What is a club in any case? Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. It’s not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes. It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city. It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.
I am the product of a mixed marriage. My mother and her family were ardent Sunderland AFC supporters. However, my father and his family were avid followers of Newcastle United FC. So, on which side of the coin was my allegiance to fall?
In my early years, my parents (they were both engaging raconteurs) would regale me with stories of the teams and players they’d watched when younger. In my mother’s case, it was the likes of Len Shackleton, Billy Bingham, and Stan Anderson. In my father’s case, it was the likes of Hughie Gallacher, Tommy Lang, and Jackie Milburn.
I loved my mother, but the black and white side drew me. I was to follow the Magpies, not the Black Cats. I think it may have been the anecdotes my father shared of his early days watching and then playing for Newcastle United ‘youth’ that swung me his way. My mother’s stories had appeal too, but my father’s offerings took me inside the NUFC team of the 1920s, whereas my mother spoke only as watching as a spectator in the 1940s.
As a Father’s Day present, my son bought me a book entitled ‘All with Smiling Faces’. Some might recognise that line from ‘Blaydon Races’, the Geordie ‘anthem’. The book is the story of how NUFC came about and how within 30 years, it became the best team in England.
It’s a very well-researched book but not dry in its delivery. The writer, Paul Brown, captures so well what football means to the city of Newcastle. The character of its people, their pride in their team and city, and the atmosphere on match day. The smoky aroma from Woodbines, the sweet smell of fresh grass and nose clearing tang of horse liniment. All familiar to me some sixty-odd years after which Brown writes. He also brings to life the players of over one hundred years ago. They are not just names in a history book. Brown offers a glimpse of their personality.
Popular culture has 1892 as the year of the founding of NUFC. However, in truth, The NUFC story goes further back in time. To the formation of a football club by some teenage cricketers in 1881. The oldest was nineteen and the youngest fourteen, and they formed a football team to have something to play outside of the cricket season. The boys lived around Stanley St. in the east end of Newcastle. Not surprisingly, they named their club Stanley FC. That club was one of many in the city, and countless other towns and cities around England, as the popularity of football increased.
Many of those fledgling clubs failed to take flight and, within in a couple of years or more, had disappeared. But not Stanley. They changed their name to Newcastle East End when they learned a club had formed on the other side of the city called Newcastle West End. East End moved to different grounds, attracting better footballers and a growing following. Eventually, East End’s west end rivals failed financially, making their ground at St James Park available. East End moved in. Changing their name to Newcastle United FC happened as a means of appearing attractive to both East End and West End fans. Not because of the merger of the East End and West End clubs as thought commonly.
So began the journey to the club that exists today. After writing about the club’s formation, Paul Brown recounts their early journey through to the end of the Edwardian era. And while the book’s main thrust is on NUFC, along the way, Brown offers a snapshot into Edwardian England and the life of working people. His book reflects the early years of professional football, not just NUFC.
In one chapter, Brown writes of one of the earliest films of a football match. It’s from 1901 and shows NUFC plating Liverpool at St James Park. The short film shows just as much of the crowd as it does the game (not caught on camera was the only goal scored by NUFC). Why was so much time spent filming the public? Those early filmmakers knew that people would pay to watch the film in the hope of seeing themselves rather than a few glimpses of the game. I’ve added it to this as it offers an exciting insight into the Edwardian game. I especially like that you can see one of the players discarding a cigarette as he reaches the field of play-an act I’ve yet to see in the modern game.
Watch Newcastle United v Liverpool (1901) - BFI Player
The score finished 1-0 to the Magpies in this First Division football match. Despite having three cameras present on…
Brown also reflects on the north/south divide of the time and how the Geordie reputation for warm welcomes and bonhomie existed then just as it does now. As expressed by a writer of the time that Brown quotes,
“And what finer race of people shall you find in other parts of this kingdom? They are the warmest-hearted people in the world, and of such a people and of such a town they have built among them, one cannot hear too much, nor feel too hearty and admiration”
Another thing that draws me to the book is that some of my father’s anecdotes crop up. Although my father offered more background ‘colour’. For instance, as my father told it, the backstory to Newcastle’s dropping of several players that led to their worst ever defeat had more than a little to do with alcohol. Indeed, Brown does make mention of the time a NUFC player who, after having a drop too much before the game, needed an on-field pointer as to which direction NUFC were kicking. It was a different game in those early days of football.
Paul Brown has authored an excellent book. Not just for those who follow NUFC. Anyone interested in the growth of “the beautiful game” and social history will find something in the book for them.
Howay the Lads!!