A greasy, muddy slope: the history of St James’ Park

This is a short piece written for the 2014 Northern League Cup Final match programme. The match was played at St James’ Park, where Marske United beat Whitley Bay 2-1 after extra time. The Northern League is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year.

The first Northern League match at St James’ Park was played 125 years ago in September 1889 between the two Newcastle clubs West End and East End. St James’ was the home ground of West End, and it looked very different to how it does today. There were no stands, and no real facilities of any kind, just a pitch surrounded by soil embankments. Supporters paid sixpence to get in, and the players got changed in a nearby pub.

‘The West End ground is most unsuitable to football,’ reported the Northern Echo. ‘Between goal and goal there is a most pronounced dip… a greasy, muddy slope of the most treacherous nature.’ If you look closely you’ll see that the St James’ pitch still has a slope today. It was the location that made St James’ special, perched above the town walls at the heart of Newcastle.

Rivals East End played at Heaton Junction, just off Chillingham Road. Heaton Junction was in many ways a better ground than St James’, with a decent pitch, a wooden pavilion and even a press box, although it was a bumpy two-mile charabanc ride from Central Station.

West End won that first Northern League meeting 2-0 in front of 4,000-strong St James’ crowd. But the club folded due to financial difficulties in 1892, leaving their prime location ground empty. ‘We are informed that the West End club has now ceased to exist,’ reported the Journal, ‘and the East End club will become the occupiers of St James’ Park.’

East End’s first Northern League match at St James’ was in October 1892 against Middlesbrough. They won 3-1. A few weeks later, East End changed their name – to Newcastle United.

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