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A Different Time and Place

5 years ago

There was a time when John Hall talked about a team of Geordies for the Geordie nation. Well, in 2016, nothing could be further from the truth.

Although the game at Fulham saw the most British names in a starting eleven for many a year, Newcastle’s squad for the coming season is still 50% foreign.

Back in the seventies, the thought of a Newcastle team containing a team with Belgians, Spaniards and Africans in it, would have been too ridiculous to even contemplate.

Nearly as ridiculous as our ground having 52,000 seats, or the Baltic  being turned into a fancy art museum.

The fact that half our squad would also be black, is something that many of those Newcastle fans standing on the terraces back then would not have been comfortable with. Now let’s not try and rewrite history, Newcastle in the late seventies was not a trendy cosmopolitan city.  Many a fan could easily have been a drinking partner of Alf Garnett, but we have moved on and these days we no longer care whether the man wearing the shirt is from Blaydon or Botswana.

Someone born in Pennywell is pushing it a bit but hey, we can’t be perfect

To say the football world has changed during the last  40 years, is to state the bleeding obvious.

Possibly the only thing remaining at Newcastle from those bygone days of terraces, standing in the rain and manky Bovril, are a few thousand baldy headed men.  Of course those baldy blokes are no longer the Newcastle Casuals. Now we are the Newcastle Cantankerous.

Anyway, the Fulham game got me thinking about  the last time we started a second division season in south London, and so I thought I would reflect on an opening match  from back in the middle ages.

Millwall August 1978

Relegated in a truly abysmal fashion the season before, Newcastle were back in Division two for the first time since the early sixties.  The only thing in a worse state than our football club was the actual country itself.  Those who were around at the time will remember that football grounds were not a place for the faint hearted to spend time in.

Newcastle’s first game in the lower division was at Cold Blow Lane. This was the home of Harry the Dog (try looking him up on youtube) and the most infamous firm in England.

The train from Newcastle arrived in  Kings Cross  and  a very loud, very drunk and very scary bunch of lads got off. For anyone on that train who wasn’t going to the match, it must have been the journey from hell.

After a few beers at the station, we all set off for Bermondsey and an hour or so later arrived outside a ground that made the  open terraces of  St James Park look like the Nou Camp. It really was a hideous dump – but what a very intimidating dump it was.

We were given half of one end and were separated from our hosts by fencing that I think had spikes on the top.  Newcastle’s  players wouldn’t fetch the ball from in front of the home fans and we had the pleasure of spending 90 minutes having various pieces of concrete hurled at our heads.

You would also  think that our new striking partnership of John Connolly and Jim Pearson  were wearing concrete boots for all the threat they had on the Millwall goal. Newcastle were dire and despite actually going ahead, it was no surprise to lose in London yet again.

The team that day was  made up  of 11 men from the British Isles. Not one Johnny foreigner in sight. It made no difference, we were still crap.

Plod decided to keep us in for an age, which only seemed to be done to allow the home fans plenty of time to set up their ambushes. Even as a pretty fit teenager, being chased by hairy arsed dockers while wearing my best brown baggies and my platform soles wasn’t a lot of fun.

Once out of Millwall’s patch, we then had the added pleasure of being attacked by West Ham fans, who were also at home that day. What a bloody nightmare.

If you ever saw a film that came out around this time called ‘The Warriors’, it would neatly sum up the journey back to the station, although if I’m honest I don’t remember actually being chased by a gang  dressed in a New York Yankees baseball kit,

We finally got back to Kings Cross to find the train was long gone, meaning many a lad spent the next few hours  huddled in the toilets. Funnily enough this was the only place in the whole of London where the locals wanted to be friendly to Geordies.

As a postscript, four days later we played our first home game and were duly stuffed by West Ham, 27,000 turned up.

In a season where we were unbelievably useless, and played the likes of Orient, Wrexham and Cambridge, the average attendance at St James Park was 23,000.

You get the odd argument about clubs’ past attendances, but to get 23,000 to watch this club at a time of mass unemployment and crappy football was a real testament to the  commitment and blind loyalty of the Newcastle fans.

In comparison, Crystal Palace won the league (second division) this year and had the same average turnout. Even the Champions and European cup winners Nottingham Forest only managed to average 30,000.

Football in 1978?  It was a different time and a different place.

But what I would give to do it all again.



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