Some of the happiest memories I have of following Newcastle United have been at semi-finals. The first I can recall, I wasn’t even at – the FA Semi Final of 1974 at Hillsborough. As I am increasingly reminded I am entering the realms of old gadgie territory, ’74 was back in the days before wall to wall TV coverage of football. The semi-finals weren’t televised. I remember vividly playing 3-pots-in on the field near my back gate on the estate I lived on as a kid. Tyneside had been alive with the FA Cup run and the anticipation of the club returning to Wembley and reliving the glory days of the 1950s, Milburn et-al gripped everyone. There had been the controversial Quarter Final with Forest, pitch invasions etc. but now United was in the semis facing a formidable but eminently beatable Burnley. It is burnt into my memory of my Mam coming to the gate and shouting, cheeks flushed, to my group of football-mad mates – “Supermac has scored” as she had been listening to the game on the radio with my old man. Then again, she was at the gate, waving her hands in the air – “he’s scored again” and all of us going crazy with excitement. Newcastle United at Wembley. How we gorged on what has become iconic footage of Supermac breaking through the Burnley defence and scoring those two goals.
A couple of years later I was on the old Leazes End terrace and under its roof for the 2nd leg of the League Cup Semi with Spurs in ’76 when United reached the final, swept on under one of the most fervent atmospheres I have ever experienced. A long while elapsed between those great occasions and the two Old Trafford semis of ’98, 99 and I’ll skip over the heart-breakers of Marseille in the UEFA Cup, Chelsea at Wembley and Man Utd at Cardiff.
It will be a long time before we go back to any semi-final with Mike Ashley running the show at Newcastle United. We won’t go to any semi-final down to bad luck or thwarted ambition. It just isn’t in the Mike Ashley business plan.
Where it absolutely is in the business plan is North Shields.
I had the great pleasure of taking in The Robins FA Vase 2nd Leg Semi Final v. Highworth Town and without any doubt whatsoever, it has provided my most enjoyable time at football this season. By a mile. I’ll confess to feeling a bit of an imposter at North Shields. I’m a Gateshead lad born and bred and I have zero attachment to the town or the football club. Indeed it’s the first time I’ve ever been to a North Shields game in my life. But it’s a Geordie club, I don’t think I was preventing a die-hard from getting a ticket for the game and although Shields is definitely clannish, I knew I wouldn’t be unwelcome.
My day started at the Spring Gardens and the pub was rammed to the gills with a real old-school crowd of skins, casuals, friends, neighbours, families, owld gadgies and I think it’s fair to say one or two characters. The whole vibe reminded me of Newcastle United only a few years ago. Everyone who followed United being mates and a brilliant feeling of unity, solidarity and great humour which is crumbling around the edges with each passing season. I fell into conversation with several lads who are all ex-season ticket holders. All have a real bitterness towards Ashley and although they are discovering and creating something brilliant at North Shields there is no question torches are carried still for NE1 in NE29, one of Newcastle United’s most traditional and hardcore of heartlands. If Newcastle United loses hearts and minds in North Shields, Newcastle United can quickly unravel.
The buzz inside and outside the Spring Gardens was tangible. I speculated with one lad
that if Ashley drove by here he wouldn’t be arsed about the excitement, the atmosphere, the crack … he’d want to know how he could get his hands on the till.
We’ve all been in those pre-match pubs before – where almost everyone knows everyone else, people are asking after each other, inquiring about friends and relatives and sharing memories only they own. Everyone looking forward to the same thing, living the same dream. This is what community football looks like, sounds like and this is what Mike Ashley, Lee Charnley and all his minions doing his dirty work on Barrack Road will never understand.
What many of those pubs have never ever had though is a local operatic singer turning out and belting out Nessun Dorma to a North Shields pub full of increasingly oiled drinkers. Then following up with You’ll Never Walk Alone. This fella’s next gig has to be somewhere in The Smoke with the North Shields Ultras giving it Abide With Me. Reg, Reg, Reg!
I’m not going to even pretend to do a match report. You can watch the highlights here – courtesy of North Shields FC TV:
I don’t know any of the players and to be honest the game was ruined as a spectacle by a high wind that never allowed either side to play the football they occasionally showed they looked capable of doing. North Shields wrapped it up with two late-ish goals which sent the 1600 attendance into raptures.
Like so many Newcastle United games of my youth, the football itself doesn’t provide most of the happiest of memories. It’s the crack – who can remember the Great Gallowgate End Snowball Fight between the Scoreboard and the Corner? Seeing supporters crowd surfing, leading the singing on a barrier, stewards getting short shrift, daft Poznans attempted, players and fans absolutely and completely together – that was North Shields on Saturday.
I’d heard at the quarter-final, Newcastle United’s stewards had turned up with the Sports Direct logos on their Hi-Vis jackets. Complaints were made. They weren’t worn at the semi. Good. Ashley and his shop have no place here.
I’d spotted Paul Cannell in the Spring Gardens before the game. I resisted the temptation at shouting “Fucking Hell, Its Paul Cannell”. I think the novelty of that might have worn off after 40 years for Paul. At the game North Shields life President, Malcolm Macdonald and his mate, The Chronicle’s veteran hack, John Gibson would squeeze by us on the terrace, with Mags of a certain age showing due deference to an all-time Newcastle United legend. Supermac would be later hit on the head behind the goal by a rebounding shot at the Highworth goal and the crowd laughing with Mac showing great humour. That kind of day!
So then, North Shields at Wembley in the FA Vase Final eh?
No self-respecting Geordie will wish them anything other than the best of wishes. They have a big FA Vase Tyneside tradition to maintain. Although North Shields might be North Tyneside’s “noisy neighbours” to their great friends and rivals, Whitley Bay, The Seahorses can raise three fingers to show their great recent successes in the FA Vase. Along the river at Gateshead, Dunston can proudly boast of their recent FA Vase win too.
But I don’t think North Shields Football Club is going to London for a daft weekend on the beer (though the fans will have one of them). North Shields are going to Wembley and they are going to win the FA Vase.
Everyone connected to true faith wishes them every success.
Howay The Lads!
Thanks to photos chored from the North Shields Ultras.
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