Neil Stoker has the dream job for many Newcastle United fans. For the past 15 years Neil has worked for the football club that he's loved since he was a child. Working through various positions before being offered the kit man role by Sir Bobby Robson, Neil now answers to Rafa Benetiz as his club eye an immediate return to the Premier League. But what's club life like through his eyes?
Neil, some gig you've got here. How did you get into this role at the club?
I used to be a steward on the security team that looked after the players. I started being a steward in 1991 – It was around the time of Kevin Keegan coming in. I worked as a Stadium Steward for a few years and then a job came up a few years down the line and they asked if I wanted to go for it. I said “yeah, I do, I’ll go for it” and Sir Bobby Robson interviewed me and that was that. It was very much right place and the right time. I’ve been here for 15 years. This is my 16th year.
Sir Bobby, a legend. What was that interview like?
It was very good. I just walked in and he said “see you Monday Neil”. I had been driving him for a week or two and we got to know each other. There was a lot going on at the time. The stadium was being redeveloped. We didn’t have any of the stuff we do now. There was four of us squished into one room with four washers and dryers. Sir Bobby came in and took over from Ruud Gullit. Bobby wanted someone to drive him., so the safety officer at the time asked if I would like the job of driving him where he needed to go, so I took that.
What was that like?
It was unbelievable. Some brilliant memories. I managed to go with Sir Bobby to meet players that I used to idolise as a kid. The first game I ever went to as a kid was Newcastle v Leeds. Billy Bremner and all that lot. All of a sudden I was with Sir Bobby meeting players like that. Steve Bull of Wolves – I was sitting at a table with him at this sports presentation with Sir Bobby on another table and I was just thinking “this can’t be right, why am I here”. All these players started coming around and I had Peter Shilton stood next to me, Gordon Banks. They were all sitting down and I was just thinking, “this is strange, I’m just the driver”. But that’s how Bobby treated people. He made sure you were well looked after.
In the end I got up and said “I can’t sit here, I’m going to have to move”. Bobby was looking for me all night. There’s a bit of an unwritten rule that you don’t ask people to get something signed when working but I was young and at the time and got a programme from the event signed. I owned up to Bobby on the night and said “I’ve done this, I got the programme signed but one person didn’t sign it”. He looked at us and said “get back in there, let’s go an find him”. I was gone with it all. They were my heroes and Bobby was bringing them all to me.
What’s the transition like of this place over time?
Big, big changes. When we were at Chesterlee Street, the players would be training on public fields. Dog crap here, there and everywhere.
There’s a lot of trust placed in you guys behind the scenes?
Whatever goes on here, stays here. If people ask questions, I don’t give an answer, this is all behind the scenes and so important for the team.
How do you build rapport with the players?
Me personally, I just come in and I do the best with the tasks I’m given. I don’t ask questions. If the players need something, they’ll ask me and I’ll get it for them. I don’t ask about the gossip, are we going to buy this player or that player. That’s not for me to know.
How long are you here before the players come in?
We come in about 7am every morning to prepare for the day ahead and also the next day. Everything is prepped as much as it can be the day before so that we have the next day to think on our feet to accommodate those requests and needs that come in. So as soon as the players walk in, they don’t need to ask any questions, it’s all done. Then at around 10am, I’ll go in and see the coaches as see if they need anything else for the day. We’ve got a shed down the bottom of the pitches with everything in. All they need to do is just say “I need this...” and I’ll sort it out so that it’s ready for when the players arrive on the pitches.
Do they still get younger players to clean the older players boots?
No not any more. That's a job for the kit manager George and myself, and whoever of our staff is around to sort out. If a player has been out and I walk in and see a pair of boots, I’ll just take them and wash them so they’re ready the next time that player needs them. It’s not very often you walk in and the boots are hanging on the right pegs. Usually they’re brought in and are left on the benches or in the wet room. We round them up and put them on the right pegs.
How do you know which boots belong to which player?
It’s getting a lot better now because most players have them personalised. Some of them you can work out because there’s not many size 11s or 12s. They have names and flags on them so that helps. After a while though, even if they don’t have any personalisation, you start to get an understanding for who gets what.
Is it surreal as a football fan to be in this position?
I know in Newcastle, a lot of people would love to work for Newcastle United. I do need to stay professional. It’s a job. The players are who they are and where they are by putting the work in to get them there. I am who I am because of what I do and what I have done. Obviously they are getting paid a little better. It’s great here but it’s a job at the end of the day.
Can you get a sense of what this club means to the people locally?
I can. When you’re younger and you’re around Newcastle United, the people around you all support the club. It’s all Newcastle, Newcastle, Newcastle. When you go through town on a match day, you can feel the atmosphere and the mood in the town is totally different. If you go into town on a Monday or a Tuesday, it’s not the same. On a Saturday, you can feel the buzz like everyone has that lift, knowing that they’re going to watch Newcastle United.
What’s it like when a new manager comes in? Is there a lot of change behind the scenes?
With the managers I’ve had, I’d say not really no. They tend to keep a lot of the backroom staff that are already at the club as well as bring their own coaching staff in. They tend to stick to what’s in place already because we know the routine and what’s going on. They will probably pick our brains about what we do in certain situations. With Rafa, he asks all the time. He’s an utterly tremendous guy.
How would you describe Rafa Benitez?
I don’t say this lightly but he has so many similarities with Bobby Robson. Both passionate about football. You look at the things each of them did in Spain and I remember hearing stories from Bobby and now stories from Rafa about life at other clubs and sometimes I’m just thinking “is this me? Am I talking about football to Rafa Benitez?”. At the end of the day Rafa is Rafa and I am me. He does his job and I do mine. He’s got to get the results and I’ve got to do all I can to help.
Does it feel like a positive swell right now?
Oh yes, a big one at the minute. Very big. Since Rafa has come in, the whole place has lifted. It’s been very good for this football club.
In those 16 years, what would you say has been the highlight?
Meeting the players I have, seeing Newcastle at Wembley. Not many people can say they have seen Newcastle play at Wembley. I was lucky enough to see them play three times at Wembley. Even though they lost all three, the atmosphere was incredible each time. Meeting characters like Gary Speed, Alan Shearer, Shay Given and seeing them move on in their careers. Meeting a young lad and watching them move through to the academy and into the first team, that is very special.
How long does your day last?
It varies. You start at 7 and it all depends on how the day goes or is looking. A lot changes are based around the training sessions. My role is mainly to look after the academy and also the kit at the training ground. Every ball in training comes to me. I make sure they’re all at the right pressure and everything is sorted for the players when they go out. I always keep a pump with me on standby in case they need to be pumped back up. I’ve got to do this every morning. I’ve got to make sure all our kit has the right sponsors on it and make sure all the right equipment goes out. From the bibs to cones. I’ve got this big bag with fifteen sets of each bib, cones, flat discs so that if the manager wants something, I’ve got it here in my bag. Whistles, pens, everything, I’ve got it.
What’s it like when the team are doing well?
Oh, it’s tremendous. You can tell the difference. When you’ve had a win, everybody is lifted. One thing about this club is that you get looked after. They make sure everyone, no matter who it is, is well looked after. It’s a fantastic place to call work. Over the years, I’ve had the highs, the lows, relegation twice. Everybody is the same. You have your good weeks and you have your bad weeks. You have your good seasons and your bad seasons. It’s a tremendous place to be and with Rafa here, it’s extra special. Bobby was a tremendous guy and this man shares those qualities.