Albion boss Chris Hughton will be among even more friends than usual at the Amex this Saturday for the match against Newcastle United. As a manager who has led both clubs to promotion to the Premier League, he can be sure that fans on all four sides of the ground will be willing him to keep the Seagulls in the top flight.
George Caulkin, the Northern Sports Correspondent of The Times, will be joining many other fans of the Geordies making their way from the north-east to Sussex. Although he will be in the Amex press box on business, he will have as many mixed feelings about the outcome as those wearing black and white – and, no doubt, some stripped to the waist as usual – in the South Stand.
“You won’t find a Newcastle fan with a bad word to say about Chris Hughton,” he says. “He took over at an extraordinary time in 2009, first as caretaker-manager. Alan Shearer was waiting for a call that never came and still hasn’t, they had just been relegated, the club was up for sale and the team more or less had to do it themselves.
“He had a very strong dressing room with Steve Harper, Kevin Nolan, Joey Barton, Alan Smith and others but he showed a work ethic and a willingness to plough through the chaos that was happening. He soaked up all the pressure and got on with it, even if that wasn’t great for us journalists. He didn’t share the chaos with you, he just showed you the man that he is - proud, steadfast, and the word that everyone uses about him: dignified.
“It’s not always the first thing you think of in relation to football, but it was precisely what the club needed. I’m not embarrassed to say that when he was there I kind of fell in love with him as a man and I’m so pleased that he found a stable home in Brighton and my firm hope is that Brighton stay up. They are such an admirable club in so many ways and he is the figurehead. Very talented, of course, but also a man I wish nothing but good for.
“He was hard done-by but there have been so many strange decisions at Newcastle over the years and that was as strange as any. There was a desire for someone who was a bit more Hollywood and he paid the price for it but it was a horrible decision. He was treated shoddily and the club has been guilty of that with a few people over the years. He deserved much better.”
In previous years, George might have stayed in the north-east this weekend and covered Sunderland or Middlesbrough, but their departures from the top flight have allowed him a roving brief on alternate weekends, either following the Magpies on the road or looking for stories away from the Premier League’s well-beaten track.
“The north-east isn’t so much of a patch any more – it’s Newcastle only as far as matches are concerned, so I’ve looked farther afield when they are not at home both in matches but also in subjects to write about. And because Newcastle have been clinging on and Sunderland were too for years before they finally went, the reporting hasn’t been exactly life-affirming so I have wanted to go elsewhere to find something more positive.
“If you go down the pyramid you find some amazing stories and people who are very pleased that you’re interested in telling them.”
Mind you, it often seems that Newcastle generate enough intrigue all by themselves some days to fill the sports pages. “It does feel like that sometimes. In the last few seasons it has been Rafa’s future, tensions in the transfer windows, the takeover that never happens, and the team struggling.
“Kevin Keegan’s time at the club is my touchstone, with the great football that was played then, then Bobby Robson and being in the Champions League. Nowadays it feels a long way away from that and I worry that if I am always churning out negativity, it corrodes the soul a little bit – mine and the readers’.”
George admits that Mags fans were spoiled by the recent past. “I came back to Newcastle from Uni in 1992 and they were promoted in 1993 and I had never felt so much energy in the city. I had a season ticket because otherwise you had to get there two hours before kick-off to get in.
“The football was beautiful, one-touch, little triangles, players hunting together in packs. They exploded into the Premier League and the ground was extended, and that was when I got into it professionally.
“By the time Bobby was there and they were playing in the Champions League and I was working for The Times, you thought that was going to last forever. The past ten-to-twelve years have shown that nothing does. They have been in the Premier League for all but two of those seasons but it has been very different.”
One thing that has lasted is the memory of the great Sir Bobby Robson, of whose charity foundation George is a patron. “He had cancer five times and that was what took him away in the end. It was his oncologist, Professor Ruth Plummer, who asked him to help raise £500,000 to fit out the Northern Centre for Cancer Care.
“The response was overwhelming. It has continued ever since and I think the latest total it has reached is £12m. The Sir Bobby Robson Foundation is now also about research, treatment, cancer trials, funding nursing positions, and joint initiatives with the football club. It has turned out to be a humbling and amazing thing. And it is all through the NHS. We don’t have any staff, no professional fundraisers. We rely on small fundraisers.
“What I love about it is that football moves on so quickly but Bobby’s name still resonates and people still pull on a pair of running shoes in his name, perhaps for the first time in their lives, or go on a sponsored walk. It is a charity for the north-east as a whole, not just for Newcastle. It benefits Boro fans, Sunderland people, because they also had a relationship with Bobby. That reflects his personality.”
How did George get involved? “When I joined The Times, Bobby wrote a column and Oliver Holt [now with the Daily Mail] used to look after it for him. In an incredible moment of professional generosity, he said it made sense for me to take it on, and I will be eternally grateful for that.
“Sir Bobby was always a hero of mine. He went to Langley Park infants’ school, where I went many years later. He was an aspirational figure and Italia ’90 was very important for me. The column was mainly about England but while we were collaborating on it, he went from hero to colleague to mentor to friend. I ghost-wrote his last book, which was about Newcastle, the club and the city.
“He was very poorly at the time and I decided that I wanted my fee to go to his foundation and when he died, Lady Elsie asked me to become a patron, which I can honestly say was the proudest moment of my life.”
Rafael Benitez is the latest to occupy the manager’s chair in succession to Keegan and Robson. “Rafa has been fabulous,” George says. “It is hard to explain the depth of affection for him to people outside the club but beyond his CV is also the fact that he came to Newcastle talking about potential and talking about history and stature.
“The supporters hadn’t been able to think about it in those terms for quite a long time. It still looks like a big club in terms of the stadium and the number of fans but it behaves like a small club, not being able to compete in transfer fees and wages. He came with that burning ambition to turn the club back into a big one, to make fans look upwards again.
“It has not worked out in the way he hoped. It has been two seasons of struggle since promotion, however the league table looks. It’s good that they’re not going down, but that is not something he is going to accept as a long-term goal. He wants to compete again and be in Europe and the question is whether Newcastle can be the club where that happens.”
Like Albion, Newcastle have chosen not to try to compete with other clubs for high-earning players. “They have tried to do things differently, which is interesting, but it can be tough. Investment can be in the first team but it can also be the academy, the training ground, infrastructure.
“I’ve been to Brighton’s training ground a couple of times and it’s breathtaking. That feels like a club doing things right and perhaps over-achieving. Newcastle don’t do that. If they decide they can’t afford to spend fortunes on players, why can’t they at least be the biggest club in the North in terms of finding and producing their own players? They haven’t done that either.
“If you can’t be Manchester City, at least you can have an identity and decide you’re going to do things a certain way. Rafa realises that. At the moment Newcastle is the only Premier League club between Scotland and Burnley and that’s a big potential catchment area. They could set themselves up as the club of the north but they haven’t.”
Nor have they added to George’s personal list of favourite players to wear the famous black and white stripes. “I have a few. Gazza was the player that made me realise there was poetry in football and made me want to do what I do now. He could do things I didn’t have the language to describe, he had that raw, muscular beauty in what he did, an inexplicable force of nature.
“Peter Beardsley is one of my favourites, David Ginola for a time, Alan Shearer of course. He didn’t just win games, he saved them as well – often the team’s best defender as well as attacker: the complete centre-forward. We have been blessed with some great players over the years.
“We don’t quite have them at the minute but the thing I do admire is that they are a team. You know you are watching an honest team with a low tw*t content.”
That sounds like a team that Albion fans have come to know fairly well over most of the past few seasons. Whether that honesty and work ethic that has been rediscovered in the past two matches, at Wolves and Tottenham, is enough to beat Rafa’s men remains to be seen.
If they do, George will at least know that the points have gone to a deserving cause. “I can’t say I’d be happy with that but to be honest, at this stage, if it meant Brighton and Chris Hughton staying up I’d take it.”
Newcastle: My Kind of Toon by Bobby Robson (Hodder & Stoughton)