Football documentaries have become all the rage. In quick succession came the “All or Nothing” series at both Manchester City, charting their record-breaking 2017/18 season, and at Tottenham, which coincided with the arrival of Jose Mourinho in November 2019. Before either of those we had the ultimate car crash viewing that was “Sunderland ’til I Die”, in which the once proud club disintegrates in front of our very eyes, tumbling from the Premier League to League One with dizzying alacrity. As a Palace fan I found myself naturally drawn towards the Sunderland one, having a closer affinity with perennial failure rather than relentless success or even the promise of a trophy.
Much of the appeal of all three of these recent documentaries is that they offer us behind-the-scenes footage of players, managers and club executives exposing their fallibility. The fly on the wall format can be illuminating such as getting a close-up view of how transfer deals are conducted or a glimpse at what happens in the changing rooms at half-time. However, after a while the novelty can wear off and seeing a manger swearing at his charges for the umpteenth time becomes part of the wallpaper.
On 11th December a new documentary will be added to the ever-growing list. This focuses on another North East club that has just suffered relegation from the Premier League, but it is viewed through a different prism. In “We Are the Geordies” the fans are our guiding light on the travails of Newcastle United’s 2017/18 season. The only sightings of manager Rafa Benitez are at press conferences and like the vast majority of supporters we do not gain access to the inner workings of the club.
Co-directors, James DeMarco and Zahra Zomorrodian, were determined to focus on the match-going experiences of fans as they travel up and down the country with the Toon Army. “We even filmed a couple of exclusive interviews with Benitez,” Zomorroidan says. “But we didn’t want him to overshadow what we were trying to do, which was a fans thing.” And that cutting room floor was piled high with material as DeMarco reveals that “there was over 400 hours of film”, which were subsequently condensed into, appropriately enough, 90 minutes.
Selection of the fans for the film was conducted through an ‘Open Call Out’ publicised via The Chronicle, the local paper plus social media and fan groups. The most colourful pair go by the names of ‘Scud’ and ‘Whistler’, the former insists on regularly wearing a psychedelic wig that should only be seen on a stag-do. During the home victory over Wigan the latter tells us “I’m renowned for being called the Whistler, the referee has actually reported me to the fourth official and told me I can’t whistle anymore and if I do, I’ll be ejected from the ground. That’s me put right.” They are both in their fifties.
The choice of the eleven fans is well-balanced, offering cross-generational insight. Elaine remembers going with her father – “We always used to stand by the [floodlight] pylon, sitting on the bar to save the old men from weeing down my legs when they’d had too much to drink.” She bemoans that her son hates football but fortunately both her daughters are season ticket holders and to such an extent that when her first grandchild is born, he is inevitably christened Bobby after club grandee, Sir Bobby Robson and is only a few weeks old when he attends his first match. When Newcastle register a 4-0 win over Birmingham young Bobby is hailed as a lucky charm and is clearly destined to a lifetime supporting the Magpies.
At the other end of the age scale to proud grandmother Elaine is 20-year-old Matt Wightman who while coaching football out in Zambia took the opportunity to teach the kids the Rafa Benitez song. Wightman’s 21st birthday surprise birthday is naturally held at St. James’ Park where his extended family join him for a match. There is the obligatory international fan, Norwegian Erik who shook off his father’s allegiance to West Ham and in an act of rebellion at the age of five started following Newcastle “because of the black and white shirts.”
The loyalty of the fans is never in question and they are all clearly touched by Benitez’s reciprocation in sticking with the club. The last time the Spaniard had managed a club in the second tier was in 2000 when he got Tenerife promoted to La Liga. In between he won the Champions League with Liverpool, the Club World Cup with Inter Milan and the Europa League with Chelsea, so his willingness to mix it with Burton Albion and Rotherham is especially worthy. There was no guarantee that Benitez would succeed as journalist George Caulkin, who has covered North East football since 1994 put it succinctly “Newcastle is a monument to the death of hope.”
“There was a continuous sense of jeopardy with the film,” DeMarco points out. “If Newcastle had ended up in mid-table mediocrity or even worse been relegated that would have ruined the narrative.” In fact the film was almost aborted before it had even started when the funding was pulled at the very last moment but DeMarco and Zomorrodian were undeterred, taking on much of the camera work and sound production themselves as they could not afford to hire any crew.
Another fly in the ointment crops up unexpectedly just as the season’s climax is being reached. With promotion already secured after a 4-1 win over Preston in April, two days later the club’s Managing Director Lee Charnley is arrested as part of an HMRC fraud investigation. Talk of points deductions swirls around St. James’ Park with the real threat of being denied promotion the talk of The Strawberry pub, a Newcastle stronghold.
If Charnley’s appearance is unwanted and unexpected, the absence of another person inextricably linked to the club is entirely deliberate. Of course, club owner Mike Ashley is mentioned, particularly during a tense January transfer window as the wheels of Benitez’s bus appear to be wobbling. The promised kitty to bolster the squad does not materialise leading to the generally unflappable Benitez looking fit to burst when questioned about the lack of signings. As screenwriter Stuart Wright, who introduced me to this film, rightly told me at the outset. “Like the dead wife in Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, Ashley never features but hangs over the story.”
The film’s denouement could not have been better scripted. At the last game of the season the Championship title is up for grabs. Newcastle keep their part of the bargain by winning their home game but Brighton are set to deny them as they are leading at Villa Park going into the last minute. Then Jack Grealish equalises. With the cameras focused on the fans, the scenes of people hearing about the goal and watching the joy spread among the stands is an enduring memory. “Grealish even gets an honorary mention in the film’s credits,” Zomorrodian points out. “For the Hollywood ending.” DeMarco compares the thrill of filming those last scenes, alongside the birth of his children, as the most joyous in his lifetime.
At a time when football is tentatively emerging from being played behind closed doors for nearly nine months, this film is a timely reminder of the fundamental importance of supporters to every club. The ethos of the game is captured in the devotion of these supporters rather than those running the club or even the revered Benitez, who departed the scene at the end of the following season. The much-used Jock Stein quote is paraded at the start of the film and by the times the credits roll you are of the same mind: “Football without Fans is nothing.”