I went to visit a friend in Dubai last week. It was my first time there, and it's pretty safe to say I was over-awed by the wealth, the luxury, the heat, and the craic. After 3 nights of swanking it up in the most decadent and incredible of drinking spots, it was time to shuffle off to the good old Crown and Lion on Saturday afternoon, where the promise of ex-pats downing Stella and every 3pm kick-off awaited.
It felt just like home from home. Thankfully, my friend had saved me from a mortifying fate in pointing out that a Toon top and jeans would have been far more appropriate attire than the 'very Dubai' dress I'd donned for the occasion. Safely changed, with ciders in hand and a prime spot in front of a giant screen, I took in my surroundings.
100% fact: wherever you're watching the match in the world, you will find at least one Geordie to congratulate/commiserate with. From Glasgow to Goa, Tenerife to Thailand...if the Toon are on the telly, you'll find a gaggle of black and whites supporting the just and noble cause.
This isn't an exclusive phenomenon, of course; I wouldn't be so daft as to claim we have bigger international fan bases than the likes of Man United, Liverpool or the Spanish giants. However, these people tend to be actual exiled North-Easteners, not locals who've been seduced by years of superstars and trophies (no danger of that, to be fair). And what never fails to make me chuckle and slightly melt with pride, is that more often than not, they're recognisable not by their accents or predilection for Brown Ale, but by their unashamedly worn replica shirts.
As sure as day follows night and we'll crash out of the cup at the first hurdle, the Geordies you encounter the world over will be proudly supporting the lads in bold black and white. Seemingly with most other clubs, a certain unspoken age is reached at which it's no longer really acceptable to sport the latest kit. It's kind of reserved for little-un's and teenagers, with maybe 20 and 30-somethings donning the odd retro number. Not our lot, though. Young, old, male, female...you're never too old for the latest top, and if you've got your favourite player's name on the back, even better. A comedy slogan is the cherry on the cake, and the whole effect is carried off with unflinching calm.
And so it was in the Crown and Lion in Dubai. A quick scan of this giant ex-pat haven revealed at least 5 or 6 black and white-clad comrades, with a 'Cabella' here and a 'Geordie 4 Life' there. Brilliant. I had a happy discussion on the subject with my mate, who corroborated my theory that the black and white is seen more frequently than most all over the world. In almost self-congratulatory mood, feeling high-spirited, a rousing chorus of 'have you ever seen a Mackem in Milan' even sounded out.
Then the game kicked off.
Not terrible for the opening period, but not great, either. The familiar alarm bells started ringing at the very first set-piece we had to defend, and then word made its way through that both Leicester and Villa had managed to take the lead. And as yet another headed effort crept past Krul into the bottom corner, the fear suddenly became REAL.
Even after the multiple debacles of recent weeks and the particularly soul-crushing capitulation at Leicester last weekend, for some reason, the threat of actual relegation hadn't properly assailed me until that West Brom opener. My stomach literally started to shrink in on itself, and I felt the colour drain out of my face. Silence descended between me and my friend as we frantically refreshed the latest table view to find that yes, that really is Newcastle United sitting in the bottom three.
The Perez equaliser was of course met with unbridled relief and renewed spirit, but for some reason the actual dire nature of our plight had really settled on me by then. I've been almost blasé about each defeat to this point - expecting little else, but not really convinced it would be enough to dump us through that dreaded trap door. I've even blithely shrugged off the implications of another demotion, insisting it could be 'just what we need' or 'what Ashley deserves'. But, suddenly faced with the stark reality of our shocking backwards momentum and the fighting grit of the others around us, it didn't seem so distant any more. The constant knot of dread and frantic calculation of scenarios and permutations now feel very much just as real as a couple of years ago or in 2009.
And so sat in that pub 3,000 miles from home, surrounded by jovial Geordies in their comedy shirts and black and white armour, it suddenly didn't feel so comforting. I wasn't so smug, cloaked in the blanket of our universal support. It will be of little comfort if the unthinkable does happen.
I only hope the joke's not on us come May 24th.