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.
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.
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