Thursday, February 10, 2011

Billy Costine's Flight of a Magpie

I stumbled across this great story in the English Newcastle Chronicle this evening about a man from my home town of Waterford. His name is Billy Costine, he’s 58 years old and his autobiographical book called The Flight of a Magpie is about to be published in the next few months. The reference to Magpies is about Newcastle United Football Club, a side Costine has had a near-lifetime association with. (photo via Newcastle Chronicle of Billy Costine and Peter Beardsley)

Costine has been a Newcastle fan for 50 years. With little cultural affiliation between Waterford and Newcastle, the reason a boy in the south-east of Ireland becomes a fan of a club in the north-east of England takes a bit of explaining. In 1961 aged 8, Costine played the table top football game Subbuteo with his brothers. The game was created 16 years earlier, by British game designer and RAF veteran Peter Adolph who had an interest in both football and ornithology. Adolph wanted to call his creation “hobby” for the Eurasian hobby, a type of falcon. His request was turned down by patent officers because of the wider meaning of hobby so instead he called it by a part of the bird’s Latin name “falco subbuteo”.

The etymology would have been unknown to most boys of Costine's generation, but the game itself was legendary. It was a rite of passage for many boys growing up in Ireland and Britain - including myself about ten years later. Costine played endless games with his brothers until they tired of the standard red and blue colours of the two playing teams. “My brother David said we could send away for other teams,” Costine told the Newcastle Chronicle. “I looked at the small brochure, which featured all the teams in the first division, and saw this team with black-and-white stripes".
The Magpie, he said, was born there and then.

In 1961 it wasn’t easy for a boy in Waterford to become a Magpie. There was no Internet in those days and no access to English television. There were English newspapers available but they tended to concentrate on the big London, Manchester and Liverpool clubs. Instead, Costine became addicted listening to the BBC on short wave radio. Every Saturday afternoon, he would tune in to hear about the progress of Newcastle’s games and listen to the final results read out at 5pm. He became a passionate fan and soaked up every scrap of information he could find about his heroes.

It would take 15 years before he could see them in the flesh. The cost of a flight in those pre-Ryan Air days was prohibitive and getting there by train and ferry was an enormous and time-consuming undertaking. By 1976 however, Costine was making money. He was a glass cutter at Waterford Crystal during a time when the workers there were acquiring significant union muscle. In 1976 A friend from the factory pulled some strings to get tickets to a Liverpool-Newcastle clash at Anfield. Billy hoped to see his heroes get revenge for their cup final defeat to Liverpool two years earlier but he was to be disappointed. His first Newcastle match ended in a 2-0 loss to the Magpies.

Billy went home undeterred, delighted he had finally seen the team he loved and dreaming of when he could finally watch them at home in Newcastle. It would take another 11 years for this wish to become a reality. Costine finally got to see St James Park in 1987. The Newcastle manager at the time was another Irishman with a long and loyal association with the club. Iam “Willy” McFaul arrived as a player in 1966 from Northern Irish football and served as coach, assistant manager and then manager until he was sacked 22 years later. Costine arrived a year before McFaul was ousted and had laid the groundwork with a letter to the manager. McFaul arranged for Costine to meet the team.

As Costine he left the dressing room, Billy spotted his heroes – Joe Harvey and Jackie Milburn. Both men had played football for Newcastle in a golden era in the 1950s. This was before Costine’s time but it didn’t stop him from absorbing either the mythology or the moment. “I remember like it was only yesterday,” he said. “There I was, stood between two of the greatest names ever to play for the Magpies, while Willie McFaul took the most prized picture I own.”

Since then, Billy travelled to Newcastle for the last home game of every season. He has become a well-known figure around the ground and has forged friendships with several ex-players such as John Anderson and Bob Moncur. Over the years he met most of the Newcastle greats including Alan Shearer, Paul Gascoigne, Malcolm McDonald, Peter Beardsley, Kevin Keegan and Bobby Robson. His connections got him a job with the club as a talent scout with a brief to cover Ireland hunting for promising young players for the Newcastle United Academy. “To do a scouting job for the club I have supported since I was eight years old was a dream come true,” Billy said. “Most of the boys I helped send over on trial have been capped at schoolboy level and up for Ireland.”

Costine has turned his story into a book but it hasn’t been an easy path to publication. Costine was made redundant as the state of Waterford Crystal deteriorated and he got a job driving buses for Bus Eireann. In 2005 he was involved in an accident in Cork and accused of careless driving. Costine blamed the accident on the poor quality of the bus and he was vindicated after an inquiry found other drivers too had experienced power surges in Bus Eireann buses.

Then Costine got into a row with his former publisher Francis de Roelman, also of Waterford. Costine claimed he had given de Roelman €5,000 in a contract to publish the book and he provided the publisher with a manuscript as well as photos and memorabilia to illustrate the book. De Roelman said he had not been paid and kept the manuscript and memorabilia. The District Court awarded the case to Costine but de Roelman appealed to the Circuit Court. In February last year, Circuit Judge Olive Buttimer affirmed the decision to grant €5,000 and costs to Costine for breach of contract for failing to publish his life story. The Court also ordered de Roelman to return the manuscript and memorabilia. The Flight of a Magpie is now due out in May, fittingly at the end of the football season.

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