By Joe Donnohue – (@JoeDonnohue)
Sleepwalking towards a third potential relegation in ten years, you could be mistaken for thinking that Newcastle United’s home attendances would be dwindling right now.
The disconnect between supporters and those at the summit of the club’s hierarchy has never been in starker contrast. Passion, endeavour, love and devotion, meets greed, apathy and disillusionment.
That is not the case, though. Newcastle United are supported by tens of thousands at every home match. It’s a religion to some, a necessity, a tradition, fathers take sons, and those sons take their own. You will not be hard-pushed to find multiple generations of Newcastle United supporters trudging their way up the many flights of stairs at St James’ Park, all doing so in unison.
An organisation grateful for the steadfast 52,000 who come in their droves, rain or shine, win or lose, every other Saturday, is the NUFC Fans’ Foodbank – headed by the inimitable Bill Corcoran.
Bill is a volunteer at the West End Foodbank, where all of the donations collected on Newcastle United matchdays are bound for, before being redistributed to the region’s most in need individuals and families.
“It’s only a rough old Portakabin, and you can feel the love coming through the floor. They’ve got a real nice community spirit there” Bill says, prior to the home match with Wolves in December.
There is no discrimination, no shame, no prejudice, just love; something which emanates from Bill as he speaks about the foodbank.
“You might have seen politicians going to get their picture taken in foodbanks, smiling. We’ll have a big party when we close down this foodbank” he adds.
Bill speaks at length, his passion for the cause unmistakable. A man of great stature and status among Newcastle United supporters, who prior to Newcastle’s home match with Fulham in December, adorned a Father Christmas costume whilst manning his usual post adjacent to St James’ Park – not that he needed it to stand out among the masses.
It is clear from his presence at the stall, that the volunteers, passers-by and the fans, hold great respect and regard for a man who devotes so much of his own time to helping others.
A warm handshake here, a doff of a flat cap there, Bill is the beacon which people flock to, in order to express their gratitude for the valuable work he and the rest of the NUFC Fans’ Foodbank volunteers do.
But it isn’t just Bill. He stresses this point. His team of volunteers are there at every home match too, win or lose, rain or shine. Bill insists that the effort is a joint one, and that it simply would not be possible to carry out what the Foodbank do, without the help from his fellow volunteers.
Donning their hi-vis vests, they’re easily spotted in the hours preceding kick-off, but every other day of the week, they are just plain clothes supporters of Newcastle United, going about their daily business; the same as you or I. There’s one difference though, they devote themselves selflessly in an attempt to mitigate the strife that has befell some in the region.
“Newcastle’s not a city we live in, it’s a city that lives in us, wherever we go in this world” chirps Bill, as he speaks ardently about eradicating poverty in the region.
His love for the city and its people is unwavering.
At one point, Bill breaks from the interview to speak to a pair of young children, carrying one handle each of a Tesco bag for life. It’s chock-full of tins, cans, and all sorts of foodstuffs. He thanks them with a genuine warmth, chats briefly about the football and sends them on their way.
He is a man of the people, something which is indisputable when in his presence.
“Right now we’re dealing with a problem in our community where some people don’t have enough food to eat. Women don’t have toiletries, people don’t have soap, people can’t go to an interview and make themselves look presentable.”
“We give everything we collect to the West End Foodbank, which is the largest foodbank in this country”, he adds, keen to make that point clear.
The issue is a pressing one, it is a matter of life and death for some, and the Foodbank’s volunteers recognise this. Their service has been a lifeline to so many since its inception in 2013.
Bill is a man who cares little for celebrity, cares a lot for Newcastle United, but cares the most for the work that he does in ensuring vulnerable stomachs are not empty.
“[The] West End Foodbank feed up to 1,000 people a week in Newcastle. Of that, there’s about 400-450 of them who are children,” something Bill repeats on more than one occasion – a man with considerable gravitas, who recognises the severity of the situation that some families are faced with.
On a night when Newcastle’s first team laboured to a 4-2 extra-time victory over Blackburn Rovers in an FA Cup Third Round Replay, most supporters were looking towards the Fourth Round tie; a home fixture with Premier League Watford.
The Foodbank had an eye on that game too, to be played on Saturday 26th January, but for different reasons. They are grateful they have another opportunity to set up their stall, don their hi-vis vests, hold their buckets and receive the donations of the good people of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and beyond.
Their official Twitter account, found at @nufcfoodbank, posted a tweet, like clockwork, following the final whistle:
“Well done NUFC! Great goals from Sean Longstaff, Cal Roberts, Joselu and Ayoze Pérez.
Victory tonight means a home tie at St James’ Park vs Watford on Saturday January 26th & another FoodBank for #GenerousGeordies to help the West End Foodbank! #NUFC”
The work done by everyone associated in some capacity with the foodbanks, both the West End Foodbank and its subsidiary, the NUFC Fans’ Foodbank, is nothing short of incredible.
Their contribution to the local community is unmatched. In times of hardship for the region and those most in need, the football club has historically provided respite, a release from the social pressures of everyday life.
For some however, the foodbank is the respite they so desperately need, a once or twice weekly visit to that “rough, old Portakabin in Benwell”.
Ahead of Newcastle United’s upcoming home fixtures, Bill and his team won’t be hard to find – there’s the van, the vests and the vivacity with which he speaks.
Across the road on Strawberry Place, yet at the same time a world away – Newcastle United, with their billionaire owner, world-renowned manager and millionaire players – prepare for their upcoming matches. Their work continues, as does that of the Foodbank and its volunteers.