Teams, tales and tips – a guide to the local game
In October 2021, the news that Newcastle United had been bought for £305 million by, effectively, Saudi Arabia, led to wild celebrations around Newcastle. Not only was the club now the world’s richest, joining the petrostate elite of Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, but the Ashley era was over. NUFC’s unpopular long-term owner would be counting his riyals well away from Tyneside.
For a fix of football and beer in a party city unlike anywhere in England, Newcastle is the place. Here in the once industrial North East, football was an escape from coal, ship-building and fishing. The landscape may have changed but the religion hasn’t.
Since 1892 and the foundation of Newcastle United, locals have flocked to a hill in the city centre: St James’ Park. Here, before the war at least, they witnessed one of the England’s most successful football clubs.
But United owe their existence to two cricket clubs, whose members formed rival football clubs, East End FC and Newcastle West End, in 1882. Playing at St James’ Park, West End were founding members of the Northern League and competed in the FA Cup. Rivals in both competitions, East End, operated on a more professional footing.
Merging in 1892 to form Newcastle United, the new club dominated the English game after the turn of the century.
A rivalry with Sunderland, the Tyne-Wear derby, was soon struck up, with historic ties dating back well before the arrival of football. Newcastle West End had already lost to Sunderland, in the FA Cup, on Guy Fawkes Day 1887, before the two modern-day clubs met in the league on Good Friday, 1901. A riot ensued. Hooliganism has marred the fixture ever since. It has also been responsible for managerial upheaval, for example, Ruud Gullit’s sacking after United’s defeat in 1999. In 2013, manager Paolo Di Canio enjoyed a rare moment of glory, a 3-0 for Sunderland at St James’ Park, their first there for 13 years.
Though not as fierce, the Tyne-Tees derby with Middlesbrough enjoys an equally long history – in the late 1880s, the wonderfully named Middlesbrough Ironopolis were the dominant side in the Northern League, over Newcastle East End and West End.
United have always been the dominant club in Newcastle but there’s always been a thriving junior and lower-league scene in and around the city.
Paul Gascoigne played for Gateshead Boys before being taken on at Newcastle. Gateshead FC, in adjoining Gateshead, compete in the National League North, England’s de facto sixth division.
Revived from liquidation in the 1970s, the club are best known for signing the great Wembley Wizard Hughie Gallacher, shortly before the war – and their heroic cup runs shortly afterwards. Taking notable scalps, including Liverpool’s, Gateshead also made quarter-finals of 1953, when Bolton could only beat them 1-0 on the way to the Matthews final.
In 2014, Gateshead came within 90 minutes of a place in the Football League, but lost out to Cambridge United in the play-off final at Wembley.
‘The Heed’ play at the Gateshead International Stadium, a world-famous athletics arena, but are building their own ground in the city centre. When a new running track was being laid down in 2003, Gateshead played at Filtrona Park (aka 1st Cloud Arena), home ground of South Shields FC, currently in Premier after a chequered history. Opponents include local rivals North Shields, FA Amateur Cup winners in 1969. Whitley Bay, meanwhile, are the only club to have won the FA Vase four times, including three straight victories from 2009 to 2011. Their Hillshead Park ground is found close to Whitley Bay Metro station.
At the far end of Hadrian’s Wall, in Wallsend, players of the calibre of Peter Beardsley, Alan Shearer and Michael Carrick started their careers at Wallsend Boys Club, who opened their own football centre, Kirkley Park, in 2011.
Arriving in town, local transport and timings
Newcastle Airport is 10km (six miles) west of town. The Tyne & Wear Metro takes 25 minutes to reach the city centre, trains leaving every 12mins from the platform by the airport. The Metro is divided into three zones – the airport is Zone C, single £3.70 into town, day pass £5.40. St James station is in central Zone A. If coming straight to the stadium, then just change at Monument for St James.
Newcastle also has a bus network, run by Arriva, Stagecoach and Go North East, all with different ticket systems. If you’re coming to Newcastle by train, a PlusBus supplement (£4) is valid for all three, but not the Metro. Newcastle Central Station is on the south side of the city centre, the stadium on the north, but it’s only a 15min walk between them or easy hop on the Metro.
Where to Drink
The best pubs and bars for football fans
From the moment you arrive at Central Station, you hit bars. The Centurion, a former British Rail first-class restaurant built in 1893, has been lovingly restored. There’s also a whole world of beer at CentrAle on platform 12.
Just over the road, TV football is close at hand at the Mile Castle in the Wetherspoon chain. Behind the station towards the Tyne, The Telegraph is a nice find, with TV sport and a roof terrace in summer.
For a night on the Toon, many hit the Bigg Market, right in the centre, full of busy chain bars, as well as more old-school options such as the Beehive (2 High Bridge) and the Old George Inn (Old George Yard).
Towards the Quayside, Akenside Traders is great for sports, the Crown Posada for a drink in traditional surroundings and the Bridge Tavern immediately below the Tyne Bridge for craft beers and a quality menu. The Redhouse specialises in pies, with a terrace overlooking the Tyne Bridge.
Where to stay
The best hotels for the ground and around town
The Newcastle Tourist Information Centre has an online booking service. The swish four-star Sandman Signature, in the shadow of St James’ Park, stands on the site of the famous Newcastle Brown Ale brewery. As well as offering match-day packages, it houses the Shark Club Bar, popular pre- and post-match.
A spot in lively Quayside also allows easy passage from bar to bed. The pick are Malmaison overlooking the Tyne and the Copthorne, with its waterfront Quay 7 restaurant. Over the water are Jurys Inn, also with a riverside restaurant, and the Hilton Newcastle Gateshead, with its Windows on the Tyne bar.
More affordable lodging can be found at the Premier Inn Quayside and, further up on Carliol Square, at the YHA Newcastle Central – think private rooms, suites and even premium suites, rather than grim dorms.
Over on Dean Street, there’s mid-range rooms at Surtees. Close by, notch-above Grey Street is more boutiquey, non-guests welcome to tuck into charcoal-grilled steaks at its Leila Lily’s restaurant. Back towards the river, the Vermont below Newcastle Castle is all pre-war grandeur and top-notch dining and drinking.
Where to shop
Finding football treasure in town
There are few better football memorabilia stores than The Back Page (Mon-Fri 9.30am-5.30pm, Sat 9am-5.30pm/closed during NUFC home games but open later afterwards inc evening fixtures, Sun 11am-5pm) in St Andrew’s Street in the shadow of St James’ Park. One of the first of its kind, it’s an oasis of sought-after football shirts, DVDs, programmes, tickets and postcards , from the Toon and way, way beyond.
Opened by Mick Edmondson in 2003, it has welcomed visits by Gascoigne, Beardsley and Tino Asprilla, among many other ex-players. In 2016, it opened a larger branch in the Upper Blue Mall of the vast Gateshead Metrocentre (Mon-Fri 9am-9pm, Sat 9am-7pm, Sun 11am-5pm), with a wider range of sports represented.