the cathedral-like St James’ Park every other week was a rite of passage for the young Geordie.
If you’re born and bred on the banks of the River Tyne, you don’t get a choice in the matter.
The memories remain as vivid as ever.
“I’d emerge from the dark of the stand into a floodlit St James’, in awe of the vivid green pitch and excited to finally see my heroes in action,” said Mitchell. “It was the start of a lifelong love affair with a club whose ground sits in and is, in many ways, the heart of the city. The synergy between club, city and community is what cements the passion the fanbase has for the team in black and white. One club, one city, one love.”
Now living in Dubai, Mitchell, the founding chair of Newcastle United Supporters Trust (NUST), has been involved in the production and promotion of a new documentary about the club and its fanbase; We Are The Geordies, to be released in theatres and on streaming services from December 11.
“For most of my teenage and adult life I have been passionately involved in connecting the fanbase,” he added. “Be that via fanzines, occasional columns in the local newspaper and much more. After I moved on from NUST, I set up a supporters group, called NUFC Fans United, with the intention of improving communication with the club for all fans, with my good friends Steve Hastie, Steve Wraith and Zahra Zomorrodian. Zahra, with her background in film and media, came to us with an idea she had about making a film. Not just a run of the mill football flick but rather something that expressed the real passion and love affair Geordies have with our club.”
“We reached out to the club and all the contacts we had and within weeks she was on a coach to an away game with a film crew in tow. The rest as they say is history.”
What they couldn’t have foreseen was that their labor of love would face so many obstacles or to be released at arguably one of the club’s, and football’s, most uncertain times.
“The subsequent three years have had their ups and downs and I know how much blood, sweat, tears and personal finance Zahra and her partner James have poured into this project and we have tried to help and support in every way we can along the way,” Mitchell said. “It gives me so much pride to see their passion project pay off with an amazing film. Something unique and magical. And on a personal note, the fact they chose my father as one of the fans to follow is something I’m eternally grateful to them for as well.”
The 91-minute documentary is co-directed by Zomorrodian, also a producer, and James DeMarco, who wrote the script. It covers the 2016-17 season, which saw Rafael Benitez lead the club back to the Premier League, by highlighting the many highs and lows through the eyes of 11 supporters, Alan Shearer, Les Ferdinand and the beloved Spanish coach himself, among others.
With a tagline of “Football without fans is nothing”, the timely film is in many ways a microcosm of the challenges the club has faced since the unpopular Mike Ashley took over the club in 2007. And how the fans have suffered, as much from misconceptions of the pitch as from lack of success on it.
One myth that continues to irk Newcastle supporters is that they are some of football’s most entitled and demanding. Why this has persisted so many years after Newcastle’s last successful era in the 1990s and early 2000s, is anyone’s guess, though Ashley’s friends in the media, the likes of beIN Sports’ Andy Gray and Richard Keys, and many other ex-professional footballers continue to peddle the line. Mitchell rejects the lazy stereotype.
“We Are The Geordies I think is a perfect counter to any of these utterly ridiculous accusations,” he said. “All we want is a team who will always try. To aspire to better things. To represent us on the global stage the way we hope to represent it. That’s all. And I think this film taps perfectly into the thoughts, dreams and aspirations of a fanbase who haven’t seen silverware of any kind since 1969 and yet still turn out week in week out to back the lads.”
With continuing talks of a takeover of the club, Mitchell is keen to highlight what any new owners would be getting for their investment.
For a start, Newcastle – despite its club’s enduring and often vicious rivalry with Sunderland – is, like Paris and Leeds, a one-club city. Established in 1892, one thing this club has in spades is a unique sense of identity.
One of Newcastle’s biggest selling points for potential owners is the imposing 52,000 plus capacity St James’ Park situated at the heart of the city, still one of England’s biggest grounds.
Newcastle supporters, like fans of many English clubs established in Victorian times, are fiercely proud of their home and their heroes. Outside the stadium you are met by statues of three of its greatest figures. Jackie Milburn, or ‘Wor Jackie’ as he’s colloquially known, Bobby Robson and record Premier League goalscorer Alan Shearer.
The list of club icons, old and modern, is long and illustrious. Albert Stubbins and Hughie Gallacher. Malcolm MacDonald and Kevin Keegan. Peter Beardsley, Chris Waddle and Paul Gascoigne. Les Ferdinand and David Ginola. And cult heroes like Micky Quinn, Faustino Aspilla and Gary Speed. All names chanted across decades from the raucous Gallowgate End.
It’s this heritage that has attracted potential buyers in the Middle East – and indeed a whole new army of fans in recent years, particularly since the promotion campaign covered in the film.
“Over the last couple of years takeover talk and interest in the club from the Gulf region has most certainly raised the club’s profile and I know living in Dubai we have made a lot of new friends both in the UAE and most recently Saudi Arabia,” Mitchell said. “I like to think of this film on a personal level as a gift from the fans of Newcastle United to our newfound friends here in the Middle East. It is also a showcase to any potential buyer of what comes along with the purchase of the club. You buy the heart of the city. A community who will welcome you with open arms. United by name. United by nature. You take custody of the soul of the city.”
Anecdotally it’s often noted that if Newcastle United win on the weekend productivity in the city goes up by 30 percent the following Monday. Mitchell believes there’s more than a grain of truth in that, and that lifelong adoration and loyalty awaits any new owners willing to take a chance on the club.
“Anyone who can harness that club, city, and community synergy has the potential to shake English football for years to come,” he concludes. “Under the current ownership the club has become a bit of a ghost ship, drifting with little direction. We Are The Geordies shows quite clearly there is still a strong heartbeat there and it lies with the fans. For anyone who owns the club and can unlock that synergy, the sky’s the limit.”
We Are the Geordies (link: https://www.wearethegeordies.com)