Newcastle United v Swansea City
St. James’ Park / Premier League / 17th November 2012
A trip to St James Park is perhaps my most overdue stadium visit of the lot. I am very much part of the Premier League generation and have no recollection of football pre-1992, before the birth of the all singing, all dancing Premier League. At that age of 5 or 6 when my friends and I started getting into football, they all opted to support Manchester United or Liverpool. Both my brother and my Dad support United so I guess I was supposed to support them as well, but there was one player that excited a 6 year old me more than any other: Andy Cole. Thanks to Andy Cole my childhood was spent supporting Keegan’s Newcastle United. I even once wrote a letter to Andy Cole when he was with Newcastle, but by the time he returned an answer/autograph, the picture he sent back was of him in a Manchester United shirt. Cold. My first game was even watching an incredible 3-3 draw between Newcastle and Manchester City at Maine Road, a game perhaps most famous for Tino Asprilla scoring his first goal for Newcastle and planting a headbutt on Keith Curle; although the real star of the day was City’s Georgi Kinkladze who delivered an insanely good performance. Also scoring that day: Niall Quinn with two and the iconic Uwe Rosler fort City and for Newcastle, goalscoring defender extraordinaire, Phillipe Albert with two goals. I never visited St James Park during my childhood Newcastle fandom, but after eventually seeing the Swansea-coloured light many years ago and watching them rise through the Football League, today I’d finally be at the home of the Toon Army sitting in the away end with the Jack Army.
This week’s Saturday get up of 6am felt like a lie-in compared to last Saturday’s 4am rise to get to Southampton, but the early rise was necessary for me to catch the 7.30am train from Manchester Piccadilly to Newcastle. My journey wasn’t quite as arduous as the many Swansea fans that would be travelling the 714 miles up to the North East from South West Wales with my travel consisting of a simple 2 2.5 hour train journey. Soon enough (just after 10am) my train made its way across the Tyne river with the huge structure of St James Park in the distance looking like an imperious fortress towering over the city.
I disembarked the train and made a bee line for the Centurion pub that is in the train station. As far as train station pub’s go, the Centurion is perhaps my favourite pub that falls into this category (the pub was also praised in “Lost in…Sunderland”). This was to be the start of a solo pub crawl through Newcastle whilst I waited for the contingent of Swansea fans I would be meeting to turn up in the city – they had all been delayed for a number of reasons. Instead of moving on to another pub, I decided to have a wander around the city. I’d been to Newcastle once before; when Swansea took on Sunderland at the Stadium of Light last season we made a point of staying in Newcastle and sampling the city’s famous nightlife (which lived up to its billing). It really is a brilliant and attractive city with plenty to do and I would highly recommend the city to anyone if they have never visited before. After a mooch around the city, my thirst once again needed quenching so I opted for the nearest pub which happened to be a Lloyd’s bar called Miles Castle. Not really much to say about the place as it was just the same as any other Lloyd’s/Wetherspoons I’d ever been to. I then made my way to the much more interesting looking Rose and Crown just around the corner from the Mile Castle. The pub was a small, quite ramshackle looking place but it was great; the pub was littered with Newcastle memorabilia witha small shrine to the Magpies behind the bar. It was also nice to finally bump into some Swansea fans, who happily let me join them whilst I waited for my entourage to arrive in the city. The vibe amongst Swansea fans was one of no real optimism with the line “we’ll take a draw” being used frequently throughout the day by every Swans fan I spoke to. It was now past midday and I finally received a phone call from Tom to tell me that he had arrived in Newcastle and to go to the Old George pub, which was conveniently just down the road from the Rose and Crown. I thanked Ian and his friends for their company and headed to the Old George.
I was confused when I entered The Old George as I could not see any familiar faces and I assumed I must have got the wrong pub. On questioning a local, it turned out the Old George spread over into another building next door to it. In this other Old George, I found Tom along with Mrs. Tom Probert, Rachel, and his two Newcastle supporting friends Chai and Mark, who he had hitched a ride up to Tyneside with. We were soon joined by the Williams family and Calvin and we were all one big happy Swansea City supporting family (with two Newcastle fans on the side). I had first met Tom’s girlfriend Rachel at a wedding in the summer and that day she had attempted to impress me by listing all of the Swansea players she knew/had learned; today would be no different and she had even advanced her knowledge and listed a large chunk of the Swansea squad. Good knowledge! We had a few more drinks whilst watching the North London derby on the TV before making our way towards the Geordies’ footballing church: St James Park.
Put bluntly, St James Park is superb. There is so much to love about it. One of the many great things about the stadium is its location right in the heart of the city with it only being a short 5-10 minute walk from anywhere in the city centre. The stadium is perched upon a hill which makes the arena look even bigger – it looks like the stadium is too big for the hill and that it could fall on the city below (I’m sure it won’t). The huge L shape stand (consisting of the Sir John Hall Stand and the Milburn Stand) that goes around the stadium does give the stadium a lop-sided look next to the more diminutive East Stand and the famous Gallowgate and it was in the heavens of the Sir John Hall Stand I would be sitting today. St. James Park is one of the oldest grounds in the country with football being played there since 1880 and Newcastle being its tenants since 1892; the unconventional look to the stadium comes from the fact that ideas to move the club to a new site have been repeatedly scrapped which has led to lots of redeveloping of this ground, especially throughout the 90s – the ground now has no resemblance to the St James Park of old. One last bit of uninteresting St James Park trivia: do you know that the stadium featured on the front cover of FIFA 13 is actually St James Park? Well you do now.
We worked our way past the Gallowgate End with the club shop and Shearers’ (we’d visited the bar after our trip to Sunderland last season), down the back of the East Stand and finally to the Sir John Hall Stand. I’d been told repeatedly how high up Newcastle house their away fans, so I was not surprised to find myself looking up at 14 flights of stairs on entering the through the Sir John Hall Stand turnstiles. The childish side of me came out when I decided that the best way to deal with this was to run up all 14 flights – safe to say I thought I was going to have a stroke when I got to the top, but instead my eyesight was caught by the view down the tunnel in front of me: the city of Newcastle far below me. We really were high up! Instead of hitting the stadium bar I had to go look out on the pitch. The view of city was brilliant and I’ve never really experienced anything like it at a football stadium – the stand acted as the perfect viewing platform. However, we were not here to watch the city below, we were here to watch some football which is whyI began to think about how on Earth I was going to be able to spot little Leon Britton and little Nathan Dyer from all the way up here. I thought I’d leave that problem for kick off time and instead head to the bar for now. Not exactly a wallet friendly bar with the bottles of Carling on sale at £3.90 and food was at a similarly extortionate price. I had the impression that Swansea fans were in Newcastle to enjoy themselves as many were expecting so little out of the game – I had still not heard one person predict a Swansea victory. We’d have to wait and see what the Toon had in store for us.
We put our hiking boots back on and began the travail up the Sir John Hall Stand to our seats (no issues with standing this week by the way, unlike the jobswoth stewards at St Mary’s last week). After conquering the Sir John Hall Stand and avoiding vertigo, it was time for the game to kick off with the Swans, in their red away shirt, attacking away from us towards the Gallowgate in the first half. Although we were high above the game, the view was fine – it did feel like watching a game of former football game favourite ‘Sensible World of Soccer’ at times though. My call for Dyer and Hernandez to start was clearly listened to by Laudrup and the first chance of the game fell to Dyer when he was put through on goal by Hernandez, only to be stopped by a good tackle from Mike Williamson. The first half consisted of a series of chances for both teams with the game flowing back and forth. Newcastle’s Ben Arfa was the one player that was beginning to frighten me as he repeatedly skipped past tackles and opened up the Swans with his passing; a great ball from him to Ba almost gave Newcastle the lead but Ba’s header went inches wide. Ben Arfa then had a shot of his own only for Tremmel to pull off an excellent one-handed save.
Selection-wise, the other surprise choice of the day was Itay Shechter (who looks exactly like Tom now that Tom has shaved his hair short) stepping into lone striker role ahead of Danny Graham. I was not exactly enthused by this, but fairplay to the Israeli, he played very well and was very close to scoring when he latched onto a Ashley Williams long ball after some indecision between Tim Krul and Williamson, but his effort was well blocked by Krul. Swansea were making plenty of good chances and I began to worry we might regret our inaccuracy in front of goal. 0-0 after a very entertaining first half.
The second half began much slower than the first, but Swansea, just as they had in the first half, were putting together some lovely passing moves and were pressing Newcastle all over the pitch when they were without the ball. When an innocent back pass was made to Krul, Shechter continued chasing the ball and with the Israeli running at him, Krul misjudged his kick out and sent the ball straight to the on rushing Hernandez. With time to think, Pablo waited for the unmarked Michu to arrive in the box before placing a floated cross ahead of the Spaniard to emphatically header past Krul. 1-0 to the Swans and despite the numerous chances, nobody could quite believe it. Swansea made a few changes with fan favourite Kemy Agustien coming off the bench for Shechter (great performance from him proving the doubters/me wrong) and Newcastle local boy Danny Graham also eventually came on to play up front. After some excellent passing up the pitch from their own area by the Swans, Hernandez picked out Graham who hit a strong left foot shot towards goal; Krul tipped the ball away only for De Guzman to come speeding into the box and smash the loose ball home from a tight angle to make it 2-0 to the Swans. The goal cued a ‘disco’ in the away end high up in the stands. No Match of the Day camera was going to catch me going mental all the way up here, unlike last week where I was caught by their cameras in the second row. We considered the three points nailed down, although we were in for a bit of a scare as Ba headed in late on, after Newcastle had hit the bar (although having seen the goal on TV, it should never have stood with Tremmel being held down on the ground by Steven Taylor). Moments after Ba’s 93rd minute goal the referee blew his whistle and Swansea had won 2-1, their first victory over Newcastle in over 30 years. The Swans fans were delighted to say the least. A superb result against one of our bogey teams and every player for Swansea worked hard and played well, although my Man of the Match would have to be Pablo Hernandez, who has been brilliant over the past month or so. The only player that looked up for it for Newcastle was Hatem Ben Arfa.
My day in Newcastle was to be rounded off with another visit to the Old George before catching my train back to Manchester just after 7 o’clock. On ordering our pints, Tom joked about getting shots. I decided to dispel with the joking and demanded he bought us some, we were celebrating a famous win after all! The general mood amongst the Newcastle fans was that we deserved to win and they were not sure what was going wrong for them so far this season. It also occurred to me that I should have known we would win as soon as the Swans team stepped out in their red shirts – they have only wore that kit twice before and they had won both games. Perhaps Cardiff were on to something with their red makeover after all.
With the time creeping up to 7 o’ clock I said my goodbyes and made my way back to the train station via an off license to buy some alcohol to carry on the celebrations on the train. What a brilliant day! I look forward to returning to the Toon next season and I would genuinely put St James Park in my top 5 stadiums I’ve ever visited (I haven’t quite decided where in the Top 5 yet though).
Highlights: Great game (result),stadium right in the middle of the city, good looking stadium, the view of the city from the stands, friendly fans, the Old George.
Low Points: Being quite a long way from play, Geordies were surprisingly quiet, expensive food/drink at the stadium bar.