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Watching Newcastle with Robbie Elliott: Champions League, Keegan and the funky chicken

The Athletic

It is 7am and the doors to the Marathon Taverna on Burnside are unlocked with a click; breakfast club is open for business. “Keep Portland weird”, is the unofficial motto for this idiosyncratic city in the north west of the United States and it feels like we bleary stragglers are conforming nicely, piling into a bar way too early on Boxing Day to watch Newcastle United play Leicester City in the Premier League a few thousand miles away.

Robbie Elliott, the former Newcastle defender, and Ethan, one of his sons, cross the threshold. Robbie has lived here for a decade or so, working for US Soccer and Nike and now as a sports consultant. We have a funny, intermittent relationship; a hug, a coffee and a catch-up, spread across two continents, either when he returns to Tyneside or when I’m visiting my mam, stepdad and two brothers, who have lived in Portland since I was 17. These versions of home and their pull.

The Marathon is Robbie’s idea, just down the road from Providence Park, where the Portland Timbers play, a no-frills, gameday drinking den. My idea is to write about watching the Newcastle game together, asking on Twitter for questions to put to him. Outside, it is dark and drizzling, the streets peppered with ageing slush. Inside, it is wall-to-wall screens, a vending machine that sells cigarettes and crisps. There is piping coffee, beer if you want it and breakfast.

We have known each other since Robbie came through at Newcastle, when I was a rookie reporter on a local newspaper. There are obvious parallels between the Kevin Keegan era – takeover, new manager, new players, startling results and limitless ambition – and the transformation currently taking place at St James’ Park. Leicester away is an appropriate moment to meet, the scene of Robbie’s “funky chicken” goal celebration in 1994…

Ah, man… how did we get this old? Not that Robbie, who turned 49 on Christmas Day, looks it, the trim, wrinkle-free bastard.

But we can circle back to all of this; the match is kicking off. In the car park behind, as we say hello and wait for the Marathon to open, we run through Eddie Howe’s team. No Callum Wilson, meaning Chris Wood is up front. And because we’re grizzled and wary, because our caution is still so engrained, we wonder out loud if this would be the day when Newcastle are found out, when the reckoning arrives, when reality re-exerts itself.

Ninety sanguine and stress-free minutes later, when the whistle goes on a 3-0 victory, we have our answer. Those fears we harbour, that momentum may dissipate, that the World Cup break would be disruptive, that form would dip, were all traitorous. The television coverage flashes to the league table and shows Newcastle second. We deliver our verdict in discordant, disbelieving harmony: “Fucking hell.”

This, let me tell you, is what weird really feels like.

Before we sit down, let alone give an order, Leicester’s Daniel Amartey swipes out a leg, Joelinton goes down and Newcastle have a penalty. It is a dreadful, ponderous challenge. “He looks like he had a few too many plates of food yesterday,” Robbie says. Wood smashes the ball down the middle; none of that twinkle-toed, stuttered run-up bollocks, thank you. No Wilson? No bother.

We talk about the World Cup and Qatar and the strangeness of it and Alan Shearer and Warren Barton, old team-mates of Robbie’s, doing punditry there… and then Miguel Almiron is on the ball, there is an “ooooooh” from the bar and an “Ohmygodohmygod” from someone and a “he’s through” from me and a “GET IN” from all of us and it is now 2-0 and somebody else is saying “they’re going to be top-four this season”.

None of it feels possible and yet Newcastle keep winning. The fixture is only seven minutes old but it already feels over. “We’re not going to concede three goals, that’s for sure,” Robbie says. “As a Newcastle fan, you’re always waiting for the ‘what if’ game, but it doesn’t come.”

On Twitter, @johnaitken69 says Robbie “was a cracking left-back”, — “Thank you, very kind,” he responds — and recalls “cheering his bairn on as he ‘scored’ in front of the Gallowgate End at the end of a match”. This is a reference to an end-of-season lap of honour in Sir Bobby Robson’s time as manager, we think in 2002 against West Ham when Newcastle finished fourth in the league (both of our memories are fickle).

It is also hilarious because Ethan was the bairn in question and he is now 23 and anything but little and still has his shirt from that day, framed and on his wall. The following season, they finished third and then it was fifth; the last time Newcastle were truly good in a meaningful and lasting way. The last time until now…

This game is a cruise, a stroll. We sip our coffee, munch our hot sandwiches — scrambled eggs and bacon, feta cheese, pickles and hot sauce — and move away from it because it feels so comfortable.

Wall-to-wall TV coverage and a machine selling crisps and cigarettes

Ayoze Perez, once of Newcastle, is an early substitute for Leicester and Robbie points out that he “was the last person they sold for any real money”. That leads us to the transfer market and financial fair play and what they might do in January.

@Mr_Dolf: “What’s the left-back solution? Keep (Dan) Burn there, reintroduce (Matt) Targett at some point or sign someone?”

“Burn has been excellent,” Robbie says. “He’s surprised me. I know he played there at Brighton but he’s done really well. Not that Targett had done anything wrong. But then you’ve got Sven Botman and Fabian Schar at centre-half, (Kieran) Trippier at right-back, Nick Pope in goal. It’s like a proper back five. But you only need a solution if there’s a problem and there isn’t. It wouldn’t surprise me if they’re looking at players, but the priority has to be elsewhere.”

Newcastle have conceded 11 goals in 16 league games and recorded eight clean sheets.

Trippier has been revelatory for Newcastle, a current England international signed 12 months ago for £12million ($14.4m) from Atletico Madrid, where he had recently won La Liga. “I just don’t understand why a team like Manchester United didn’t go for him,” Robbie says, but their loss has been a Geordie gain. Leadership, delivery from set pieces, attitude, presence, Trippier has brought it all, a tone-setter for Howe.

Who was the equivalent signing in the early days under Keegan? “Brian Kilcline,” Robbie says. “Kevin has described him as his most important signing and I think he was because there was no leader before then. ‘Killer’ tells a great story about arriving, agreeing his contract at the stadium, Kevin telling him to go to his hotel and come back tomorrow and him refusing, saying he wanted to train with us.

“So he went up to the training ground at Benwell, joins in with the group, gets in the bath and Kevin asked him what he thought. Killer says, ‘Wow, you’ve got a good youth set-up here, some cracking kids coming through’. Kevin looked bemused. ‘Youth set-up? That’s the fucking first team’. Killer was like, ‘Oh’. But he was the statement.”

This was February 1992 and Newcastle were flailing near the foot of what is now the Championship. Along with Steve Howey, Lee Clark, Steve Watson and Alan Thompson, Elliott was one of the young, talented, local players promoted by Ossie Ardiles, Keegan’s predecessor, at a desperately perilous moment for the club. They stayed up that season, were promoted as champions the next and then challenged at the top of the Premier League.

“We were spoilt back then, as players and fans,” says Elliott. “I remember Bez (John Beresford) and Rob Lee sitting on the team bus saying, ‘Lads, this isn’t normal’, but it’s difficult to take that in. Our answer to them was, ‘But this is what we do’. Yes, we’d had bad times, but even under Ossie, we were playing in the Newcastle first team as teenagers. Amazing.

“Then as we got bigger and better, you’d be watching Philippe Albert at the World Cup and then all of a sudden he was standing beside you. Then it was David Ginola, David Batty, Faustino Asprilla, Alan Shearer…”

Elliott, sixth from the left in the front row, next to his friend Beresford, with Albert second from left in the back row. Full caption at the foot of the article. (Photo: Gary Prior/Allsport/Getty Images/Hulton Archive)

Post-takeover, there is a comparable sensation of possibility. “I went to the Arsenal game at the end of last season and I could feel it for myself, the city taking off again,” Robbie says. “When the city is like that and the team is doing well, there’s nowhere better to be. They play for the city now. Before, you would watch the team and feel like people were there for the wrong reasons. Everyone is pulling in the right direction.”

It is the 32nd minute and Joelinton makes it 3-0, rising for a commanding header, the commentator saying, “Newcastle are running away with this on Boxing Day.”

@CashmanFC: Have there been other Newcastle players who have come on so strong as Almiron and Joelinton?

“I’ve never seen a player sign in one position, get moved and then become so dominant like Joelinton,” Robbie says. “When we signed him from Hoffenheim, I knew his German fitness coach. He told me ‘You’ve got a strong, great guy’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, but he cost £40million, is that it?’ His first year as a striker must have killed him. To be able to come back from that mentally… I’d seen Almiron play for Atlanta United and knew he had something, but Joelinton has been phenomenal.”

@johnaitken69 has also asked whether Robbie thinks “NUFC can make a top-four finish”, and, what the hell, we may as well get carried away.

“Yeah,” he says. “It’s all about momentum and confidence and those are two things we’ve got in abundance. And the way they’re playing, I really can’t see why not. That has to be the aim now.”

Having fun against Leicester? Robbie knows a bit about that, too. In the summer of 1994 he went on holiday to Turkey with Andy Hunt, his former Newcastle team-mate. “There may have been some alcohol involved, but at one point he was flapping his arms like a chicken and claiming he could take off from his chair,” Robbie says. “It became the joke of the trip.

“We made a pact that whoever scored first the next season would do it as a celebration. I was pretty sure I was safe. Andy was a centre-forward at West Bromwich Albion, banging in goals and I was Newcastle’s left-back and more often than not on the bench. I came on against Leicester first game of the season and managed to get on the end of a cross. That was it, the funky chicken was hatched.”

Another goal is mentioned, this one bittersweet.

@Pottyvincemouth: “In the Leeds United game where he scored but got a major injury, does Robbie believe (as I do) that he was playing consistently at a truly world-class level?”

“I would never say world-class!” Robbie says. “It was the Keegan time and I’d scored from the edge of the box, one of my better goals. I did my MCL (medial collateral knee ligament). I didn’t really think about it in those terms, but I suppose you look back and I was full-back for one of the best teams in the country and I’d been playing for the England Under-21s and so I was seen as one of the players who was behind Stuart Pearce.

“I moved to Bolton (Wanderers, in 1997), broke my leg and that 14 months out just ruined me. It shifted things massively. Ashley Cole was a young kid then and they were saying he was going to be the next one… Anyway, I’m not being funny but the biggest honour for me was always playing for Newcastle. Honestly.

“As young lads, we’d just sit in that dressing room and giggle. ‘What are we doing here?’. But Barry Venison did an interview during the pandemic and it was so humbling. He said, ‘Yeah, we had all those stars at Newcastle, but the guys that drove it every day were the young Geordies. They made us realise what it was like to play for Newcastle’. He’d never said that to us and it was amazing to hear. They saw us as something completely different.”

Robbie twice had the privilege – after four years under Sam Allardyce at Bolton, he returned to Newcastle in 2001.

“I’m not sure how many people know this story, but I was out of contract at Bolton, they were offering me a new deal and I was saying to my agent, ‘Look, what’s happening?’” he says. “And he said, ‘Don’t worry, you’ve got people watching you’. I asked him who and he said, ‘Forget about it, just keep playing’. He knew that if he’d told me it was Newcastle, I would have shit my pants!

“We won the play-off final and then my agent said, ‘I want you to phone someone tomorrow’ and gave me the number and it was Sir Bobby. Nobody knew. I certainly didn’t! And when I spoke to Big Sam he was great. He said, ‘You have to go. I came back to Bolton and this is my club and I wouldn’t stop you from leaving. I know how much this means to you and you go with my blessing’. It was really nice.

“When I rang Bobby, he said, ‘Congratulations, I hear you’ve joined us’ and I was like, ‘Er, I don’t think I’ve actually signed anything yet, but I’d like to’. It was a dream, surreal.”

Those gorgeous, shimmering memories; Newcastle in the Champions League.

Elliott returned for a second spell at Newcastle under Robson (Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

We are long past half-time and Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin” is playing over the sound system.

Oregon is home now, although Elliott splits his time between here and Los Angeles. He describes his professional role as a “sports consultant in health, wellness and technology, working with technology companies and sports brands. There are a lot of plates spinning but there are a lot of opportunities, too”. He has a passion for team identity and an interest in club acquisition, the women’s game as well as the men’s. There are few smarter people in football.

He still has contacts and friends at Newcastle who, after a decade and more of damaging introspection, are again reaching out to their former players.

“I saw Bez when I came back and he talked about me going onto the pitch. I said no for now. Maybe somewhere down the line I’ll do that, but…” he tails off. Robbie has always been like this; ask him what it’s like to have a birthday on Christmas Day and he says “it’s perfect for me. No party, nobody making a fuss of you. That’s how I like it”.

But on the subject of Beresford…

@armstrong178: “Was he loving it when Beresford told Kevin Keegan to fuck off?”

The context is this: it is April 1996 and Newcastle’s epic title race with Manchester United is imploding. In a nervy 1-0 win over Aston Villa, Keegan tells Beresford, Elliott’s rival at left-back, to give Ginola a bit more protection. Beresford responds with a very loud obscenity which is widely heard and he is promptly substituted for Elliott.

Robbie laughs. “Bez got whiplash he was hauled off so quickly!” he says. “I ended up playing the rest of the season. People couldn’t understand that me and him were really good mates. They’d see us together and it was like, ‘Why are you talking to him?’ but he didn’t pick the team. He was brilliant for me. He told his boot sponsor to give me stuff with the logic that if he wasn’t playing then I was and they would still get the same exposure. He’s a great guy.

“What’s that saying…? You don’t have to be best mates in the dressing room but you have to respect each other. We had both, which made it even better. It’s worth more than anything. It looks similar now. Whether that’s very good recruitment or a bit of luck, or both… There are going to be times when the team don’t win games and that’s when you need those relationships and foundations. I didn’t think this would be as good as it has been.”

Let’s face it, the match is now an afterthought. We giggle when Jamie Vardy is brought on for Leicester and Newcastle supporters sing “Your lass is a grass”, a reference to the Wagatha Christie trial. “That supporter humour is the one thing you don’t get in football over here,” Robbie says and this all feels so upbeat; the team have not been required to leave second gear and we are now just gossiping and chatting.

@ChrisP: “Are the Geordie boys indeed taking the piss?”

“Yes, they truly are,” Robbie says.

It is still early, but the Marathon is filling up; Villa versus Liverpool is up next. Beyond the windows, it is slanting rain or “proper Portland weather”, as Robbie describes it.

The final whistle is coming and it is this blissful contradiction where Newcastle wins are “straightforward and incredibly comfortable”, and also “exciting”. All this distance away, we could watch without feeling stressed or terrified or angry or sad and Robbie can look forward to the game against Arsenal, the league leaders, at the start of January and say, “It’s not one you’re scared of anymore. I can see us going there and winning…”

And then a small pause. “It’s a weird feeling,” he says.

These versions of home; we’re in the right place.

(Team picture caption: Newcastle United before the 1995-96 season, back row left to right, Pavel Srnicek, Phillipe Albert, Chris Holland, Robert Lee, Barry Venison, Marc Hottiger, Ruel Fox, Scott Sellars, Richie Appleby, Keith Gillespie, Jimmy Crawford, Mike Hooper front row, Peter Beardsley, Steve Howey, Paul Kitson, Lee Clark, John Beresford, Robbie Elliott, Steve Watson, Malcolm Allen, Alan Neilson, Paul Bracewell, Mike Jeffrey and Darren Peacock) 

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