Every couple of weeks I introduce you to an English football club which I assume you (my non-English readers) don’t know much about. In other words, you won’t be reading about Man U or Chelsea in this space.
This week we meet a team from the Northeast that is back in the Premier League after spending one year kicking ass and breaking attendance records in the Championship. In fact, they have just secured their Premier League status for the 2019-20 season.
Newcastle upon Tyne, on the coast about four hours northeast of London and less than 90 minutes south of Edinburgh, Scotland.
If you’re measuring clubs by stadium size and fan base, Newcastle is one of the biggest. Their palatial 52,000-seater is packed almost every game with rowdy as hell fans, even though they haven’t won the top flight since 1927. While I hate to say it with so many friends in rival Sunderland, I am glad to have NUFC in the Premier League, and I feel they should be more successful than they are.
In case you’re wondering what all this promotion and relegation stuff is about — here you go.
The Magpies, for their traditional black and white striped shirts. Their fans are known as the Toon Army, based on how the word town is pronounced in the local accent. Locals are also referred to as Geordies.
Premier League; they were promoted for the 2017-18 season.
13th in the Premier League, Quarterfinals FA Cup, 2nd Round League Cup
The very impressive St. James’ Park, which locals refer to as the biggest church in town. It has 52,354 seats, is beautiful, and is right smack in the middle of town, about a 15-minute walk from the train station. In fact, a city street runs under one stand.
It has a reputation for being one of the rowdiest places in the league, and during the one year they spent in the Championship, they averaged about 45,000 per game there. It’s the seventh biggest stadium in the country, and when I was there, on a Wednesday night in the Championship in January, they still had 45,000 people!
Here is a panorama I took during the St. James’ Park tour (and check out the tour guide’s Geordie accent!):
There was an earlier club playing at St. James’ Park in 1886, and it merged with another to form Newcastle United in 1892. They quickly became a national power, winning the league three times and making five FA Cup Finals by 1911 (they lost four of them). They won the Cup again in 1924 and 1932, but were relegated in 1934. After World War II they surged again, winning three FA Cups in the first half of the 1950s, then were relegated again for a few years in the 60s.
Here, by the way, is the British Pathé newsreel of the 1955 FA Cup Final, which I offer for two reasons: one is just so you can see it, but mainly, and honestly, because the announcer — in a freaking British newsreel! — uses the word soccer.
Newcastle United were then pretty ordinary until the early 90s, but then they signed a man — nay, a god if you ask the locals — named Alan Shearer.
He was a local boy who turned professional with Southampton in 1988, was their Player of the Year in 1991, and then was sold to Blackburn Rovers in 1992. In 1995, he set a league record with 34 goals and helped Rovers win the Premier League. Yes, Blackburn Rovers once won the Premier League! Amazing, since now they play at places like Brentford.
In 1996, Shearer signed with Newcastle, and over the next 10 years he scored 206 goals in 395 games, occasionally leading the league in scoring and setting a Premier League record with 11 hat-tricks. And yet, it must be pointed out, in all those years Newcastle never won a trophy.
Anyway, here is a video of his six best goals (according to him), and featuring his classic Newcastle accent. He is now a regular commentator on the BBC.
I will add that the image of him running around with his right arm in the air is, for my generation of Americans, the equivalent of Joe Montana sticking both arms up in the air after tossing a touchdown pass.
After Shearer retired in 2006, another decline began, with relegation in 2009, finishing above 10th in the Premier League only once, and getting relegated again in 2016. But, as in 2009, they crushed the Championship and came back up in a year.
the main story of their recent history has been a toxic relationship between the fans and their owner, Mike Ashley. He keeps saying he wants to sell the club, which everyone wishes he would do, but deals keep falling through. The most recent, in 2020, came the closest, but a group from Saudi Arabia backed out at the last minute.
Bobby Robson, who managed them from 1999 to 2004 and had them in the top five a few times. Jackie Milburn, who played 353 games for the club in the 40s and 50s, scoring 177 goals (and is in that newsreel above). And, of course, Shearer, with his right arm aloft.
There are many, many songs from the Toon Army. They are considered among the most loyal fans — how could they not, sticking with the team all these years — and among the most willing to travel.
Their most famous is Blaydon Races.
Here it is with the lyrics:
And here are the Geordies giving it a go:
Sunderland is less than 15 miles away, and their rivalry has to be one of the most bitter in the country.
They can’t even agree on what to call it! In Sunderland, on the River Wear, this is known as the Wear-Tyne Derby. In Newcastle, of course, it’s the Tyne-Wear. They both chant “Ha’way the Lads,” although Newcastle spells it “Howay.” There is a strong big brother – littler brother thing going on, where Newcastle is the big, famous, glamorous city with the big stadium and relatively glorious history. But it’s much deeper than that, literally going back to the English Civil War in the 17th century. They even voted differently on Brexit, for goodness’ sake.
I had a taste of this once, when I had been to a game in Sunderland, then the next morning took a taxi to the station in Newcastle. The cabbie, when he heard I’d been to the game, turned slowly around and said to me, “And who was ya supportin’?” I nervously said, well, I always support who I sit with, and I have some friends in Sunderland, so …
“No ya don’t,” he said. “Ya can’t have friends over there, because they got nowt for decency, that lot.”
I had earlier mentioned that I lost my iPhone, and he insisted — quite seriously — that one of my Sunderland “friends” probably took it. It’s really embarrassing to see adults acting this way, but hey, football is tribal.
And you want even? They have played 155 times since 1883, and each team has won 53 times with 50 draws!
Both of the northeast clubs also have a secondary rivalry with Middlesbrough, but I’ve never heard anyone get worked up about it in either town.
What else to do in town:
I love Newcastle. It’s compact, historic, beautiful, and filled with interesting sights. Their riverfront is quite famous for all the bridges, there are pubs all over, and there is even an all-soccer (well, football), bookstore.
Rather than take up time here, I will send you to my posts Visiting Newcastle, with a big photo gallery, and Travel Guide: Newcastle, with tips on where to stay and all the other clubs in the area. It’s a great hub for exploring the northeast and even getting into Scotland.
And, of course, for seeing a big-time club in a beautiful stadium filled with raucous fans.