St James Park
Name: St James’ Park
Address: St James’ Park, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, NE1 4ST, England
Last renovation: August 2000
No. of seats: 52387
Record attendance: 68386 (Newcastle v. Chelsea, 3 September 1930)
Home team: Newcastle United
St James’ Park like a cathedral
I don’t care what anybody says, you can go around the world twice if you like and you would not get an atmosphere like that anywhere else,” said Newcastle United manager Kevin Keegan after his side had beaten local rivals Sunderland 2-0 at St James’ Park. “I’ve played in derbies at Liverpool, I’ve played in the Maracana for England and at the Boca Juniors ground in Argentina but this is the best place in the world when you’re winning. It’s a tough place if you are not going well, but hey, those are the rules of the game.”
Of course, the former England head coach might not be the most impartial observer but it is his boyish enthusiasm and passion for football that is so typical of the supporters of a club that has been synonymous with underachievement but which is still virtually packed out at every single home game.
Like a cathedral, St James’ Park rises above the Newcastle landscape and looms over the Tyneside city centre but its central location has heavily influenced redevelopment plans due to the proximity of historic buildings right next to the ground.
It has meant that Newcasde United’s home has a slightly uneven look since it was given a makeover — completed in August 2000 when 51,327 witnessed a 3-2 win over Derby – but as far as Keegan is concerned that adds to its charm. “I think, for me, it is just about the best football stadium in this country and that is no disrespect to any other,” Keegan said. “I just think it is fantastic. It is probably because we have the three high stands and the one low side that in some way makes it very special.”
A LONG-TERM LEASE
Football was first played on the land now occupied by St James’ Park in October 1880 although the area used to have far graver connotations because the city’s main execution site was located in the area. Indeed, according to research, the hangman’s site was very close to the stadium which explains why one side of the ground is now called “The Gallowgate End”, even though the last hanging took place there 36 years before football took centre stage. Since then four clubs have called St James’ Park home — Newcastle Rangers, Newcastle West End and Newcastle East End, who moved there in 1892 shortly before Newcastle United emerged.
In those days, footballers had to cope with a steep slope that saw an 18-foot drop between the north and south sides of the pitch and a rutted surface because the ground also doubled as grazing land for local butchers. United and the upmarket residents of the architecturally impressive Leazes Terrace proved to be uneasy bedfellows as the club tried to move with the times. However, despite their differences and the tough planning laws in England which protect historic buildings, the two parties have learned to co-exist. Initially, though, they failed to hit it off and, according to Newcastle’s website, die well-to-do residents made an official complaint describing football as an “intolerable nuisance”.
Officials toyed with the idea of moving but stood firm and at the turn of the 20th century a stadium started to take shape following the erection of a corrugated iron fence. At this time, the ground was able to accommodate 30,000 spectators before the arena doubled in size as the club went from strength to strength, dominating English football and winning the Football League three times in quick succession. Until recently, United’s uncomfortable position as local council tenants – now improved by virtue of a long-term lease – had thwarted development plans and apparently some fans still feel aggrieved that they missed out on the 1966 FIFA World Cup1″ finals.
“It was no surprise when the World Cup organisers decided against St James’ Park and handed the group stage matches to Middlesbrough instead,” club historian Paul Joannou said. “Newcastle missed out on the biggest feast of football Britain has ever witnessed.”
That is a shame because such is Newcastle’s extraordinary passion for football that 20,000 supporters turned up to welcome Michael Owen to the north-east of England in August 2005 following his move from Real Madrid. That was reminiscent of the day a similar number of fans welcomed Alan Shearer back to Newcastle outside the ground when the club broke the world transfer record by paying Blackburn GBP 15 million for the England star following EURO 1996. Shearer’s arrival fuelled the notion that Newcastle were outgrowing their traditional home and its 37,000-capacity and chairman Sir John Hall spearheaded plans to build a new arena on the neighbouring Leazes Park.
Plans for a 70,000-capacity arena, based on Milan’s San Siro, were drawn up by architects but the project bitterly divided the city and was effectively abandoned in November 1997 in favour of expanding St James’ Park. Nowadays, club owner Mike Ashley is considering raising the roof to fit in more fans at St James’ Park thanks to the success of Keegan, the so-called “Geordie Messiah” who has invigorated the club since he returned to take over from Sam Allardyce last January.