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Opinion

It’s not just football at St James Park

12 months ago
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I can still remember the look of bafflement on the editor of The Mag’s face as I told him about the plans for my weekend adventure. While he was having a steady weekend at home, I was off to catch an early train to London, as Newcastle were playing in the cup final and I was buzzing for the occasion.

Before anyone starts to question why he would be missing his team’s long awaited cup final appearance, I should clarify the details a bit here…

This was neither 1998 or 99, the year was 2004 and my destination would be Twickenham, as opposed to Wembley. I was off to see Falcons take on Sale Sharks in the rugby cup final and was just checking in with Ed to confidently proclaim that I’d be up and across to Birmingham the next morning to do the report on United’s trip to Villa, before cadging a lift off one of the supporters buses home. This weekend was gonna be great.(*)

I think anyone who’s read this far will be divided into three camps now.

Some will share my enthusiasm and remember that Falcons did indeed bring the cup home after edging a tremendous end to end game 37-33.

Others will neither care about this or the fact it appeals to me…

…and the third camp will share Ed’s disbelief that anyone would choose to spend their time getting involved with rugby.

I’ve always been a fan of the oval ball game having played it to a decent standard myself. However, as a spectator sport it was pretty much limited to the old five nations when I was a kid, until the introduction of professionalism in the mid-90s.

The birth of the Falcons out of the old Gosforth club will be something many will remember and will doubtless polarise opinion. Initially, the club was owned by Sir John Hall as part of his Newcastle sporting club vision, and this sparked a fear among United fans that funds generated by the football could be siphoned off to assist other parts of the enterprise. Falcons were of course the most obvious as they assembled a team of rugby superstars and ultimately captured the league championship in 1997-98, clinching the title the same weekend when United lost the FA Cup final to Arsenal.

Any fears of funding irregularities soon dissipated as Hall swiftly moved the Falcons on. With less wealthy backing the club fell out of contention and has spent the best part of two decades struggling against relegation, punctuated with the highs of two cup victories (including my pre-Villa trip) and the low of relegation and a season-long stay in the second tier before promotion as champions (sound familiar?)

Recent years have seen a return to relevance though, as new owner Semore Kurdi and manager Dean Richards have created an ambitious model that currently sees Falcons enjoying their best season since that ’98 title win. Currently 4th in the table and well placed for the end of season play-offs, they also have the semi-final of the domestic cup coming up and the quarter final of the European Challenge cup (basically rugby’s Europa league). They also have one of the biggest days in the club’s history later this month.

In case anyone was wondering why I’ve gone into all this on a Newcastle United website, this is the tie-in. That big day is the next home game against Northampton Saints, rescheduled to St James Park to capitalise on growing interest following the upsurge in fortunes. A decent attendance here may see the fan base grow ahead of redevelopment to increase the capacity of the Kingston Park ground.

I’ve no doubt this game will also be polarising.

At the one extreme there will be the myopic view where people are NUFC and nothing else. The main negative of having this game here is the potential impact on the paying surface, with rucks and mauls likely to give it good going over a week before a match against Huddersfield that will surely be vital in the relegation mash-up.

Aside from this, I think you’d be hard pressed to see it as a bad thing for NUFC. I’m sure some people will though, citing it as sacrilegious that a game they don’t follow is being played at a stadium meant for football.

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I understand that some people’s loyalties begin and end with NUFC, and there is nothing wrong with that. Others are football only, and may have involvement at grass roots level, or enjoy taking in the odd local non-league game when United are off duty (which is happening a bit often at the minute).

However, there will also be people like me who have an interest in another sport, and this should not diminish anyone’s standing as a Newcastle fan (Falcons home games are even usually scheduled to avoid a clash with United). I have no interest at all in basketball but I still like to see the reports that the consistently successful Newcastle Eagles have landed another trophy.

I would hope the majority will view the Falcons’ sojourn to SJP in a similar light, as a team representing the city and the North East and something the people can get behind. The rugby club currently has an owner who has ambition for greater things and has backed his talented coach to achieve that.

They are looking to capitalise on the commercial side as much as possible to fund future growth, including ground development that will allow for an expanding fan base. Wouldn’t it be amazing to say all of the above about Newcastle United?

While I realise this is not for everybody, I’d hope as many as possible from the ‘curious middle ground’ will support the Big One at SJP and lend their support to a club striving to achieve things in the name of the city.

(*)P.S. the Villa game was a dour 0-0, Andy O’Brien got sent off and Craig Bellamy pulled a hamstring that put him out of the forthcoming UEFA Cup semi-final with Marseille. United always loved to put a cloud on things.

Newcastle Falcons take on Northampton Saints at 5.30pm on Saturday 24 March – For tickets go HERE

Follow Jamie on Twitter @Mr_Dolf

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