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Opinion

‘St James Park expansion – Once in a lifetime chance needs to be taken’

2 months ago
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I’ve got my tin hat on and I’m ready to be labelled a philistine: for the good of Newcastle United and for the great city of Newcastle upon Tyne, those cherished listed buildings behind the East Stand of St James Park need to be demolished.

I can already feel the rage among the various civic societies and heritage groups – not to mention Leazes Terrace residents – taken aback at my outlandish statement.

And I am more than happy to admit straight away that I don’t know enough about those buildings to truly appreciate why they attracted ‘listed’ status to start with, though I don’t doubt they merited it.

Nonetheless, I do know one thing for sure: they’re not half as important to the landscape or heritage of our magnificent city as St James Park is, and I know which one I’d rather not lose.

There is a reality to be faced on that front: the reborn Newcastle United have already outgrown their premises. We need look no further than the ‘at least’ 33,000 people who queued online for a handful of season tickets this week for proof of that.

Our ambitious new owners have to do everything they can do maximise income – not to feather their own nests like the last owner would have done, but to ensure the FFP (Financial Fair Play) rules Newcastle face, don’t stifle the club’s potential.

Let’s not forget that those restrictions were brought in after Chelsea and Manchester City underwent their transformations, so it’s a much trickier path to success that Newcastle’s owners must navigate.

Now if we dig a little deeper beneath the 33,000 fighting for those tickets, there are some unknowns which could actually make the true figure a bit more or a bit less.

On the one hand, plenty of those sitting in the online queue would have been fielding multiple devices to maximise their chances of a place near the front when the 10am lottery randomly ordered the queue (which wasn’t actually “first come, first served” at all).

While on the other hand, many will have logged on representing larger friends and family groups linked to their accounts, so just because one person managed to get on the website didn’t mean they’d only purchase the one ticket.

Also, you have to remember that only ‘eligible’ Newcastle fans (those without a current season ticket but with a purchase history from July 2019 onwards) could buy that handful of season ticket released this week.

Yet what is beyond question is, one way or another, there is huge demand that our stadium in its current form simply can’t meet. If the owners can find a solution to that, it could increase income by tens of millions of pounds each year in the future, which can be set against transfers to increase the club’s spending power within the Financial Fair Play rules.

We’ve all dared to dream in the last few months and the transfer activity both in January and this summer is giving us reason to think those dreams on the pitch could eventually and incredibly become reality.

However, the idea of a stadium to suit will remain a total fantasy until the existing physical restrictions around St James Park are overcome.

We know there is work to do behind the Gallowgate in terms of hopefully getting control back of the land across from St James Park, land that the previous owner bought off the club and sold off to developers for a personal profit.

Yet that problem isn’t insurmountable, particularly given that one area where the new owners aren’t restricted is in terms of capital expenditure, on things like improvements to the facilities and infrastructure.

Leazes Terrace is another story. Britain has some very peculiar rules when it comes to protecting our buildings, so much so that organisations like English Heritage would almost prefer to see a listed structure crumble than agree to its modernisation

What we have to hope for in this case is some perspective though. The club’s owners cannot ignore the revenue streams that are achievable if we had the right stadium and if it can’t be achieved at St James Park, then they will have no choice but to move to a new ground.

Personally, I’d hate to see that happen. I’m rather captivated by the romantic story of our stadium’s heritage as a football ground: that Newcastle West End faced financial difficulties but had a rather nice pitch, and that Newcastle East End swept in to form the first genuine ‘United’ (by literal definition) in the original Football League.

Newcastle United was born and St James Park has been its home ever since.

Yet even 12 years prior to those 1892 events, a predecessor club called Newcastle Rangers first took residence on the site in 1880.

That’s 142 years of football being played on that pitch – aside from the old castle and its walls, where else in Newcastle boasts such a heritage or social history? How many Geordies and Northumbrians have stood around that pitch or thereabouts to cheer on the club that epitomises the fierce local pride in our area?

Now, I don’t dispute for a moment that the Georgian Leazes Terrace is a structure of significance, but there are other Georgian terraces. How many other St James Parks are there? (I know, I know, there’s one in Exeter… but you get what I mean)

I just wonder if the city will continue to place value in that old Georgian terrace if, in a decade, it looks out upon a modern housing estate where once stood one of the great footballing theatres.

If the development and expansion of St James Park is prevented, the reality is the stadium won’t be there too much longer.

How many returning natives will cross the railway bridge in future generations, look to the space where our magnificent stadium once dominated the skyline and think: “Oh well, at least we’ve still got that Georgian terrace?”

Not many I should think.

That’s why the city now needs to come together: the club, the people and the local authorities to come up with a plan that enables St James Park to once again be reinvented – just as it was in the 1990s – to meet the needs of its people and ensure it remains fit for purpose.

This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to allow the ambitions of the club’s owners to be the drivers which make long-held pipedreams of the supporters a reality, and everyone needs to get behind them to help make it happen.

And if buildings, roads or – dare I say – some of the green space on Leazes Park have to make way for that to happen, then so be it.

St James Park remains the greatest modern monument in the city of Newcastle Upon Tyne, and whatever characteristics other buildings or structures may boast, it trumps them every time.

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