Two Games in Two Days
Following on from yesterday’s game at Blyth Spartans, we made the short trip to Newcastle United for their Premier League game against Aston Villa.
A visit to St. James’ Park is always going to be a highlight but when you manage to blag a seat in the Milburn Suite hospitality, that immediately raises the level of anticipation and I must confess, this game had been on my mind all through the week leading up to it.
Newcastle – Pre-Game
The day started the same way most of our trips do, with a bus to Newcastle.
The difference this time was that it also ended there. Rather than heading on to the train station, we walked to the stadium, which is visible from the other side of the river in Gateshead before crossing the Tyne Bridge. The big, imposing stands on the west and northwest sides of the stadium, dominate the skyline opposite the River Tyne’s valley.
With there being no need to look for somewhere to eat lunch, we headed straight to the ground and after passing the famous Strawberry pub on our left, we came across a statue of club legend, Jackie Milburn. ‘Wor Jackie’, as he’s affectionately known in these parts, scored 200 goals for Newcastle United in a fourteen-year spell between 1943 and 1957. His statue sits at the southeast corner of St. James’ Park, opposite the Strawberry.
We wandered a few more yards and found ourselves outside the club shop. More of a superstore really and is like going into a retail shop in a shopping centre. There are even escalators leading to the upper floor and I couldn’t help thinking of the shed at Blyth Spartans’ Croft Park yesterday. Row upon row of Newcastle replica shirts, retro, home, away, third strips and from baby-sized to Jimmy Five Bellies size.
As nice as it was, I happen to feel uncomfortable in these stuffy, expensive-looking shops, which is probably why I do most of my clothes shopping online?
We headed out and made our way to the southwest corner of the stadium, where another club legend awaited us in the form of Bobby Robson who is a legend not only in the Toon but also for Ipswich Town and the England national team. It’s probably fair to say Bobby was one of the most loved figures in the game of football and this was never more apparent than when the sad news of his death broke on the 31st July 2009.
Behind Bobby’s statue is the Terrace Bar and to the right are steps leading up to the famous Gallowgate End, where the more vocal Geordies have traditionally stood (and now sit.)
The final statue at St. James’ Park wasn’t actually there when we visited, because the then owner Mike Ashley, had banned it from being on the stadium premises… No wonder he was so disliked by the Toon Army if this is how he treated one of their own legends of the club, no matter their personal disputes. Ashley had not long ago sold the club in October of 2021, to a Saudi-based consortium but the statue wasn’t brought back to St. James’ until May of 2022.
Newcastle United – Statues
Newcastle United – The Stadium
Continuing around the stadium, we came upon the main entrance which is so large, that it even has a road running through it. Presumably, this is so the WAGs and club owners don’t have to get wet if it’s raining when their cars pull up at the ground?
Whatever the reason, it’s an impressive facade, with the player’s entrance to one side of the road and a glass arc on the left-hand side. The glass arc was the part we needed and we went past the well-dressed security into the reception area where we were given our tickets and directions to the Milburn Suite.
Having thanked the receptionist, we made our way to the elevators, where we were taken up to the second level and made our way through carpeted halls complete with some great pictures of St. James’ Park’s development over the years.
I hope you find these pictures interesting because I have added them all below for you to see. The dimensions, unfortunately, don’t allow me to show them in a slider or a gallery.
Newcastle – The Milburn Suite
We hung our coats in the hallway to the Milburn Suite and made our way inside.
Oh, joy! We are the first ones here, not that we were keen or anything, you understand.
Shown to our seats by one of the lovely table waiting girls, we ordered drinks and found our complimentary programmes on our chairs and a commemorative pin badge each with the date and the two teams on it. Nice touch!
Once the suite had started filling up and our table mates were there too, people started getting their self-service buffet-style lunches from the hot trays. I made my way straight to the puff pastry pie and gravy and put a good-sized portion on my plate and topped it up with new potatoes and veg, topped off with a nice, rich gravy. Mrs Hopper helped herself to oysters, anti-pasta and cold-cut meats, followed by some pork, veg and potatoes. Everything was very nice and was washed down with more drinks and a cheeseboard… and more drinks. Hic!
With lunch over, another well-known ex-Newcastle player in the shape of Bobby Moncur came in and did a speech, which was well received by the guests and following another drink and a trip to the little boy’s room, it was time to head outside for the game.
Time to Watch the Game
Following the carpeted halls and merging with traffic from other suites, we went up the steps and got our first look inside the stadium proper.
What an imposing stadium St. James’ Park is!
The main stand, or Milburn Stand to give it its correct name, is part of the towering two sides of St. James’ Park that dominate the city skyline. We were higher up than most stadiums and yet we weren’t even on the top tier!
To our left in the Leaze’s Stand, higher up on the top tier, were the Aston Villa fans. There was a full allocation and an impressive following and yet they were dwarfed by the Newcastle support both below them and all around us. There is also a large electronic screen attached to the far wall of the Leaze’s Stand that shows the action and replays.
To the right of us was the Gallowgate End and opposite us, the East Stand.
I am led to believe that it is the terraced row of buildings behind the East Stand that prevent the club from building up that side of the ground due to the Leazes Terrace jointly being a Grade I listed building.
However, there are always rumours of plans to get around this in the offing and there is one ingenious plan that I have read about which involves rotating the pitch 90 degrees. If you are interested, you can read that same article here via the Newcastle Chronicle.
Newcastle United – Pre-Game Atmosphere
Newcastle United – The Game
The atmosphere as the teams came out was pretty incredible. There were flags waving, banners being passed over heads, Geordie voices in full cry, the Villa fans were trying to do their bit to be heard above the din and it was all carried out under the stadium tannoy belting out Hey Jude, by The Beatles. Of course, the Toon Army have changed the lyrics from Hey Jude to “Geo-rrrrdies” and it sounds great.
Newcastle had been struggling in the league for most of the season until they appointed Eddie Howe as manager on November 9th 2021. He turned the club’s fortunes around in a pretty remarkable way because they had been looking like relegation fodder up until that point, with just five draws and as many points to their name from eleven matches played. By the season’s end, Newcastle had moved from the bottom of the league to eleventh, with 49 points and thirteen victories from the remaining 26 matches.
It was quite amusing seeing pocket-sized attacker, Ryan Fraser lining up alongside 6’5ft Dan Burn as the teams came out and posed for the cameras. The Newcastle team also included Allan Saint-Maximin, who I was keen to see in action and their January signing, Kieran Trippier who had come back from Spain in the January transfer window. There was no place in the starting XI for fellow new-recruit Bruno Guimarães, though.
Aston Villa manager, Steven Gerrard had been appointed just four days after Eddie Howe had joined Newcastle and his side contained ex-Barcelona and Bayern Munich star, Phillipe Coutinho and rising starlet, Jacob Ramsey. Villa was sitting in eleventh place at the start of play.
After a bit of early to-and-froing, Newcastle looked the slightly better team but by the half-hour mark, the biggest part of the action had been a clash of heads between Trippier and Fabian Schar, which resulted in the latter having a bandage wrapped around his head.
That changed as the 30th minute ticked over to the 32nd minute and Newcastle attacked Villa’s box. Joe Willock was brought down by Calum Chambers, no doubt about it but was it in the box or not?
“VAR says no (cough)” (one for the Little Britain fans amongst you) and a free kick is eventually awarded.
England’s Kieran Trippier was the man who stepped up and blasted the ball through the wall, taking a deflection off the wall, over John McGinn, who was playing the part of human draught excluder behind the wall and into the Villa net.
Toon lead 1-0 and cue the joyous scenes as St. James’ Park erupted with delight.
Unfortunately, that was it as far as major excitement went and despite a few jinking runs from ASM that ultimately led to nothing. The half drew to a close after five minutes of added time that could have been a lot more. Treatment for various injuries, VAR decision and bookings, of which there were seven in total during the ninety, plus a substitution and a goal.
Another substitution was the first major action of the second half, as goalscorer and man of the match up to this point, Trippier went down injured in the 47th minute. Coutinho, who had been quiet up to this point now found himself getting more of the ball with no Trippier to stop him and he looked far more dangerous in the second 45.
After fifteen minutes of this half, Aston Villa have had four shots at goal, more than they did in the entire first half. At the other end, a Dan Burn header is straight at the keeper but it’s Villa who have the ball in the net next, as Ollie Watkins heads home only to have it ruled out by another VAR decision. Looking at it on replays, I firmly believe that Watkins was offside by a toenail.
Villa tried to take advantage of the two full-backs going off injured for Newcastle but despite all their endeavours, they couldn’t get the ball in the net again. Despite Villa having an added seven minutes of injury time to make something happen, Newcastle hung on to win a very tight contest 1-0.
Cue more joyous scenes and flag-waving around the ground as Newcastle heaved themselves a little further away from relegation and paved the way for more wins as the season continued.
The full match report, for those interested, can be read here via the Express & Star, which gives a Villa perspective of the game.
Attendance – 52,207
Entrance Fee – Free
Programme – Free (usual cost £3.50)
Newcastle United – Match Highlights
Newcastle – After the Game
After clapping the teams from the field, we headed back to the Milburn Suite for… another drink.
This time, former player Olivier Bernard was brought in to give a short speech and we were also introduced to a couple of the youngsters from the Newcastle U23 team.
The Newcastle United hospitality experience is one I certainly won’t forget quickly and it’s a luxury that not many ordinary football fans get to try, so I’m very thankful for our opportunity to give it a go.
Having said that, on a regular basis, I would much prefer the raw, gritty experience of standing on a terrace at a lower league team come rain or shine. Being pampered was a nice one-off memory that will stay with me but there will be no more of that from here on in…
When the bar was closed down and people were leaving, we sadly joined the exodus and made our way back to Eldon Square, past the Strawberry once more, to catch the bus home and another week of work, preparing for the next trip out, which would be a far rawer but just as pleasurable experience in its own way.