Newcastle’s Sports Direct Arena: ten things to like, ten to loathe (1)

Ascension(Image: Akuppa John Wigham)

Pete Sixsmith has served the equivalent of a short prison sentence watching Sunderland win, lose and draw – not to mention Blyth Spartans, a Scottish League XI and Liverpool – at the ground formerly known as St James’ Park. Here he begins a two-part series, awarding Like and Dislike points to this strange hotchpotch of a stadium …

Sunday sees our first visit to the newly named Sports Direct Arena, the biggest stadium in the North East but also the ugliest, with its out-of-proportion stands and its out-of-proportion inhabitants.

It is 48 years since Monsieur Salut and I paid our first visit to what was then St James’ Park, when it was still the third best ground in the region, after Roker Park and Dean Street. Since then, I have visited on numerous occasion, some good and some not so good.

So, here are my top 10 Positive and Negative experiences at SJP/SDA, starting in reverse order with Nos 10 to 6.

10 Blyth Spartans v Wrexham 1978

This was a GOOD experience, with just about the entire North East willing the Spartans to a victory that would bring a quarter final against Arsenal. There were 48,000 shoe-horned into what is now the Sports Direct Arena and it was the one and only time I have been in harmony with the majority of the crowd.

Blyth Spartans v Wrexham Sadly, it was also a BAD experience as the Spartans were played off the park in the first half, leaving the Wrexham of Dixie McNeill, Mel Sutton (the man with the roundest shoulders in football) and arch forger Mickey Thomas a clear path through. Very disappointing.

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9 Smuggling two Russians into SJP.

This was a GOOD experience as I had no idea what to do with Alexei Marsov and his business partner. I had met Alexei while on a teacher exchange in Kostroma and he had arrived in Shildon to look for business opportunities. He liked football, so I took him to the game and told him to remain quiet and pretend he knew no English (he did and it was excellent). I convinced a police officer on duty that they had just arrived, that they spoke little English and that I had no idea of what to do with them. He went away, told me to go through the turnstile with my ticket and wait. Five minutes later, the big gate opened and Alexei and pal slid in, depriving Newcastle of two admission fees. Unfortunately we lost 1-0.

The Gallowgate toilets This was a VERY, VERY BAD experience and I am sure Newcastle fans would agree with me. They were possibly the worst toilets in the top league and made the ones in the Clock Stand Paddock look like, if not quite something from The Ritz, or at least a smartened up Travelodge.

8 The night I saw John Hughes play

for the Scottish League against the Football League was definitely a GOOD experience. The pitch was icy and would not even have merited a cursory inspection nowadays – it would have been off. Hughes was a big man, but tiptoed down the wing like John Curry and although he did not score, I seem to remember him setting up all three Scottish goals, one for Dundee’s Andy Penman and two for Joe McBride of Celtic. Of course, Yogi was Billy’s big brother and signed for us in 1973 but playing only one game before injury finished his career.

Malcolm McDonald’s debut hat trick against Liverpool in 1971 was a BAD experience. I went because my youngest brother was going through a phase of being a Liverpool fan and my mother gave me the money to put petrol in the Vauxhall Viva so I could take him. Only time in my life I have wanted Liverpool to win and they didn’t. However I did cheer up when I heard that we had played a 1-1 draw at Vicarage Road, Watford.

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7 Seeing Bruce Springsteen

at SJP in 1985 was a GOOD experience. He was excellent, although his tour management should have been sacked for forcing us to enter the Home of Satan. Fortunately, The Boss has seen sense and his next North East appearance is at the Stadium of Light. Good on ya, Bruce!!!

Sitting at the top of the Leazes End
in order to watch the game is a very BAD experience, particularly after labouring up the stairs. Undoubtedly the least away fan friendly stadium in the country.

6 Beating them 9-1

in 1908 was a very GOOD experience. I wasn’t there, (insufficient points on my season ticket), but it is always nice to remember that we hold the top league away win record at the home of our nearest neighbours and fiercest rivals. I feel better for writing that.

Driving past the ground when they were hosting Olympique Marseilles in a UEFA Cup game was a BAD experience, particularly as we had just played Crewe or Rotherham at home. I was green with envy and vowed never to drive past their ground again when they had a European game in it – and I haven’t.

… to be continued

12 thoughts on “Newcastle’s Sports Direct Arena: ten things to like, ten to loathe (1)”

  1. Mostly good for me, first trip there was in the QPR away end in the early 90’s (in the days when you could slip the turnstile operator a few quid to sneak in) and saw Malcolm Allen miss a late penalty as the hoops won 2-1! Their away support was excellent too that day. Next up it was Alan Shearer’s turn to miss a late pen and I’m guessing you know how that day too had a happy ending. If only i’d stayed away from our trip there in 02/03 I’d have a one hundred percent record….

  2. I had the experience (I will stop short of saying “misfortune”) of working in Newcastle at the same institution to which Hilary belongs, I believe.

    I never felt comfortable there at all. Like Jake, I felt as if I might as well be walking around with “MACKEM!” emblazoned across my forehead. In fact I was once asked in a job interview (same institution) if I was a Sunderland supporter. I told the interviewer that I was, and that I actually had a Sunderland bobble hat in my coat pocket, explaining that it didn’t get a lot of wear around there. It turned out that he was from Sunderland himself. He couldn’t have been “one of us” because I didn’t get the job. Looking back, he was probably just a lying Mag. I’m probably just suffering the after effects of watching too much Prison Break on Netflix.

    • Some good, mosty bad.

      New Years’ Day 1980, in the wrong end with a hangover

      I was dragged to a game in 1970 against Liverpool by a mate’s brother.1-1, Foggon missed a sitter, and I hated in in the Leazes end.

      1975, and as the holder of a load of free tickets as part of University fresher’s week, i was expected to take my fellow Geographers to Sid James as I was “LOCAL”. 2-0 up at half time, 2-2 after a great Spurs comeback. How I laughed.
      1996 Euros, Bulgaria v Romania. The sight of aged Romanies arguing in two languages when Petrescu (I think)’s shot went over the line off the bar but no goal was given will live with me forever.

  3. I love the idea of someone visiting Shildon in search of business opportunities. Had he never been referred to Easington Colliery?

    Jesus would have been born down there but they couldn’t find three wise men, let alone a virgin.

  4. Regarding the Liverpool match, to quote Vic Reeves,”You wouldn’t let it lie!” It was just a passing phase.

  5. I saw the Stones, Springsteen and the great Bob D at St James. All good events. However like you Jake, I have always felt a bit paranoid when about the place. In recent years my place of work organised some Away Days there. Away Days are bad enough in themselves without having to endure the experience of the Magpie Suite. Couldnt wait to escape.

  6. A school friend of mind who was keen on Spurs at the time dragged me along to Sid James’ Park to watch them play the Mags in 1974. We spent the ninety minutes talking in whispers in the Gallowgate end convinced that if the locals detected our Mackem accents we would be murdered on the spot! It all ended well though as Spurs won two – nowt(Chivers, Gilzean). I was also at the Springsteen gig, a great day out, and I saw the Stones there in 82.

  7. If we’re just doing St James’ Park (there’s only Mackems and a certain quite-trim-recently T-shirt shop owner who call it anything else…) – and not the MFI flatpack obscenity further south, then:

    Best experience: Most of the games in living memory

    Worst Experience: That freak 1-4 reversal years ago – God must have been on holiday that day…..

    Don’t forget to bring your hankies lads – you’ll need em after the game for a good sob!!

    Poor Martin O’Neill, I’m sure he was expecting an offer from a big club x

    • Sorry, Pete, I replied to John before I noticed this comment and so I hope that I have not stolen any of your thunder.

  8. Does anyone else remember turning up there for a Derby in the 60s, paying to get in and then being told the match was off?

    Definitely a bad experience.

    • I think you must mean the ’63/’64 season, but the game was played!

      I was in the Leazes End for that one and SJP (as it then was) seemed almost empty and I found out later that someone had placed notice boards, at Central Station, saying that the game was off, because of the weather.

      It had been, absolutely, throwing it down for a few days and when the ball was placed on the spot, for kick off, it was in a huge puddle and just floated away.

      McGarry (IIRC) scored the winning goal, for Newcastle, from the penalty spot.

      Now, normally, I treat what I read on Statcat as “gospel” but, on this occasion, they state that the attendance was 29.220 which I think is inaccurate.

      My recollection, which I think is correct, is that it was, at the time,reported as having been just above 14,000 and that would tie in with my memories of vast expanses of unpopulated open terracing.

      Even in the Leazes End (which had a roof) there was masses of room!

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