Travelling over from Australia for our first ever game – We were met with this Newcastle United experience
I feel compelled to write this article, and I apologise for the long story, after my family made a recent visit to St. James Park for the very first time.
We are Toon supporters based on the other side of the world in Melbourne, Australia.
Here, when growing up in the late 70s early 80s English football coverage was limited. We stayed up to watch our only televised game being the FA Cup Final and got the weekly MOTD show with Jimmy Hill (used to love that anthem).
Most supported Man United or Liverpool and Spurs became popular on the back of Hoddle, Villa and Ossie winning a couple of FA Cups.
For me, Australian (Rules) Football is the religion in Melbourne, a game that’s a cross between Gaelic Football and Rugby and I was born into a Collingwood family.
This club can be summed up with the following words; working class, blue collar, 1892, Black and White stripes, The Magpies, successful until the late 50s, multiple heartbreaking moments since, loyal vocal supporters, The Black and White Army.
As the world shrunk through exposed media and the introduction of the internet, I decided to find an English club to support in the early years of the Premier League.
Research found Newcastle United; working class, blue collar, 1892, Black and White stripes, The Magpies, successful until the late 50s, multiple heartbreaking moments since, loyal vocal supporters, The Black and White Army.
We have followed their fortunes quite closely, especially over the last 8-10 years, when my son could understand and join in.
Games are generally played in the early hours of Sunday here and so, on his mum’s advice, we would record the games and watch them in the morning. Now there have been some dire moments until recently but we would watch every minute of every week regardless.
Before the likes of Bruno arrived, one of our favourite players was the Spaniard Joselu. The ball would fall to him in the box and as we launched out of our seats in anticipation we would see his shot, more often than not, hit the corner flag instead of the back of the net. But he always tried and effort was never an issue with him. He scored by mistake in one game (ED: 1-1 at SJP v Liverpool), when through on the keeper he was too slow to get the shot off but the sweeping defender cleared the ball straight into Joselu’s shin and it ricocheted into the net.
We still love that goal.
Anyway, with the family holiday booked for the UK and Paris, we eagerly awaited the PL fixture to drop. As I scrolled through, like a beacon of light, there it was: Saturday 3 September 2022, Newcastle v Palace at St.James’.
A quick check of the itinerary found us flying from Dublin to Edinburgh the day before and, with the permission of the missus, we looked to train it in and out of Newcastle on the big day. With tickets for the family secured it was a “Hallelujah” moment, similar to when the monks produced the holy hand grenade for Arthur and his mates to fight off the killer rabbit with the big teeth.
The day arrived and we travelled to Newcastle, excited, but with a touch of apprehension. I’ve been to a heaving MCG to watch Collingwood countless times in big finals and that place holds 100,000. But this felt different, unfamiliar city a long way from home and what reception would foreigners get amongst the Geordie faithful?
We made our way out of the station and up the hill towards the ground.
We wanted to experience everything so we made time to stop into the pub for a few pre-game pints. We walked into the Strawberry and was immediately struck by the memorabilia on the walls. Armed with a couple on pints for the missus and I and a couple of soft-drinks for the kids we headed upstairs to “The Terrace”. The pub was filling but we found a table outside near the far right corner where we could sit and have a drink.
There were four guys next to us in the corner that struck up some conversation. Next to me was Tony, a respectful and bespectacled gentleman, grey through the beard, tattoos and wearing a Newcastle shirt. He came across as a central midfielder, strong and reliable. Next to him was Paul, a larger guy with a bald head, tatts and a Newcastle shirt underneath his black leather jacket. An uncompromising Centre Half would’ve been his go. I can’t recall the other two guys names but one was a younger guy wearing the new white and green away strip. Quietly spoken and intelligent. Works for the British Army. He was to be married in Cyprus in the next couple of weeks. No playing position for him as he came across more as a manager or administrator, perhaps a CEO. Finally, the gentleman at the end of the table. Burly, happy always smiling and engaging. Goalkeeper I reckon, yep…Goalie who would look after his mates and give endless encouragement.
These guys were engaging, inclusive, warm and humorous. We talked about the lyrics to the Blaydon Races and how the city had changed. Tony brought up an old black and white photo of a row of terrace houses and pointed to the one on the end. “That’s where I grew up” he said proudly, “Those houses have all gone now”. We talked about St. James and another old black and white aerial shot of the ground was produced. “Can you see those squares on the hill?” mentioned Paul the centre half, “Just there” he said pointing at the photo. “They used to be the toilets and the urine used to run down the steps onto the footpath below”. With that he let out an infectious laugh.
Tony came back with two pins with the Strawberry emblem on them to give to us. “Been to every home game with you for over forty years and you never gave me one of them” Paul fired at Tony of which his quick reply was “I only give them to people who deserve them now grab me a Guinness”. The reliable midfielder controlling the game and Paul telling everybody within earshot on his way to the bar to wave to his Aussie mates who have come all this way to see the Toon.
The “Goalkeeper” came back to the table armed with four caps with the Strawberry logo on them and a huge smile for us to take home as a memory of the day. Unbelievable……..yep he was looking after his new “mates”.
After a couple of more pints, and plenty of banter, we set off for the ground and as we made our way through the sea of Newcastle shirts we were shaking hands with everybody. People wishing us well and thanking us for making the long trip to see their team play. We got out of the pub absolutely buzzing, took a photo of the kids with thumbs up in front of the pub and headed to the ground.
That’s when it hit me…we were total strangers and these people were welcoming, engaging, warm, strong, proud, generous and went out of their way to make us feel special. Is this the “Geordie Spirit” we can see and hear through the TV when we watch the games from home?
We took our seats and the pre-game music started. Can’t remember the order of the songs but at this point Hey Jude by The Beatles was playing. The ground was pretty full by this stage, the crowd was muffled until this burst of noise came from what seemed to be the Gallowgate section that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. “Na Na Na Na………..Na Na Na Na”.
The Blaydon Races was next with a sea of noise, colour and flags. Then came the PL music as the players emerged from the tunnel with our lads lining up close to where we were sitting. Players bouncing, jumping and ready for the battle ahead and as they shook hands with the Palace players and dispersed towards their positions “Going Home” by Dire Straits started thundering out of the PA system.
The crowd was up for it and I turned and looked towards my wife who was holding up the mobile phone and filming the sights and sounds before us. Surprisingly, she had tears rolling down her cheeks. She doesn’t know why but perhaps that “Geordie Spirit” had settled in her heart that day and it’s probably there to stay.
For a nil all draw it was an entertaining game and we may have scored three or four on a different day although I tell people we saw a 1-0 win after the farce that is VAR overturning the Joe Willock incident.
We had a couple of pints afterwards and came across a family with two young lads of no more than five or six. They both had Newcastle shirts on and we felt compelled to give them our Black and White Collingwood scarves. The boys faces lit up and the parents were ever so grateful. Perhaps this was what it was to be a Geordie, caring and giving to others just like the lads in the Strawberry. Not sure, but we felt blessed to have experienced a day out like no other.
We are back home now and see that this weekends fixture presents Brentford at St. James’. We will be up Sunday morning as usual to watch the lads play but it will forever be different for us going forward. No doubt the pre-game may have us all shedding a tear or two and wishing we were there. The fond memories will flood back and once that “Geordie Spirit” enters your heart I think it may be there for life.
So, on behalf of my family, thank you to the people of Newcastle, to Sue who took our stadium tour, to Tony, Paul and all the lads and lasses in the Strawberry and to the ground staff who looked after us.
We feel very proud to have Newcastle United as our team and we hope to be back over from Australia to experience the magic of St. James’ Park again one day.
A grateful family from OZ…’
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