Before FOX Sports World (now FOX Soccer) launched in 1997, the only way to watch live Premier League matches on a Saturday in the United States was via closed circuit TV.
Every Saturday morning, I would drive the 32 miles from Wellington, Florida to Boca Raton to a British pub named The Ugly Duck (still in business, but now known as The Ugly Duckling). It was $20 each to get in the door. For the price of admission, you were able to watch the only 10am ET game shown, but you also received a traditional British breakfast (bacon, fried eggs, sausage, baked beans, fried mushrooms and toast).
Twenty dollars was a lot of money to watch a game. Sometimes my then first wife and I would go together to watch games, but we often couldn’t afford for both of us to go (especially after you calculated how much it would cost for gas and drinks on top of the $40). For the two of us to go see that one game on a Saturday morning, it was the equivalent of a day’s wages for me working at Blockbuster Video on a minimum wage, after taxes. Going to watch a Premier League match was a luxury.
But it was a luxury I was willing to afford. Those Saturday mornings were the highlight of my week. The pub was packed with ex-pats. I don’t remember a single American sitting in there to watch the games. In many ways, it felt like a home away from home as the same set of ex-pats made the pilgrimage to the pub every Saturday to watch whatever game was in store for us.
It was during those days that I began to fall in love with Newcastle United. I was still a Swansea supporter but the Swans were in the bottom division of the Football League and the only way I could follow them was by listening to the full-time scores read by the BBC World Service — and that was it. No Internet and no perspective on what was going on at the club other than the Swansea football programmes I would get in the mail every few weeks.
Newcastle United in the mid-90s was an incredibly attractive side to watch. They played a beautiful flowing brand of football that was so passionate. You always knew there would be goals in Newcastle matches and there were often high scoring encounters. It was champagne football of the highest order. You had a new breed of sensational foreign players — before Arsene Wenger even stepped foot in England — such as David Ginola and Faustino Asprilla. And you also had a crop of strong, traditional British players who exemplified a different era than now. Footballers such as David Batty, Alan Shearer, Rob Lee and Les Ferdinand, to name just a few.
“The Entertainers,” as Newcastle were known in those days were a joy to watch. I vividly remember watching games in The Ugly Duck such as Newcastle United beating Manchester United five-nil on a Sunday morning — a result which seemed unthinkable at the time given Manchester United’s superiority.
There was also that game, the one where Newcastle lost the Premier League title race on a Wednesday at Anfield when Liverpool won 4-3. Stan Collymore scored the last minute goal which sent Kevin Keegan to hide his head in disbelief behind the advertising board.
Win or lose, Newcastle United was an incredible team to watch. While the Newcastle squad of 2011-12 are not in that class, this current crop of lads are the closest I’ve seen to The Entertainers. Ryan Taylor’s brilliant goal Saturday against Everton could have easily been plucked out of a highlight reel of some of the sensational goals Newcastle scored in the mid 90’s. And how can you not love a team featuring Steven Taylor who, with his mask on, reminds me of the Richard Harrow character from HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.
The feel good factor is also coming back at St James’ Park. While the Geordie Roar isn’t as deafening as it was in the mid-90’s, the atmosphere and noise coming from the fans in Newcastle’s hallowed stadium is getting louder. After years of feeling betrayed by poor signings and non-sensical business decisions by Newcastle owners, the supporters are beginning to regain their faith in the club. Hats off to Alan Pardew for leading the charge. A vastly underrated manager, he thoroughly deserves all of the credit he gets (building off the foundation that often-forgotten previous manager Chris Hughton built).
In his post match interview on ESPN2, Steven Taylor summed up the main reason Newcastle United has been so successful so far this season — team spirit. You can have some of the best players in the world, but unless you have a solid team spirit, you have nothing. The way the Geordies play as a team, you can totally feel how much togetherness there is.
Congratulations to Newcastle United. The glory days are back. The season is far from over. But it’s a brilliant time to be watching Newcastle once again.