Could no fans improve St James’ Park atmosphere?

This article first appeared in the True Faith Newcastle United fanzine – 1st October 2020

It was arguably the highlight of last season. Newcastle, entrenched in their own half for the majority of a turgid affair at SJP, had resisted wave after wave of Chelsea attacks but found themselves with a final throw of the dice. In the final minute of second half stoppage-time, all inside the stadium held a collective breath. They couldn’t – could they?

Seconds later, Isaac Hayden nodded into the Blues net and the Magpies stole a precious three points. Seasonal-high decibel levels rippled across the city, as Toon fans punched the air in disbelief, hugged their nearest and dearest and screamed in joy (or agony for the poor guy clutching his bollocks after Matt Ritchie’s latest corner flag assault).

As everyone happily drifted down Barrack Road that mid-January evening, no-one could have predicted that their wait to cheer another home goal would be over nine months – and counting.

Away trips would yield further ‘limbs’ moments as COVID-19 crept closer to these shores – Lejeune’s last-gasp double at Goodison Park, Saint-Maximin’s helicopter-inducing strike at Oxford – but by time the mercurial Frenchman had secured another vital win at Southampton in early March, coronavirus cases had started increasingly rapidly, and football was abruptly paused.

When the Premier League finally resumed in June, the ‘new normal’ was to watch on from afar in locked-down homes. Artificial crowd noise was pumped into our lounges, but as the goals poured in against Sheffield United, the sight of the players’ muted celebrations taking place in front of a backdrop of empty seats brought little solace to those unable to attend.

Ironically, an uninhabited SJP had been the wish of many disillusioned Magpies fans after seeing Rafa replaced by Steve Bruce; the final straw after 12 years of Ashley’s torturous tenure. Season ticket renewals were rejected, a mass boycott mooted. The support the club wrongly took for granted was being threatened.

Despite this, as I splashed towards the ground in the pouring rain ahead of the seasonal opener against Arsenal, I held that glorious first day feeling, where all teams start with the same points tally, the hope that new signings could be world beaters and maybe – just maybe – we could upset the Premier League’s established order. A 1-0 defeat later and all signs pointing to another season of struggle, I, like many, were wondering what was the point?

Why bother splashing out on overpriced train tickets to watch your team, when the owner couldn’t give a toss if you were there or not? Why bother forking out for overnight accommodation just to watch bargain bin footballers strain to string three passes together? And why bother wasting an entire weekend to see a vastly inferior team lose to much wealthier opponents, as you more-or-less expected when purchasing those overpriced train tickets in the first place?  

As I attempted to wring rainwater out of my clothes on the train back to London that night, surrounded by gloating Gooners, you had to question why you continued to go through the motions and still bother to turn up. All that loomed on the horizon was seemingly another relegation scrap, and given the club’s desecration of the cup competitions during the Ashley era, there was scant chance of seeing black and white ribbons tied onto silverware for the first time in half a century.

The worst realisation was that I wasn’t the only one feeling so disheartened; the atmosphere in the stadium had been as flat as the Carling served in concourses. The impressive flag displays had been taken away in protest, the crackling crescendo of noise as the teams exited the tunnel replaced by muted applause. Home chants during the game were as scarce as home shots on goal, with even Arsenal fans – historically lambasted for their sombre support – outsinging us.

It’s been obvious for years that there needed to be a shot in the arm to bring the once-famous atmosphere back to SJP on a regular basis, with all roads pointing to the day Ashley finally packs his Lonsdale holdall and leaves. But, perhaps, this long-enforced social exclusion from the structure many see as their second home or place of worship could be the catalyst instead.

Let’s face it – it’s been rubbish watching games at home. A pre-match pint cannot compare to a cup of tea, and having to constantly refresh jittery dodgy streams (thank you BeOut Q for something…) brings added anxiety, only compounded when your usual matchgoing mate with the benefit of the proper subscription package texts you with a facepalm emoji, meaning you spend an agonising minute waiting for your stream to catch up and inevitably watch in horror as the ball trickles past Martin Dubvraka.

As the months have rolled on, I’ve found myself longing for the days where I can celebrate a goal wildly with the random bloke next to me, rather than shaking my uninterested wife on the sofa. I’d much rather hear the tactical views of the topless nutjob behind me after every sideways pass than the bile spewed out by McManaman, Souness et al.

Unable to attend games, I’ve tried to get my fix in other ways. This is my first article for any Newcastle-orientated publication, and I’ve recently joined the London Supporters Club in an attempt to maybe rekindle the pre-match pub session with some new faces. I whittled away lockdown by watching old season reviews, following new Toon Twitter accounts and testing my knowledge on Magpies-themed quizzes.

All this has left me feel rejuvenated, desperately awaiting being back at the place I’d rather be more than anywhere in the world when the team take to the field. With success on the pitch once again probably capped at a top-half finish, moments such as that Hayden winner remind you why we are the loyalist supporters the world has ever seen. Those sudden outpourings of elation  – the reasons we put in our time, effort and money – may be fleeting at the moment, but perhaps that makes them all the sweeter.

It is certainly a cliché, but absence does makes the heart grow fonder. While apathy towards the current regime won’t ever disappear, I’m sure many Toon fans will also have a rediscovered appreciation of being inside St James’ when they’re permitted again, as they savour a precious couple of hours of escapism after enduring months of personal and professional stress. Sadly, it has taken a global pandemic to show that life is, indeed, too short.

As of the time of writing, it’s still unknown quite when the turnstiles will begin clacking again, but it’s almost certain the first home game back will begin with a trickle of around 15,000 spectators. I’m sure after months of bottling their favourite chants to prevent alarming the neighbours, those in attendance for an ‘I was there’ tale decades from now will make themselves heard.

The half-time grub will still be shit, the beer slightly stale and the football served up will, at times, be almost as unpalatable, but hopefully by the time 52,000 of us are reunited again, a rediscovered passion for matchdays will start the revival of the atmosphere our famous old ground deserves.

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