'All that's left is the Toon'

25th February 2000 at 00:00
Football is becomiong more exclusive. A game that was once the pride and joy of the working classes is being taken away from its traditional constituency.

Jonathan Tulloch, a teacher in Gateshead, has made gentrification of football the focus for his first novel, The Season Ticket, published last month and already being made into a film.

Tulloch, a former secondary school teacher who now teaches excluded pupils, wanted to write about the consequences of stripping a community of its work and its culture. The Season Ticket is the story of two impoverished boys, Gerry and Sewell, who dream of getting enough money together , largely by "twoc-ing" (taking cars without the owner's consent), to buy a pair of season tickets for Newcastle United - only season ticket holders get in.

Gerry is malnourished, thin and quick-witted; Sewell is huge and slow. Gerry's father is an abusive alcoholic, his brother is in prison, his mother is dying of TB; Sewell is dependent on his senile grandfather and has been permanently excluded from school. Gerry, though bright, is a habitual truant.

They roam the streets of Gateshead hatching wild schemes to raise the cash, such as dealing in scrap metal with the help of a Tesco trolley salvaged from the Tyne. They bungle their plans hilariously every time, with ultimately tragic consequences. The black humour and the extent of the deprivation is reminiscent of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes.

The season ticket becomes a symbol of better times, when working fathers could take their sons to the match and the family bond was strong. The boys want to relive that dream, which has always been and will always be beyond their reach. They become desperate when they are told that even if they had the money - a Newcastle season ticket costs nearly pound;400 - there are 17,000 people on the waitig list.

Jonathan Tulloch, 31, lives in Gateshead and says he meets lads like Sewell and Gerry every day on the streets and through his work. The main theft in the book, he says, is the game that's been stolen from them. "Football is what's left over from industrialisation," he says. "An industrial community has existed here in Gateshead for longer than perhaps anywhere else in the world, but these kids are at the end of it, they're the last ones. All that's left of the pride that existed is the Toon. That's why it's more than just a football team to people."

Tulloch, a philosophy graduate from a working-class background, once attended matches himself, but not any more. "I wouldn't go now; you just get fleeced. This business about bonds, that's just another con trick. The problem is with the shareholders who expect dividends."

A practising Catholic, Tulloch worked for a while in the townships of Johannesburg, in a school for black children. "I have learned so much from those children," he says. "Despite the constant murders and rapes they had such joy, such faith in education. When I came back to Gateshead I could see things more clearly. I felt I had a lot to learn from kids like Gerry and Sewell and the life they lead."

In 1995, while still a secondary school teacher, Tulloch wrote and recorded a song, Such Love in our Hearts, with his wife Shirley, to raise money for a Church Action in Poverty project for the homeless; he persuaded Tony Blair and former Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan to sing on the record.

"Keegan cared a lot. He really wanted to help, but I think footballers themselves should do more. I think they should see it as part of their job to reach out to disadvantaged communities and offer themselves as more positive role models. Playing should just be part of what they do."

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