Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 2 November 2013.
Damn it. Damn it. Damn it. There are many occasions when I just wish that the football didn’t get in the way of a football weekend. This was clearly one of those times.
This was only my eighth trip up to St. James’ Park to see Chelsea. There are simple reasons of economy and geography for this; to put it bluntly – too expensive and too far. My last trip to Tyneside was in 2008-2009. When the season’s fixtures were announced way back in June, I quickly decided that a visit was long overdue. No six hour drive up and six hour drive back for me though – for the first time ever, I had decided to fly to a game in England.
A return flight from nearby Bristol to Newcastle was duly booked for £63 and I counted the months and days until it was time to head north to the mad city on the banks of the River Tyne. I was clearly treating this as an equivalent to a European away game.
Why, aye pet.
At just after 5.30am, I texted Alan to let him know that I was – once more – on the road.
“Wor Jackie Kerouac.”
“Wor Georgie Stephenson.”
As I headed over the Mendip Hills once again towards my most local airport, I was reminded of the special significance of flying to Newcastle – of all places – for a game of football. In the ‘seventies, Chelsea Football Club produced a yearbook and one of its most tantalising features was the listing, towards the back covers, of many miscellaneous facts and figures pertaining to the club. I was a glutton for such items of trivia and often used to devour the contents. There are a few items which still stick in my head to this day.
- Chelsea’s youngest ever player was Ian “Chico” Hamilton.
- Eddie MacCreadie – at the time – was our most capped player with twenty-three appearances for Scotland.
- Our record aggregate score was 21-0 versus Jeunesse Hautcharage in 1971.
- Newcastle United’s record gate was 68,000 to see the return of Hughie Gallacher in a Chelsea shirt to St. James’ Park in the ‘thirties.
- Chelsea were the first English team to use air travel for a football match; or to be more exact, to travel back from a football match. The venue? Yes, you’ve guessed it – Newcastle.
The flight was over in a flash; just time for a cursory glance through the inflight magazine and a coffee. Within fifty minutes, the plane had dipped its wings – I glimpsed a pristine white lighthouse guarding the Tyne estuary as the plane banked – and the descent into Geordieland had begun. Although there had been a cold shiver down everyone’s spine when the pilot had gleefully announced that the temperature in ‘Castle was “minus one”, in truth the temperature outside was a minor disturbance.
I was soon on my way into town on the city’s metro. A few fellow football fans were on board. The buzz had begun. As I headed into the city, eventually beneath the streets, I felt that Chelsea were impregnable. We had found our feet, we were scoring goals, we were playing some great stuff. I felt an echo to our dominant form of November 2004, when things really started clicking under Jose Mourinho the first time around. And what an away game to revel in our new-found invincibility.
I had a superb time wandering around along the banks of the River Tyne for a few hours. From the area around the central train station, it is a steep descent down to the quayside. There is almost a gorge-like feel to the river. The iconic Tyne Bridge dominates, but the recent addition of the Gateshead Millennium Bridge augments the view rather well. There are three more bridges which cluster together linking Newcastle to the north and Gateshead to the south. It’s all too photogenic to resist. I happily snapped photographs as I walked in the fresh winter morning air. To be honest, there was a dull grey stillness to the early hours, but it seemed to encapsulate the mood of the city perfectly.
I always remember my first-ever trip to St. James’ Park in March 1984; a Chelsea special, my first proper Chelsea away game, a 1-1 draw and the likes of Kerry Dixon, Colin Pates, Mickey Thomas, David Speedie and Pat Nevin playing for a mythical Chelsea team. I remember crossing the Tyne, high on the railway bridge to the west, and spotting the magnificent and striking Tyne Bridge away to my right. What fantastic memories from almost thirty years ago.
I dipped into a hotel and soon devoured a fulfilling breakfast and then continued walking towards the converted Baltic Flour Mill which has been rejuvenated over the past fifteen years and is now renamed the Baltic Art Centre. I ascended to the viewing platform on the fifth floor and what a vista greeted me.
The Tyne River, the bridges, the spires, the layers upon layers of streets, the deep gorge, the city.
And there, right at the top of the hill to my right, the towering stands of St. James’ Park, where I would be positioned in under three hours for the game.
I retraced my steps and sheltered from the rain in The Redhouse pub right under the shadows of the Tyne Bridge. A pint of Erdinger went down well; I toasted absent friends and supped away. The pub was magnificent; it had darkened rooms, dingy alcoves and there were echoes of its historic past at every turn. My mind cascaded back to when the nearby quayside would have been manically busy with ships, traders, sailors, rogues and thieves.
The rain had thankfully subsided as I began a slow walk north towards the stadium at the top of the town. There are several fine Georgian streets in the city centre and none is more elegant than Grey Street which slowly curves up towards the monument to Earl Grey. From here, the stadium is but a few hundred yards away.
Here was Newcastle United’s saving grace; a city-centre location. It’s the real heart of the city.
The rain began falling again as I sidestepped protests against Mike Ashley under the massive steel structure of the Gallowgate Stand, with the famous Strawberry pub nestled underneath, quite out of place, like an historic throwback to a more simple time.
As I headed around towards the away entrance, I spotted the statue in honour of Newcastle United’s most loved son, Sir Bobby Robson, standing proud and looking out into the Tyneside mist. Above was the towering steel of the Milburn Stand; quite astonishing in its scale.
The fourteen flights of stairs at St. James’ Park are always a test; I passed this time, but without flying colours. A plastic bottle of Coors – hardly on the same scale as an Erdinger – was my reward as I waited for Alan and Gary to arrive. We had three thousand tickets for this game and we had sold out. With no Rangers game on the Saturday, our legions were bolstered by many from their royal – and loyal – blue ranks. I spotted a few friendly faces, but many amongst our support did not register.
Eventually, Alan and Gary arrived and we entered the away section. We were in row V, maybe only around six or seven rows from the very top. The view which greeted me was, despite the dull grey weather, quite phenomenal.
Away in the distance, on the horizon, was the high ground of Gateshead. A solitary spire broke the line of where land met sky in a fuzzy grey smudge. Sadly, only a few miles to the west from that high land, in 1957, Hughie Gallacher – the fiery and tormented former Newcastle United, Chelsea and Scotland centre-forward – took his own life by descending from a footbridge and walking out in front of a train. Hughie Gallacher is a Chelsea player that fascinates me. One of these days I will try to hunt down a biography written by Newcastle fan Paul Joannou about this most loved of players.
Down below, way down below, to my left, just visible through the perspex glass screens of the Leazes Stand can be seen the Georgian terraced houses of Leazes Terrace. In the days when St. James’ Park was virtually all standing, these houses overlooked the eastern terrace at the stadium. They were very distinctive. In around 1972, a new concrete stand was constructed on that eastern terrace, thus blocking their view of the stadium. It is their presence today, though, that gives St. James’ Park such a lop-sided feel. That 1972 stand – the most modern aspect of the stadium when I visited in 1984 – can’t be enlarged due to the fact that the houses on Leazes Terrace are listed buildings; some are used for university students, some are in private hands.
They can’t however, be demolished. In the meantime, the monolithic west and north stands at St. James’ tower over all. Their size is truly mesmerizing.
Ahead of me, the home end – the Gallowgate. Once a relatively slight terrace, containing very distinctive concrete crush barriers, this end was dismantled and built anew around 1993. I can always remember a sight from the days when Kevin Keegan reinvigorated the club when he joined them from Southampton in 1982. At the time, this story was unheard of – an England international signing for a struggling team in the second division. I remember a winter’s game, rain lashing down on the open Gallowgate terrace, the stadium packed with Geordies and steam coming up of their boiling bodies, piled high on the crush barriers.
In the distance, clearly visible was the curving green iron of the Tyne Bridge. The traffic was heavy, the cars’ lights were on and I wondered if they were tuned in to the match.
The unlucky ones outside. The lucky ones inside.
The teams entered the pitch. There was an impeccably well-observed minute of silence for those who have fallen.
The grey Tyneside air turned darker.
We quickly ran through the Chelsea team and there were few surprises.
Juan Mata was playing. David Luiz was playing.
The Chelsea support, massed high on the upper tier of the Leazes Stand stood the entire game. It is something that we do without even thinking about these days; a subconscious statement of defiance to those who try to sanitise and sterilise our beautiful game.
To the memory of those ten thousand Geordies huddled together in the rain in 1982.
Chelsea certainly had most of the possession in that first-half, but sadly had nothing to show for it all at half-time. Our play at times was slow. There were occasional thrusts from Hazard on the left and Torres on the right, but Krul was hardly tested apart from at a succession of corners midway through the half. A John Terry header crashed against the bar. A deflected Torres effort too.
The home support during the first-half had been dire. We had begun well with the new Moyes & Wenger song getting some airtime along with the Willian effort. Our support, like the form of the team, drifted away as the half continued.
At the break, there were the usual murmurs of discontent, but we knew we were in good hands.
“Just hope Mourinho weaves his magic at the break and we change things in the second-half.”
I wandered down to the toilets at half-time, the concourse absolutely packed with away supporters. In the middle of the crowd, quietly talking to a fellow fan, was Pat Nevin, sporting a blue and white Chelsea scarf. A quick handshake for that most wondrous of Chelsea players. I reminded him that he was my favourite player of all time.
The rain continued to fall as the game continued. Mourinho surprisingly replaced Torres with Eto’o. Although Torres had not enjoyed his best of games, his level of service in the first hour was poor. I was surprised when he was substituted. Additionally, Juan Mata was replaced by Willian. This was another surprising move by Jose. We all thought that Oscar – and maybe Hazard – was more deserving to be replaced. Elsewhere, Lamps struggled to get a foothold. In defence, David Luiz was having one of those games which left even me mouthing expletives at his reckless challenges.
A couple of half-chances for the home team suddenly galvanised the home support and there was a definite change in the sway of the game. This was now getting tougher by the minute. Our play was deteriorating fast.
A header from an unmarked Gouffran on 68 minutes gave the Geordies a deserved lead and the stadium rocked.
Mourinho immediately replaced Frank with Andrea Schurrle, whose initial industry promised an upturn in our fortunes. Half-chances for Willian and Eto’o didn’t convince the away support that our luck would change.
Only the barnstorming Ivanovic and the solid defensive play of Terry provided any comfort.
A late goal from Remy, cracked in off the near post settled the game for sure. With that, hundreds of Chelsea fans decided to head into the bars and pubs of the city centre. Five minutes of extra time was signalled but we all knew that we wouldn’t score if we had played all afternoon.
That was as clear as black and white.
It had undoubtedly been a very poor Chelsea performance. We were lost for words to be honest. Our fine form of the past month – wins, flair, goals – had shrivelled up in the Tyneside rain. We looked for answers. In the warmth of The Union Rooms opposite the train station, a few of us tried to put together an explanation of our failures, but we struggled.
“It’s not as if they’re a great time.”
Alan and Gary then left for London.
“See you Wednesday, boys.”
The night was still young. I chatted away to a couple of locals. There were warm memories again of 1983-1984 and the tantalising forward line of Keegan, Beardsley and Waddle. I mentioned the very memorable hip-shake move that Peter Beardsley used to effectively confuse and befuddle opposing defenders. The locals talked about their loathing of Joe Kinnear and Mike Ashley, the painful wait for silverware on Tyneside, the skill of former midfielder Tony Green and the talk went on and on and on.
And then, alone, out into the craziness of a Newcastle night.