Home ground: a wander around Newcastle’s St James’ Park

Last time out I visited the original grounds of the club that became Newcastle United. This time I had a traipse around and inside Newcastle’s home since 1892 – St James’ Park:

I’m biased, of course, but I reckon that this place is a bit special. Packed with believers and full of noise, illuminated by floodlights and bursting with passion, it’s a thrilling place to be on a matchday. But even empty and silent on a cold winter’s morning like this one, St James’ Park retains a special ambience and splendour that make it deserving of its place in the hearts of the Toon Army and at the heart of this great city.

St James' Park, February 2011. Grounds staff use forks and grass lamps to repair the pitch.

St James’ Park, February 2011. Grounds staff use forks and grass lamps to repair the pitch.

I’ve been to St James’ hundreds of times, and I feel completely at home here, so much so that I think I probably take it for granted. I think a lot of us probably do. Unfortunately, the ongoing Sports Direct-sponsored desecration of the stadium has sullied the image of SJP in the eyes of many fans. But a wander around and inside the ground serves as a quick reminder of what a magnificent place it is.

St James’ occupies a lofty position at the north west of Newcastle city centre, just a goalkick from the old town walls. You can see the stadium from pretty much everywhere in and around the city, being as it is more than 210 feet tall, serving as a constant reminder of the fact that football courses through the city’s blood.

The ground has changed almost completely even since I started coming here in the early 1980s. Back then, both the Gallowgate and Leazes were open standing terraces, and the Edwardian West Stand was still standing. Only the East Stand, built in 1973, remains. Now the Milburn Stand to the west and the Sir John Hall Stand to the north are 15 storeys high, and covered by a sweeping glass roof. The south stand is the Gallowgate, where I stood as a kid, and that’s nearest to my vantage point.

I’m standing by the town walls, which were built in the 13th century to protect the city from marauding Scots. Gallowgate runs along the north west corner of the walls, and is so named because condemned prisoners would be led out of the town gaol at Newgate through Gallowgate to Gallows Hole – located, records suggest, at the exact site where St James’ Park now stands.

Thieves, murderers and suspected witches were all hung at this spot, often in front of large crowds. The last hanging at Gallows Hole took place in 1844, when a crowd gathered in front of Leazes Terrace to watch Mark Sherwood hang for the brutal murder of his wife Ann. (He cut off her head in their house on Blandford Street.) So St James’ Park has long been a venue for spectator sports.

Walking across Gallowgate up to the ground, past the newly-developing Sir Bobby Robson memorial garden, and the St James Metro station (without an apostrophe, punctuation fans), you reach the Strawberry Pub and Strawberry Place, named fairly obviously because this was once the site of strawberry fields.

St James’ Park itself is named simply because of its location next to St James’ Street. There have been several chapels of St James in the city, and the street was probably named in relation to one of them. Saint James, by the way, was one of the 12 apostles of Jesus, and the first to become a martyr – he was beheaded by sword around 42 AD. (Saint James is also the patron saint of Spain – I wonder if Jose Enrique is aware of that?!)

Newcastle United weren’t the first team to play at SJP. The site had been used by several sports teams, and was turned into a football field in 1880 by one of Tyneside’s earliest clubs, Rangers FC. Rangers left in 1882, and the field was left mostly unused. Then, in 1886, Newcastle West End moved from Jesmond to St James’, erecting an eight-foot fence around the pitch, and turning it into a proper football ground.

West End went out of business in 1892, and the ground was taken over by cross-city rivals East End, who moved from Heaton. In an effort to appease both sets of supporters, East End changed its name to Newcastle United, and St James’ Park became the home of the club that remains there to this day.

Walking up behind the East Stand past St James’ Street, I reach Leazes Terrace, the Grade I listed development built in the 1830s by Richard Grainger, that has prevented further expansion on this side of the ground. It was once home to some of Newcastle’s most genteel residents, but the Pot Noodles and posters in the window are a clue to the fact that it’s now been used as student digs.

Continuing north, behind the Sir John Hall Stand, I cross into Leazes Park, a classic Victorian city park, opened in 1873 following a petition from working men for ‘ready access to some open ground for the purposes of health and recreation’. The park was developed through into the 1890s, at the same time as SJP and NUFC were developing.

In the mid-90s, the club proposed a ground move to Leazes Park, but fierce opposition forced a rethink, and created the expansion programme that created the current version of St James’.

Continuing around the stadium, Barrack Road, to the east of SJP, takes its name from the main army barracks that were built here in the early 1800s. The Lord Hill pub stood on Barrack Road, and was used as a changing room by the home players in the early years of SJP. Newly built on the opposite side of the road to the stadium is a huge and impressively shiny Newcastle University Business School building.

Time now to head inside St James’, where there are a few treats that most fans usually miss. Up on the second level, at Cafe @ St James’ (which could more accurately be called Coffee Machine @ St James’), there are a row of cabinets which is the closest the club gets to having an official museum these days. Among the photos, shirts and medals are a few relics of the formative years of St James’ and Newcastle United, and it’s a shame that it’s hidden away. (It’s worth seeing, in combination with the current NUFC exhibition at the Discovery Museum.)

Inside the main reception there’s an impressive bust of the late great Sir Bobby Robson by sculptor Tom Maley, and the Football League Championship Trophy, which we first won in 1905. Along the corridor from reception is the player’s tunnel, with the ‘Howay The Lads’ sign above, leading down to the pitch. I can’t get down to the pitch as they’re replacing the dugout carpets and seats today, and installing even more Sports Direct advertising…

The Milburn Stand from Barrack Road, and the 'old' East Stand from Leazes Terrace.

The Milburn Stand from Barrack Road, and the ‘old’ East Stand from Leazes Terrace.

Behind the tunnel is the sponsors’ backdrop, used for post-match TV interviews. The media centre is nearby, with its press conference stage, and facilities for the press lads and lasses to have their bait and plug in their laptops.

The home and away changing rooms could hardly be more different. (There’s also a female official’s changing room that has only ever been used once.) The away facilities are remarkably basic, but the home changing room provides everything the modern footballer might need – even an overhead locker with personal safe in which to store their diamond-encrusted earrings.

There are still clods of mud on the floor from the weekend’s match, and flipcharts are lying around showing marking responsibilities for corners and free kicks. There’s a sign reminding the players to stay hydrated. (‘If you’re thirsty, it’s too late!’) The clock on the wall isn’t working, stuck at a crucial time for match preparation – five to three.

Upstairs, much of St James’ Park is dedicated to corporate use and hospitality. Among the scores of function suites is Club 206, dedicated to Alan Shearer and his 206 goals in the Newcastle number 9 shirt. Executive boxes overlook the pitch along the length of the Milburn Stand (Shearer’s is called ‘Wor Box’) and the Sky TV studio is in the north west corner. The Milburn and John Hall stands have seven levels, and from the top you can look out over the city and see for miles beyond.

Down on the pitch, the groundstaff are repairing the turf, and huge grass lamps are set out across the pitch to encourage regrowth. Now a fine playing surface, SJP was once anything but. Situated on a hill, the St James’ pitch originally had a had a huge slope down from the Leazes to the Gallowgate of a full 18 feet. It was also pretty boggy.

‘The West End ground is most unsuitable to football,’ reported the Northern Echo in 1888. ‘Between goal and goal there is a most pronounced dip, and on Saturday the goal mouth at the bottom end, for some twenty yards out, was nothing but a greasy, muddy slope of the most treacherous nature.’

Although efforts have been made over the years to level the pitch, a visible slope still exists. Apparently there’s still a gentleman’s agreement in place between club captains that, whoever wins the coin toss, Newcastle will be allowed to kick ‘downhill’ towards the Gallowgate end in the second half. (If such an agreement exists, Everton captain Phil Neville seemingly wasn’t aware of it last Saturday…)

Sadly, as magical as many aspects of St James’ Park can be, there’s no avoiding the cheapening influence of Sports Direct. There was the stadium renaming fiasco, then planning approval for exterior fascia signs, and then everyone’s least favourite tracksuit and trainers magnate painted a huge SportsDirect.com mural on the roof of the Gallowgate. From my usual viewpoint in the John Hall, it’s a saddening sight.

But let’s not get too dragged down by the doings of one man. SJP has been around for more than 130 years, and the current goings on are just a small blot in its history book. Sometimes I think you need to take a fresh look at something to really appreciate it. So if you have a spare hour or so, have a proper wander around St James’ Park, our wonderful black and white cathedral on the hill.

The previous post, Before St James’ Park: the origins of Newcastle United, is here.

My book about the early history of Newcastle United is All With Smiling Faces.

Published by Paul Brown

Writes about football, history, true adventure. The Guardian, Four Four Two, When Saturday Comes, The Blizzard, Longreads, Deadspin, etc. Latest book: The Ruhleben Football Association. Twitter: @paulbrownUK