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Black and White Stripes Forever: Mornings Live and United in the States

For country music fans - and those who love live music in general - it's a mecca; in the bars lining Lower Broadway, you can catch a different performer nearly every hour of the day, with the iconic Ryman Auditorium - country's spiritual home - just a stone's throw away. Sport, too, is a huge deal. The NFL's Tennessee Titans play just the other side of the Cumberland River at the Nissan Stadium - soon to be rebuilt on the same site - while the Nashville Predators, play-off bound in this season's NHL, are based at the Bridgestone Arena, right at the heart of the city. But, for a couple of days at the start of April, it felt very much like it was the Premier League taking centre stage.

And, in many ways, it couldn't have been more fitting. By any metric, Nashville is one of the fastest growing cities in the United States - though the rapidly evolving skyline alone does a pretty good job of attesting to that. And football, as many a local will tell you, is gaining more and more prominence. On the doorstep, Nashville SC - founded as recently as 2016 - have quickly developed a presence in the city, part of an MLS set-up which continues to swell in number. There's a World Cup to come in 2026, and a first incarnation of the revamped Club World Cup taking place here in just over 12 months. It's a time of growth, and opportunity.

That's certainly the feeling at Newcastle United these days, too. Granted, the season gone by has had its challenges, but the Magpies' fortunes - it seems safe to say - are still trending upwards, both on and off the pitch. Getting to the next level, in both regards, is the current order of the day, but there are going to be ways and means of doing it - as all of those we spoke to of a black and white persuasion in Nashville would acknowledge.

They came from almost every corner of the country, joining their local counterparts from the Music City Magpies, in addition to supporters of every other Premier League club. The centrepiece of the weekend came early on the Saturday morning, with NBC Sports' studio team delivering their Premier League Mornings Live broadcast from Nashville's Riverfront Park, just off Broadway, with pop-up jumbo screens relaying the action from every single one of the day's fixtures. The sun shone and the area was a sea of colour. Just shy of 9,000 people came through the entrance gates - the most since Mornings Live got up and running in 2018, hitting a different American city each time.

United’s contingent had started to come together before that, on the Friday afternoon. A roundtable-style workshop took place inside The Hall at Ole Red - a Broadway bar synonymous with country star Blake Shelton - before the Premier League themselves kicked the party off in earnest with the 'Weekend Warm-Up' - a free concert at the city's Skydeck venue featuring an array of local artists. Magpies fans reconvened to watch the Black 'n' Whites' game at Fulham - settled by Bruno Guimarães' late strike - before heading over to the Hard Rock Café, where Darren Eales and Rob Lee both took part in Q&As at the club's official supporters' event.

Among those who'd had a relatively short distance to travel was Jim Werdeniuk - the Music City Magpies' leader. 'The club, for me, is just community and family,' he told 'You get to meet so many people who have one commonality and maybe nothing else, but you'll know them for the rest of your life.' Jim moved to Nashville from Chicago in October 2021. Something which resembled a United supporters' group had existed in Nashville at one point, but 'no remnant of it' could be found by the time Jim arrived. Two and a half years on, the Music City Magpies are a staple, with a regular set of faces and a regular place to meet: Bad Axe Throwing, on Fogg Street.

Jim Werdeniuk, of the Music City Magpies

'I mean, I could wake up early, sit on my couch and put on the TV and watch the game, but it's always been about the community that the club brought to me, and sharing that,' Jim explained. 'I'd much rather jump up for joy with a bunch of other people than be the weird outlaw in my house!' It's a sentiment shared by many we encountered over the weekend.

'It all started off for me with a visit to the city itself,' Jim continued. 'I fell in love with Newcastle, with the architecture. Then I met a bunch of people, and - of course - they were all Newcastle fans. We kept those friendships going through sport - 'you follow my ice hockey team (the Chicago Blackhawks), I'll follow your football team, and we'll have that sense of community when I'm eight hours away'. So, it's back to the community thing; the community brought me to the club.' Exactly a week before the Mornings Live event, Jim was at St. James' Park to see the Magpies fight back from 3-1 down to stun West Ham. He was on the same flight from Heathrow as Messrs Eales and Lee.

The weekend's festivities allowed him the chance to catch up with an old friend from Chicago, Adam Snider - an influential member of the Windy City's own supporters' group. 'My grandparents went over to England for the first time when I was 12 or 13 years old, right after Alan Shearer had signed - about 1997,' Adam explained. 'I'm still trying to figure out why my grandfather had the notion in his head to get me a Shearer shirt while he was there, but he spent a whole afternoon looking for one. He brought one back for me though, at the time, it was still really hard to try and follow the club.

Adam Snider, from Toon Army Chicago

'But it gradually got easier. It really took front and centre in terms of sporting priority for me around 2013/14, when the TV coverage was almost as good as it is now. My wife, who I was dating at the time, was like: 'You need to find other people to watch games with, because you're waking me up every Saturday and Sunday morning! So I did, and I found other Newcastle supporters online, and we met at a bar in Chicago. But I was thinking: 'How does this city, with ten million people in the metro area, not have a proper supporters' group? There's got to be more of us.' That was the thinking behind Toon Army Chicago - to start bringing those people together. They might have been meeting in different bars across the city, but I just wanted to make sure they had a community and a place to come together under one roof.'

For those who read the club's official matchday programme, UNITED, it'll be a familiar story; similar organisations, which started in similar ways, can be found all over the US, with supporters from Atlanta, Denver and Philadelphia - to name just a few - having been the focus of a new series called Mags Around The World. A theme across the weekend, though, was the importance of the ties between them. 'The coolest thing about Newcastle fans is how we have this 'DIY ethic' to connect our community,' Adam pointed out. 'Obviously our fanbase isn't as big as some of the other Premier League clubs in the US, so we're always looking to do whatever's possible to bring Newcastle fans together when they may not realise there's an opportunity to.

'There's always going to be people travelling from city to city - for work, for holidays - so having that network of supporters' groups, and knowing where they all are, is massive. It's a different location, but they're still going to be welcomed into that Newcastle United-supporting community.' Jim, nodding and smiling, added: 'Everyone wearing black and white here, it's like: 'Hey!’ It's like the Spider-Man meme. 'What's your name?' 'Where are you from?' We all want to be together. Other clubs' fans, they walk past each other more. They're doing their own thing, where we're about having that 'one club, one city' mentality.'

There was a big taste of that during last year's Premier League Summer Series, which saw United play three games in three different American cities. Amy Slater, from the Gulf Coast of Alabama, was among those who got to witness the Magpies playing stateside for the first time. 'Just being there in Atlanta, watching a game with other supporters, was a big deal for me,' she recalled. A few months later, she got to take in a game at St. James' Park itself, seeing the Magpies take apart Crystal Palace in October. 'When you're here in Nashville and you go to a concert at the Ryman, you're going to the place you want to be at. Going to a game at St. James' Park felt like that to me. You can hear (the atmosphere) on the TV, but I don't think you really understand it. I went by myself, and everyone I met was super-friendly and welcoming. I made new friends, and we keep in touch.'

It was the sort of trip which, once upon a time, would have felt a million miles off. 'I didn't follow football at all,' she admitted. 'Then, in 2020, I met a Geordie. He was passionate about the club, and I really just started keeping tabs on it to see what kind of mood he was going to be in! And then I started watching, and I got curious. I was watching a lot, and I soon noticed that I wasn't just checking in on it - I was watching intently. A big part of it was the fans. I just got hooked.

Amy Slater

'It was exciting, and I started doing my research - not just about the team, but the whole Geordie culture, the dialect, the music there... And I actually found out that I have some Tyne and Wear DNA in me, on 23andMe. But it's such a stark difference - I'm from where it's really hot and humid, and the idea of the North Sea, it's like: 'Are you kidding me?!' For me, it wasn't that it was so relatable, but the fact that everything was so fascinating and different.'

The hope for Amy is that she'll meet more and more fans from the Gulf Coast area. There's every chance she will, with the Mornings Live event proving a perfect example of how you can bump into a Newcastle fan just about anywhere. Kim and Joe Avery travelled to Nashville from Lincoln, Nebraska - a two-day journey. 'We left Lincoln on Wednesday morning, about 8am,' explained Kim. 'And we got to St. Louis at about three. We stayed the night there and left on Thursday morning for Nashville, which was another five-hour drive.' For added context, United supporters who drove from Tyneside to Dortmund back in November would have covered fewer miles.

Kim and Joe have been together for 20 years and married for 16. 'Since Lincoln's a college town, we have a pretty close relationship with sport in general,' said Kim. 'Joe came home from the hospital in a Nebraska Cornhuskers onesie. He was raised to be a Nebraska fan, and I think Geordies are the same way.' The idea of common values was a constant theme for the couple, as Joe explained: 'With a lot of the Geordies we've met, they were Newcastle fans before they were out of the womb, and that's not too dissimilar to Nebraska fans and the kids who grow up there. People live and die with these things. I'm a pretty emotional guy, and I like to take that on board with the teams I support.'

Kim and Joe Avery

Kim and Joe paid their first visit to Tyneside in 2022. As was the case for Amy, it was for a game against Palace. That one finished 0-0, though there was plenty of excitement to be found elsewhere. 'We tried to figure out a way to get to the Anarchy Brewery on the Metro, but we had no clue what platform the train was leaving from or what direction we were going in!' laughed Joe. 'But there were Geordies there to help and share a beer and a conversation with later. They're very open people who look to have a good time, and they go out of their way to make sure you're taken care of. It's a culture we share with them. We loved it, and we can't wait to go back.'

They might need a pet-sitter, though. 'We got a dog two years ago - we named her Maggie, and her middle name is Tyne,' explained Kim. 'There was maybe a bit of help from Joe Willock there,' added Joe. 'But she's black and white, so we had to, really.'

A lot of the time, it's the ability to identify and relate that attracts an overseas supporter to Newcastle United. Now and again, it's the pull of something that seems novel, even exotic. But, quite often, it's a particular player who sets the ball rolling for a lifetime of devotion.

Chris Rodriguez was born in Peru. He was 13 when he moved to the US, where he ended up joining the army. He was based in Washington, South Carolina and even as far afield as South Korea. Along the way, he met his future wife, Betzy. Today, they live in the small town of Dexter, Missouri, and have three children: River, Catherine and Marco. 'Catherine, who's one, sometimes grabs River's Newcastle shirt and puts it on - it literally goes down to her ankles,' Chris chuckled.

It was, of course, the great Nobby Solano who helped Chris fall in love with United. 'He's the best Peruvian player ever,' he asserted. 'He opened a lot of doors. He was a young guy when he joined Newcastle and everything was new, but he just had one thing on his mind: make it in the Premier League.' Betzy, originally from Las Vegas, quickly became a member of the Toon Army herself after meeting her husband to be. 'The support we have around the world, it's unlike any other,' she said. 'There’s a lot of groups who exclude people outside their area, but you can find Geordies everywhere and they're friendly. They're like: 'Come, have a pint with us!''

Chris and Betzy Rodriguez

For Chris and Betzy, taking in a game at St. James' Park remains a dream. 'For me, St. James' Park is like a myth,' said Chris. 'I couldn't believe a stadium could be that great - with the fanbase roaring every match, 50,000 people... I'm only going to believe it once I get there! It's almost South American-ish.' Betzy feels similar. 'Yes, but they're more friendly, and I think that's the big difference,' she said. 'That's what the American fanbase loves.'

Chris presents a regular podcast, under the banner of 'NUFC Insiders'. 'The very reason we started it was to help grow the fanbase worldwide,' he explained. 'Of course, we have people from the UK, from the Toon, who come on, but we bring on American Mags, and we also have a show called 'Talk of the Toon Worldwide', where we bring on people from Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia, Qatar... If there's one thing we can do to help the club, it's growing the fanbase that way. There's other big clubs - I'm not going to mention any names - who haven't been doing well as far as results go over the last ten or 15 years, but they stay on top because of their fanbase - their worldwide fanbase.'

All biases aside, United were well represented in Nashville. The existing black and white contingent in the US have had a taste of what it's like to see their club back among the game's elite - during the calendar year of 2023 in particular. But what comes next - what comes now - was a hot topic all weekend; it's impossible not to be thinking about the future and what lies in store for the club - back at home, across the States and around the world. There's a recognition of the need to kick on, but doing so - across every front - will be a balancing act.

Cheryl Moon was born in Tennessee but now lives in Texas, where she started up Toon Army Dallas in 2011. She's followed the Magpies for nearly 30 years and, along with her husband, Andy, has been to St. James' Park six times. 'But, unfortunately, we've never seen a win,' she lamented. 'Though I did get to fulfil my dream of seeing Alan Shearer play live. The first game was against Middlesbrough in 2005/06. Solano scored a rocket and we saw Lee Clark's last goal for the club in the dying seconds. We were actually supposed to see two games then - the other was against Charlton, but it was postponed at short notice. We were actually in a bar in the Milburn Stand when we read across the bottom of Sky Sports News that it was going to be called off. I was devastated.'

Andy and Cheryl Moon, from Toon Army Dallas

Luckily, Cheryl and Andy's affinity for the city itself - and the wider North East region - is almost as strong as that for the club. 'Geordies are the nicest people in the world,' beamed Cheryl. 'You'll just be walking down the street, and people will stop and talk to you like they're your best friends. We always go to Tynemouth - it's one of my favourite places on earth - and we've some friends in Whitley Bay. The last time we were there, we went to Lindisfarne - it's gorgeous.'

Andy, meanwhile, grew up watching football at a time where the MLS’ predecessor – the North American Soccer League – hadn’t yet come into being and the US’ national team were routinely absent from the game’s flagship event. “Gordon Banks was my childhood hero,” he revealed. “I saw the 1966 World Cup in England, and I’ve been to eight World Cups. I love the game. And Newcastle, it’s a fans’ club. It doesn’t matter how well the team is doing, the fans support the team. Look at the West Ham game last week – 3-1 down, but no one’s leaving. People have faith.

“I love the city, I love the team and I love the people. It’s a great package deal. For us, it’s kind of like going to Disney World; yes, you don’t have the big rollercoasters and all that, but you have the thrills. It’s something to be a part of. I work at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, and for a lot of people who work there, it’s ‘whoever’s winning is my team’ – one year it’ll be Chelsea, one year it’ll be Man United, one year it’ll be Man City, one year it’ll be Liverpool. They ask: ‘Why Newcastle?’ And I say it’s because they’re a supporters’ team. You’ve got to be a diehard fan. You want to be on a bandwagon? Then we’re not the team for you. We’re a team with character.”


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