There is a well-known nursery rhyme related to magpies that goes ‘One for sorrow, two for joy’. As a life-long Newcastle United fan, whose nickname is the Magpies, this rhyme takes on special significance. If this black and white bird were to cross my path on match days, it could have serious repercussions. Seeing two of them together was never a problem, bringing us joy, as the rhyme suggests, and inevitable victory. However, if I was out on the day of a match and a solitary magpie came skipping into my line of vision at some point, it would be enough to send me into a state of blind panic. The only way to cancel out the ‘sorrow’ and impending defeat that would undoubtedly be coming my team’s way, was to salute the little blighter. This had to be done without fail, otherwise it would all end in tears for me and my team and it would be all my fault.
Magpies are a fairly common bird in the UK so they can be seen out and about quite regularly. As they keep the same mate until death do them part, this means they both tend to be in the same vicinity. However, there are still plenty of occasions when you spot one of them on its own. This is when my problems would begin as having to salute a magpie could be quite awkward at times. If there wasn’t anybody around when I crossed paths with one of them it was never an issue, as nobody was there to witness my hand spring into action. However, if I spotted one of them whilst on a bus full of people or walking along a crowded street, saluting the bird could be somewhat embarrassing. It had to be a proper full-on military-style salute as well (none of your half-hearted namby pamby pretending to scratch your temple kind of salute), otherwise it might not work properly. It regularly drew funny looks from people, but, for the good of Newcastle United, it had to be done regardless.
I must add that it wasn’t just me who had this problem. Many other Newcastle fans suffered the same affliction. Sitting in a beer garden on the day of the match, if a single magpie was spotted flapping about in a tree or hopping about on a table, numerous Newcastle fans, all too aware of the serious consequences if they failed to do so, would be forced into simultaneous salutes to cancel out the sorrow and ward off a massacre, or a one nil defeat at the very least. Indeed, if it was not for the actions of so many loyal Toon Army footsoldiers, it remains doubtful that Alan Shearer would have become the Premier League’s all-time leading goalscorer with 260 goals!
Looking back now, as an older and slightly less daft person, I can wholeheartedly agree that this was completely bizarre behaviour. However, at the time, I knew my magpie salutes had to be taken dead seriously. Football fans are quite a superstitious bunch. We will behave in the most ludicrous ways if we believe it will help our team win or gain any advantage whatsoever. Some of us may dress in a certain way. We may have a lucky pair of underpants (I had to chuck mine out eventually) or a scarf that must be worn every match day. Or, in my Dad’s case, an unlucky scarf that must never be worn again. For the 1974 FA Cup Final between Newcastle and Liverpool, he bought a new black and white scarf especially for the trip to Wembley, hoping it would bring the team some luck. Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect as we played terribly and lost 3-0. As a result, the scarf has never seen the inside of a football stadium since, and never will do again. Other fans will have the same meal before every match: baked beans on toast, fishfinger sandwiches or, in my case, a Greggs pasty and a sausage roll. Some fans will meet in the same pub before every match and have the same drink and a packet of pork scratchings. Mine was the Three Bulls Heads on Percy Street.
These pre-match rituals are not carried out by the fans alone as many players also have bizarre and quirky pre-match routines. Some will listen to a particular song which will get them going for the big match. Some players will insist on being the last on the field as they think it brings them good luck. Some go out with their socks rolled down whilst others wait until seconds before they go out on the pitch before putting their shirt on. Others, particularly the South Americans, will cross themselves as they enter the playing arena whilst the Muslims will go down on their knees as they pray to Allah. Players, like fans, also have match-day underpants, reserved to be worn only on these important days! If it gets the win, who cares how many holes they have in them!
Back in the 90s, French sweeper, Laurent Blanc, used to kiss the bald head of his goalkeeper, Fabien Barthez, before each game. The German goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, used to tap each of his goalposts for luck before kick-off. And if you don’t stick to your habitual routine, things can go wrong. Take the late Johan Cruyff and his legendary pre-match ritual, for example. First, the Netherlands player would box his goalkeeper in the stomach, then he would walk across the pitch and spit his chewing gum out in the direction of the rival team’s goal. He once admitted to the media that he was only able to concentrate on a game after completing this routine. During the European Cup Final in 1969, he realised he had forgotten his chewing gum. It was too late: his team Ajax Amsterdam went down 4-1 against AC Milan.
These strange superstitious rituals have a kind of placebo effect on players. If they believe it will help, it can give them more confidence and cause them to perform better. As fans, we carry out our own set of rituals, mainly due to the fear of what might happen if we don’t do them, brainwashing ourselves into believing that our side will otherwise be defeated. To end the match with all three points, in my particular case, all I needed to do was put on my lucky underpants, eat a Greggs pasty and sausage roll, drink 4 pints of John Smiths in the Three Bulls Heads, salute that pesky magpie, and say a little prayer to God before kick-off. Do this and victory was always nailed on.
I must admit that I no longer have any match day rituals. As the years went on, it slowly dawned on me that no matter what I tried to do to make my side luckier and more successful, it just didn’t work: Newcastle United were always going to be a pile of shite! And if you are wondering what happened to my magpie salute ritual, I can tell you the affliction was cured quite abruptly. It was the morning of a home game against our biggest and most hated rivals, Sunderland. I was walking up to the bus-stop and there it was, a magpie skipping along the grass without a care in the world. I did a quick scan and, sure enough, he was by himself. To avert certain disaster I did what any loyal Newcastle fan would have done: I defiantly saluted him. I still remember breathing that sigh of relief upon completion of this simple yet crucial task. It meant I could now relax and watch us take all three points against our local rivals. The trouble is though that we didn’t win. In fact we played absolutely atrociously and, to my utter indignation, ended up losing the game 3-0. It affected me so deeply that I have never saluted a bastard magpie again and I never will for the rest of my life!