DAN TOON on returning to St. James’ Park after a fourteen-year absence…
Until last month, I hadn’t set foot inside St. James’ Park for over fourteen years. The Keegan ‘constructive dismissal’ had been the final straw for me. I wasn’t offering my financial support to Ashley.
At the time, I claimed that I would take a consortium of evil consisting of Pol Pot, the Boston Strangler and Sub Zero from Mortal Kombat over the gluttonous Kinder egg and his band of henchmen. Twelve (mostly) inglorious years later and my dream sort of came true. But the latest takeover left me with a dilemma. How could I justify my moral stance during the Sh**e D****t years and not have concerns over the new owners? I didn’t want our new overlords to get a penny out of me.
“How about if WE pay for you to go to the match?” said close friends and family members.
A weakness in my ‘Death Star’ argument was found. The direct hit was this: I was offered a hospitality ‘corporate’ ticket for the home game against Leicester City. The chance of a posh seat and possible Champions League qualifying match decider. What of the morals? What would Alex Thomson do? It’s a birthday present, and you can’t refuse a birthday present, can you?
My dentist said I should go. My match-attending mates said I should go. I bumped into True Faith’s very own Charlotte Robson on a train, who said I should go (and also write about it). Everyone said I should go.
So here I am. It’s 5:40pm on a Monday afternoon and I’m on my way to The Strawberry. My first Newcastle game for nearly fourteen and a half years. Accompanying me is the (real) class of ’92: a now vintage, boxed Subbuteo team from the 1992/93 promotion season (the last one with the thick/thin black and white stripes). I missed my mate’s 50th last year so I’ve brought it along as the present that I was supposed to give to him. It serves as a reminder of where we came from and where we’ve been. There’s a similar buzz in the city to the one we experienced in the spring of ’93. Then as now, the opposition is Leicester City.
As we walk up to the ground, I spot the Sky cameras interviewing fans. I can’t resist a ‘Howay the Lads’ at the top of my voice. I hope the microphone picks it up. Five minutes later we’re in the lift and inside the stadium. As it’s the posh bit, there’s no football shirts and little in the way of team colours. We order food and get an introduction from Ian Payne, the fella from the local ITV news. The special guest this evening is Franz Carr, one of the aforementioned class of ’92. Not wanting to miss a trick, I encourage my mate to ask Franz to sign the back of the Subbuteo box. He agrees and Franz signs!
In the hospitality, a further famous face is spotted – one of the blokes from Kasabian. Let’s hope he comes away empty handed. I get that song from the ‘Goal!’ movie in my head and consider how many times Miggy Almiron and the rest of the South American contingent have watched it. Post-scran (a decidedly average chicken and chips in case you’re asking) we head out into the stadium and I get my first look in years.
The ‘Wor Flags’ display hasn’t started yet, but stepping inside is still awe inspiring. You can no longer smell the tabs or the brewery, but I’m amazed that you can still smell the turf, even in our seats below the away fans. I pick up my flag and start waving and have a good look round. The flag display is fantastic, but I notice that the place is looking a little shabby and weathered since the last time that I saw it. The concrete is looking tired and the hard plastic perspex in parts of the ground is dirty and in places, mouldy. We’ve come a long way since Sir Bobby’s pride and joy. The neglect of the Ashley years is apparent and it’s obvious that the place requires a deep clean.
What’s also apparent, is that the place still isn’t finished. The Milburn and the Leazes still look great, but the Gallowgate is as it was in 1995. If there was ever time for redevelopment, it’s now. I sincerely hope that a stadium expansion is a priority. Extending the Gallowgate would probably also help to keep the noise in. Speaking of which, the atmosphere in the Leazes appears flat in comparison to other parts of the ground. A few voices, including my own try to start chants, but no one is following. At points, you can hear the Leicester fans singing above us and there’s little attempt to sing back at them from our section.
I have a feeling that the atmosphere may have been better here against Brighton. The noise and atmosphere when Wilson and Bruno scored came across loud and clear when watching it on TV. The lack of atmosphere tonight could also of course be down to the game. As it stands, we only need a point to qualify for the Champions League and there is an edginess in the stadium. I still manage to become engrossed in the game, so much so that I forget that we only need a point and convince myself that we need to win and take all three.
I’m pretty sure I just add to the tension in the ground, barking orders at the forwards to move. Fortunately, the point is good enough and the biggest cheer of the night is at the end of the game. This is probably just as much relief as it is celebration, especially after Nick Pope’s match saving, er, save in stoppage time. Conceding then really would have been classic Newcastle. I really didn’t want to have to go to Chelsea and get a point. We don’t and the celebrations begin, concluding with a lap of honour.
After a twenty-year gap, we’ve qualified for the Champions League. I remember being here the last time we kicked a champion’s league ball in anger – losing a qualifier on penalties to Lothar Matthäus’ Partizan Belgrade. Typical. Bobby must have been livid. Even after a run in the UEFA cup, it’s my contention that the club never fully recovered. We failed to finish fourth at the end of that season and, well, you know the rest.
After the game, we get back to the lounge and get the beers in. It still feels subdued as we leave, but that doesn’t last long. On our way out, we walk round to the centre section and spot the trophy cabinet. I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t even realise that we had one. There it is though, the Fairs Cup. A mythical piece of silverware if ever there was one. There are also the trophies from our promotion seasons of 2009/10 and 1992/93. A sign we hope.
As we get outside the ground and walk past the Sir Bobby Statue, we join the chant “Tell me ma…” At this point, a documentary team from Amazon asks for an interview and we’re happy enough and ‘refreshed’ enough to oblige. I can just about manage to say “This is my first game here in fourteen years”. As we finish the interview, my brother spots Lee Clark and another ‘Class of ’92’ opportunity presents itself. “Clarkie!” I shout. “Can you sign me mate’s Subbuteo team?” “Do I look like I carry pens?” replies Clarkie. Pen-less, he agrees to a photograph and we capture another link to 1992. Cheers Lee!
Fortunately, we’ve all taken a day off tomorrow, so it’s a no-brainer when we get an invite to the Dog and Parrot. There’s no sign of Supermac or ‘Gibbo’, but the place is rammed and there’s about 10 of my mates in there. The music is good: Oasis, Pulp and fellow North Shields alumnus Sam Fender. At one point the “Eddie is our King” song drowns out the music. Some of the non-fans appear to be mystified, but the penny soon drops. The DJ finishes the night by playing Bowie’s ‘Starman’ and we all go mental. It definitely feels like ’93 all over again.
All in all, a grand night out. Some unbelievable coincidences and several flashbacks to the Keegan era and the ‘old’ Newcastle. There are differences of course. The ticket for tonight was £300. That’s £300 for chicken, chips, a beer, a programme and a game of football. In the 1992/93 season I remember paying about £6.00 and I brought my own sundries.
So where to from here? Will we build a legacy? Will we extend the stadium? Can we capitalise on something we’ve failed to in the past? Will I go I again? I’m not ruling anything out, but my long-term hope is for a German-style ‘fan ownership’ model. I’m not holding my breath that I’ll see that in my lifetime. It’s probably more likely that we’ll follow the path taken by Manchester City. If that brings half of their success, who am I to complain? Regardless of my own attendance, I just hope we don’t relocate and that the club stays in the city centre. An out-of-town transplant doesn’t really bear thinking about.
Old, new, or quadruple bypassed, and regardless of whether I’m there or not, Newcastle United really is – and always should be – the beating heart of the city.