The first thing to say is that Michael Chaplin’s Newcastle United Stole My Heart is one of the most delightfully vivid and colorful books I’ve read in many years. The joy begins almost immediately as we meet Chaplin’s family in the opening pages: a writer father who worked late hours, hunched over his desk in a haze of cigarette smoke where he would receive a mug of tea from Michael before the boy went to bed, and his grandfather, who scanned the newspaper every day looking at births, marriages, and deaths, which he referred to as “hatches, matches, and dispatches.” Chaplin reports that he rather enjoyed seeing all the “dispatches” who he had managed to outlive despite a typically rugged, difficult life in early 20th century northeast England. Everything about the book is rendered with love, vibrancy, and attentive delight. At one point, a friend of Chaplin’s describes former FIFA president Sepp Blatter as the sort of man who has “50 ideas a day — and 51 of them are bad.” Chaplin’s book, ostensibly about soccer, is really a love letter to the city of Newcastle and the soccer players who have delighted the city over six decades.
Chaplin describes particular Newcastle goals with the same detail and delight that I slip into when remembering certain Nebraska football players or plays. Yet there is something about soccer that lends itself to a spontaneous joy that football struggles to match. Often its greatest moments of genius are bits of improvisation dreamed up in an athlete’s head seconds before they are executed, sometimes coming after an hour of tedious, unimaginative play. The game can be slow, almost relentlessly boring at times, and then, for that one moment, the ball bounces just right, a player has a moment of inspiration, and something incredible happens that you’ll remember for the rest of your life, perhaps even sometimes trying to act it out to your friends or children. Anyone who loves sports, and especially soccer, will understand the delight that pervades Chaplin’s book.
But there’s something more happening in Chaplin, I think. When Chaplin writes about memorable Newcastle goals, he is often (though not always) writing about goals he saw in person. His first steps toward fandom came when, as a six-year-old boy newly arrived in the English Northeast, he heard the roar of St James’s Park while playing in his front yard. His next steps were attending matches, talking about the games with school friends, and crowding the newsstand for the early edition of the evening newspaper when Newcastle played away matches and the results often first reached fans at home via the evening paper. In short, everything about his experience of fandom involved being with other people and sharing a place with them — and sharing much more besides. The context of the English northeast pervades everything about the common life he shares with his fellow Newcastle supporters.
In contrast, nearly all my memories of sports, whether it’s Nebraska football or Tottenham Hotspur in soccer or the Phoenix Suns in basketball, come with me sitting alone in my home, watching games on my computer or TV. I’ve been to perhaps 30 Husker home games in my life, but I’ve watched hundreds. And Nebraska football is my least mediated sports obsession. I’ve never seen Tottenham play in-person and the last Suns game I attended in person was nearly 30 years ago. If the game is ultimately simply about what happens on the field, of course, and nothing else really matters, then this may be of trivial importance. But I don’t think that’s true. There is a translation that happens between the in-person experience and the mediated screen experience that is significant.
In her book The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt says that,
To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time.
It is easy to identify the “things” that exist between Newcastle fans. It’s the entirety of the English Northeast: the persistence and toughness borne of years spent in the pits and mines that powered England’s industrial ascent, the simultaneously harsh and beautiful landscape of the region, and the stubborn hopefulness that keeps drawing the Toon Army, a nickname for Newcastle fans, to St. James’s Park every season. Framed this way, there is a kind of feedback loop, which can be virtuous or vicious, of course, between the fate of the Newcastle United Football Club and the health and happiness of the place, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. And even in the lean times, of which there have been many, Newcastle United is so much a part of the fabric of life in the Northeast, that games continue to be well-attended, the club’s fortunes and follies followed closely by millions in the region.
It is much harder to identify the metaphorical “table” that I and my fellow Tottenham fans gather around today. I suppose it must be our laptops, Slack rooms, and the various undersea cables that allow us to connect to the internet and both watch the games and chat with our fellow fans. But, of course, that means our fandom is rooted in the “world of things” in only the most nebulous and vague ways. Indeed, it is rooted in a mass of privately owned things or remote things, neither of which do we access together. This is a sharp departure from the young boys crowding around the newsstand on a Saturday evening on Tyneside in the 1960s. Those boys, Chaplin amongst them, were unified around a specific place in a way that we fans of today, hunched over our laptops on Saturday mornings, never will be. And so even if the laptop or the Slack channel is a “table” of sorts, it is a meager one.
What ultimately unifies us is not necessarily this “world of things,” but rather the “world” of our own will and sentiment. We choose to like Tottenham. We feel happy when they win and sad or upset when they fail.
This reality serves the interest of the capitalist class, of course: A large mass of willful people whose moods are easily predicted and equally easy to monetize make for a great customer base, after all. But I do not think it is good news for the “table,” for the “world of things” that forms the basis of community or even good news for those fans-turned-consumers.
One of the thoughts I had while reading this book, admittedly a predictable one I suppose, is that I don’t think anyone alive today could, in 30-40 years, write a book like this, chronicling 60 years of following a team. The reasons are many. There is a whimsy, easy joy, and utter lack of self-regard that runs through Chaplin’s prose and when I imagine people my age and younger, none of those qualities come quickly to mind. But there are others as well. Much of the delight of the book is wrapped up in its careful attentiveness to one unique place on earth. But in an age of mass media, it is much easier for cities to look more like each other.
Newcastle is a city that belongs to northeast England. But many of our great cities today imagine themselves belonging to the cosmos far more than they do the surrounding countryside and region. The multi-generational households that birth this book are largely gone — indeed, it seems increasingly likely that more and more of us will grow up not only without grandparents in our homes, but without grandparents at all as the age when women have children gets later and later. And so as one reads Newcastle United Stole My Heart, it can almost feel like watching an admittedly more blue collar episode of some historical BBC drama, drawing the reader back into a world long forgotten. I would like to think that in another 40 years, someone my age might write a book like this one, chronicling a lifetime spent with a particular team and place and culture. But that seems unlikely. And the loss is worth grieving.
Published in Mere Orthodoxy‘s second print edition. To support our work and receive future editions, subscribe today.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).