Book Review: Tunnel of Love
Tunnel of Love
by Martin Hardy
Published by de Coubertin Books
Writing this review before the recent mini-revival in form, defeat at the Emirates on Saturday 16th December – to an admittedly world-class goal from Mesut Özil – was Newcastle United’s seventh in eight games. The solitary point during that period was gleaned at then managerless West Brom, a side who themselves hadn’t won since August. Our last victory, a late fortuitous one on 21st October, came at the expense of Crystal Palace – who became the first English professional club to start a season with seven straight losses without scoring and yet who, by the time the dust settled on Saturday’s results, were above us in the table.
In the circumstances, devouring Martin Hardy’s Tunnel of Love in a handful of sittings has, on the one hand, proven reassuring. It provides a sense of perspective: essentially, we’ve been here before and yet the club continues to exist and the world continues to turn. On the other hand, of course, it’s no source of comfort at all: we seem perennially incapable of learning lessons and remain masters of shooting ourselves in the foot, always only one moronic decision or ludicrous incident away from catastrophe.
Tunnel of Love picks up where its widely praised predecessor Touching Distance left off, covering the period from the glorious summer of 1996, after we’d just finished runners-up to Manchester United in one of the Premier League’s most memorable title races, to our miserable descent into the Championship in 2009. If Kevin Keegan is the key protagonist in Touching Distance and Rafa Benitez is the hero of Hardy’s most recent book, Rafa’s Way, then Alan Shearer stands at the heart of Tunnel of Love. The book begins with his signing for a world-record £15 million, which was the sit-up-and-take-notice deal that was supposed to be the catalyst for domestic domination, and ends with relegation under his temporary stewardship. Along the way, Hardy recounts how the local lad became a larger-than-life figure at the club (leading to a power struggle with the egomaniacal Ruud Gullit) and broke Jackie Milburn’s goalscoring record before retiring and returning in a rescue attempt that, with hindsight, was always ill-fated.
The peaks and troughs of the period are largely obvious: Keegan’s resignation, the magical Tino Asprilla-inspired Champions League defeat of Barcelona, the successive FA Cup final losses to sides that had already won the league, the victory at Feyenoord that made us the first club to qualify from the Champions League group stages after losing the first three matches without scoring, the on-pitch punch-up between Kieron Dyer and Lee Bowyer, Mike Ashley’s takeover, the extraordinary return of King Kev (and the acrimonious fall-out of his departure), Joe Kinnear’s press conference rant. Hardy certainly wasn’t short of things to write about (I should know, as the co-author of a Newcastle blog that ran for some of this time), but his real skill lies in setting these events in context and creating a coherent and convincing narrative around them.
For the most part, Tunnel of Love is a story of how the vaulting ambition of the Entertainers/Keegan/Sir John Hall era fell flat, giving way to soured dreams and gross folly, and culminating in the ignominy of relegation. Yet it wasn’t a steady, linear decline. Sir Bobby Robson’s reign brought back the good-time vibes, reinvigorated the club and temporarily restored us to the upper echelons of the Premier League with an exciting and dynamic side that was assembled for a relatively modest sum and that blended experience and youth/pace. Hardy may be a dyed-in-the-wool black-and-whiter, but he’s resistant to the allure of revisionism, and it remains painful to acknowledge the truth that a section of our fanbase wanted Robson out after third-, fourth- and fifth-placed finishes. Be careful what you wish for.
As in Touching Distance, key incidents are largely told through the eyes of the protagonists. So it is that the Cup final defeats to Arsenal and Man Utd are recounted by the men we had between the sticks (Shay Given and Steve Harper, respectively), Keith Gillespie talks about having the game of his life against Barcelona, and Dyer and Bowyer recall what brought them to trade blows in front of 50,000 supporters – and how their famously mild-mannered manager Graeme Souness reacted.
Herein lies a problem, though. Hardy’s understandable gratitude towards his interviewees for the time and access they’ve given him sometimes leads him to treat them too kindly and reverentially. Most obviously, he allows Freddy Shepherd to defend himself and Douglas Hall over the 1998 Mazher Mahmood sting that caught the pair insulting the club’s fans, the region’s women and the team’s talismanic striker: “We had a few drinks. There was nee knocking shop involved, as was tried to be portrayed, a load of bollocks, there wasn’t owt like that involved. Purely it was a case of a few drinks and trying to impress him to get him to Newcastle.” You could perhaps claim, rather charitably, that this is a case of Hardy giving Shepherd enough rope to hang himself with, but personally I’d argue that Shepherd’s boorish idiocy deserves explicit criticism.
The News of the World story may have generated substantial negative press for the club, to such an extent that Shepherd and Hall were both pressurised into stepping down, but the truth is that it wasn’t the first major PR blunder of that season. Hardy notes that Shepherd and Dalglish’s complaints about safety arrangements at Broadhall Way, the ground of our FA Cup opponents Stevenage, that January provoked “an unseemly row” but otherwise glosses over the episode. The debacle deserves greater consideration within the context of the overall narrative: we came across as bully-boys and consequently squandered our status as everyone’s favourite second team – a legacy from King Kev’s reign. That incredible triumph over Barcelona suddenly felt a lifetime ago, not just four months.
Like Touching Distance and particularly Rafa’s Way, Tunnel of Love is also let down by some shoddy proofreading: several typos and even one instance of a repeated sentence have slipped through the production net. I’d love to think that the reference to Juventus and Italy goalkeeper “Gianluigi Buffoon” is Hardy’s tribute to Kinnear and his inability to pronounce the names of any of his players, but sadly I suspect not.
Not that it really detracts from what is an engrossing and very enjoyable account of a period unsurprisingly recalled with much less fondness than the era of the Entertainers. The book might end with misery at Villa Park, but the epilogue takes the reader inside the dressing room at Leyton Orient’s Brisbane Road, after a 6-1 pre-season friendly humiliation. The senior player-led inquest that day was the catalyst for our revival and promotion back to the Premier League at the first attempt. Hardy skipped a few years by moving on to cover the 2016/17 Championship campaign in Rafa’s Way. Here’s hoping he now goes back and fills in the gap.