St James’ Park MP Chi Onwurah – Excited and United, on the road to Wembley
Excited and United, on the road to Wembley – Chi Onwurah, Member of Parliament for Newcastle Central
Being a Newcastle United fan is always a roller coaster ride and in my 13 years as the Member of Parliament for Newcastle Central and therefore St James’ Park, that has been especially true. NUFC have driven us to the heights of elation and the depths of despair and every possible emotion in between.
Newcastle only has one team, and they play in the heart of our city – they are the beating heart of the city. In a few days the team so many of us love will walk out at Wembley.
For those lucky enough to be there, the famous words of Sir Bobby will ring true in a new way – “clambering up stadium steps for the very first time… gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.”
New, that is, except for the lucky few who were there the last time Newcastle United took the trip to Wembley. 1999, a different millennium. Many younger fans do not know the feeling of cup finals, perhaps that ignorance is a blessing!
It has been the honour of my life to represent the people of Newcastle Central in Parliament. Through all the ups and downs, I know that Newcastle is a strong, proud, and fiercely loyal city. It is also a city that is passionately in love with the beautiful game – whether it’s kids in our estates raising their hand in celebration above their head Shearer-esque, or simply hearing Big Dan Burn speaking so emotionally about the connection he has with the fans in the St James’ stands he once watched the Toon from.
Being the MP for Newcastle Central means it is part of my job to stand up for football fans who are my constituents – and so many are! I have repeatedly called for independent governance of our game, and I continue to hold the Government to account as it fails to keep its promises – it’s clear that the Crouch review needs to be implemented fully as soon as possible. I presented a petition to Parliament in 2020 asking the Government to push for transparency and accountability in Premier League processes. I stood firmly opposed to Ashley’s selling off of club land on Strawberry Place in 2019, and again in January this year I stood against any use of public funds for the development on the land. I was pleased to hear the club bought the land back, which had previously been earmarked for stadium expansion.
Some social media warriors accuse me of ‘opportunism’ or ‘bandwagoning’ for raising football issues. When I click on their profile they are almost always from Sunderland, occasionally Middlesbrough! Nevertheless, it is an important accusation. There are some politicians who can’t remember which club they support but seek to ‘cash in’ electorally on the passion constituents feel. I try to make it clear that I’m speaking as a NUFC fan and an MP, and it’s my job to speak about what is important to my constituents. Whether it is universal credit delays, bad landlords, or transport capacity representation for a Wembley final, the people of Newcastle are my boss, and it is my job to represent them in whatever ways I can.
My longstanding view is that the economic success of the city is wedded to the economic success of Newcastle United. When the club succeeds, so does the city – you see it in the bars, in the restaurants, in Eldon Square. You see it in the young people in schools emulating Almiron in the playground, and you see it in the teachers secretly wanting to join in the kickabout, excited and united. So often the mood in the city on a Monday morning is a reflection of the result and the performance from the weekend. It’s the viewpoint that I have presented to the government and anyone else I’ve spoken to about the club, the fans, and the city.
Winning the cup would see this outpouring of enthusiasm continue in the city – a city that is already incredibly proud of what this group of players have achieved. When I offered my tribute to Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in Parliament last year, I mentioned her handing the Magpies the FA Cup trophy in the 50s and hoped that King Charles III would follow her lead. I didn’t expect us to be in a cup final this soon afterwards, even before his coronation.
It is important however, to recognise that there are many in the city who also are deeply concerned at the ownership of the club. Newcastle United new found success is partially due to its new owners, who are largely funded by the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia. Manchester City are funded by the Deputy Prime Minister of Abu Dhabi – Sheikh Mansour, Manchester United are looking to be bought by investors with links to the Qatari Royal Family. We need more transparency and accountability in football, and a bigger say for fans.
Saudi Arabia has a particularly atrocious human rights record – in some respects, such as the treatment of women, among the worst in the world. This does not reflect the values of our city and I feel it is up to all of us, from the city, to ensure Saudi ownership of Newcastle United leads to greater focus on the violence and repression of the Saudi government, not sportswash it.
I won’t be at Wembley on Sunday, I didn’t go to enough cup games and it is right that the club prioritised loyalty in their ticket allocation. Tens of thousands of fans will be in London. They will be ambassadors for our city in what we hope is the first of many trips to Wembley in this millennium. I am sure they will do us proud, the eyes of the world will certainly be on them! Wherever you watch the final, I wish all fans a safe journey to and from it and a great time whilst there.
The city and the people of Newcastle are firmly behind Eddie’s Mags. Howay the Lads!
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