Yes, St. James Park – under its true and proper name – takes its rightful place on the world stage next week, after having missed out on the World Cup back in 1966, when the club declined to update its then dilapidated facilities. We’ve had England qualifiers and group matches during Euro 96 but now; at last, the eyes of the world are genuinely upon us.
And those eyes will be gazing down on an authentic piece of Great British history, not some much-vaunted, yet soulless concrete amphitheatre, which after two weeks of use will be stripped out and fought over by a couple of football clubs, neither of which will be within their traditional hinterland once they take up the tenancy. An awe inspiring monument to one hundred and twenty years of football – in all that time the focal point of a region steeped in the folklore of the game.
It wasn’t always like that, of course, and it’s been almost as long a road for those of us that can still remember the ‘old’ SJP: crumbling terraces open to the elements, toilet facilities that you had to wade through, not to mention the rusting corrugated iron hut that passed for a main stand.
The one legacy the Hall/Shepherd administration did leave us with is a ground we can be proud of, a stadium that clubs like Liverpool, Everton & Spurs fight back tears at the mere thought of. What’s more, it was achieved without the need to move from our spiritual home in the heart of the city, something fans of quite a few other clubs have had to face up to in recent times.
Indeed ‘legacy’ is a word that’s been thrown about with abandon in the years and months running up to these Olympics; but surely tradition is just as important. It might not exactly be in the spirit of the games but for me, part of the tradition of watching football has always been the ritual of the pre- and post-match pint, in my case at the Companions before, the Labour Club after. With the exception of the Ricoh Arena, all the grounds being used have either been redeveloped in-situ over time like ours, or rebuilt on the site of their predecessors, with their surrounding pubs still only a hop, skip and a jump away from them. Maybe Seb Coe had been reading my mind all along.
Compare this with the idea of attending an Olympic football match in Middlesbrough, for example, with your sole option for a pub being the Chemical Arms over the railway tracks from the away end. Not very Olympian, that! Ditto the Reebok, DW and most of the other minor clubs with new grounds, including s*nderland. No wonder none of them were used.
Some of the bigger ‘new’ grounds are no better, including one that started life in much the same way as that concrete bowl down at Hackney Marshes. I used to work about a mile from where the Etihad (‘Bell End’) is now in East Manchester, I know there were never any decent pubs round the wasteland it was built on because we always used to head in the opposite direction on works night outs. OK as a site for ginseng tea sipping athletics fans, I suppose, but bugger all use to your average football supporter – and I’m sure many Citeh fans would concur.
So for now, we can sit back and enjoy our hallowed stadium becoming one of the centrepieces of the Olympic football competition this summer, then look forward to the real event – a new season of Premier League and European football that promises more than we could’ve hoped for at any time in the last decade or so – that’s legacy in my book!
So watch with pride – and if you’re going to see any Olympic matches, enjoy.
I, for one, am looking forward to an autumn & winter full of Domestic and European Newcastle United home games – with drinks before and after.