Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 25 November 2023
Where does the back story begin for this game? How about October 1973? Let me explain.
No matter what this season brings, no matter how successful, how disappointing, or even how uneventful this campaign turns out to be, it will always be an important one for me. For this particular Chelsea devotee, all eyes are on March 2024 as it will mark the fiftieth anniversary of my first-ever Chelsea game.
My first one was a home game with Newcastle United on Saturday 16 March 1974, and if the current fixture list remains unchanged, I will be celebrating this major milestone with an away trip to Arsenal on Saturday 16 March 2024. It could have been so much better though. In this season’s fixtures, Chelsea host the Geordies just a week before this date on Saturday 9 March. Damn the FA and damn their fixture lists.
So – to set the scene perhaps, here’s a little mention of 1973/74 and the reverse fixture of my first game. On Saturday 20 October 1973, Chelsea travelled to Tyneside in a Football League Division One encounter but unfortunately lost 2-0. The feared striker Malcolm Macdonald scored a brace in front of 32,154.
The Chelsea team that day was as follows.
John Phillips, John Hollins, Eddie McCreadie, Steve Kember, David Webb, Ron Harris, Tommy Baldwin, Alan Hudson, Peter Osgood, Peter Houseman, Chris Garland.
It pains me to see the names Hudson and Osgood listed as I sadly never saw them play for Chelsea. I never saw Eddie McCreadie either.
Fifty years later, another trip to St. James’ Park had been planned for a while. This was another game involving an overnight stay – or rather three of them – although Parky was forced to miss out due to a hospital appointment. On the Friday, I collected PD and Glenn in Frome at 8am and began the long drive north. Luckily, it was a fine and sunny day and the drive was a joy. We had booked some digs in Felling, Gateshead, and I was parked outside the house at 2.15pm.
Over the past few years, the area has become familiar to me. On a trip to see Chelsea play at Newcastle in January 2020, I met a local lass, and I have been visiting her a little since then. This trip to the Newcastle area would be my fifth visit of the year. I celebrated my last two birthdays with Julie in the city of Durham and there have been a few nights out in The Toon and the surrounding area.
However, back in July, I wanted to visit a location – alone – that I think about every time that I see a game in Newcastle.
On 11 June 1957, Hughie Gallacher, the former Newcastle United and Chelsea striker, walked in front of an express train at Low Fell, in Gateshead, and was instantly killed. He was just fifty-four years of age. After a phenomenal career, in which he scored 24 goals in just 20 games for Scotland, he returned to the North-East – his last games were for Gateshead – but found life outside of football to be very difficult. I have always been fascinated by Gallacher and I bought “The Hughie Gallacher Story” by local journalist Paul Joannou a few years back. What lead to his suicide? In a fit of rage, he had thrown an ashtray at his son Mattie, drawing blood, and had been denied access to him. This haunted Gallacher and for many weeks he could be seen pacing the streets of Low Fell in a daze.
I felt that I needed to visit Low Fell.
It took me a while to find the location of where the incident took place on the main London to Edinburgh line. I drove in and around Low Fell for a while, imagining Gallacher walking those same streets almost seventy years earlier. I stopped near the railway and parked close to a bridge. I took a few photographs. On my very first visit to Newcastle in March 1984 – ah, another anniversary of sorts – I would have travelled on this very same piece of railway on a Chelsea Special, without knowing the sad story enacted here.
What I found amazing was that St. James’ Park, at the top of the hill in Newcastle, was clearly visible from Low Fell. And, if I let my imagination work away, I wondered if the St. James’ Park floodlights would have been visible as Hughie Gallacher climbed up on to the railway track on that fateful day in June 1957.
Hughie Gallacher was idolised at Newcastle United. The club’s record gate of 68,386 marked the return of the diminutive striker to St. James’ Park after his transfer to Chelsea. On Wednesday 3 September 1930, that huge crowd saw the local team defeat Chelsea 1-0.
In July this year, I had a quiet moment of remembrance in honour of the one Chelsea player from our distant past that I wish I had seen play.
On the Friday night in Newcastle, after a little session at a warm and welcoming pub in Felling – waiting for our mate Rich to arrive by train from Edinburgh – we dotted around the crazy city centre, meeting up with a few usual suspects, before finally getting back to our digs at around 2.30am.
We awoke late, and tired rather than hungover, before catching a cab into town. Our digs were just a few hundred yards from the Gateshead Stadium, home to the current Gateshead team. We breakfasted at The Quayside pub, where we met up with Steve and the Two Bobs, plus a few pals from Minneapolis, over for a week of Chelsea games.
This was to be, of course, our first game since the hated international break. I spent my “free” weekend watching Frome Town play Worthing in the FA Trophy. In another stupendous match at Badgers’ Hill, Frome drew 2-2, and won 4-3 on penalties to advance. Later that evening, PD, Glenn, Parky and I watched From The Jam in the town centre. It was a very special day. On the Monday, we drew Torquay United in the next round, easily Frome’s most prestigious game in my living memory. I can’t wait to attend that match, luckily taking place on the Saturday before our visit to Everton on the Sunday.
Although modern football continues to bewilder and sadden me in equal measure, I still find the act of attending games with good friends so addictive.
You might have noticed.
There was just time for a solitary drink in the Crown Posada, deep under the bridges on the quayside at the bottom of the hill. This lovely old pub gets a visit from me every time I return. As we were supping our lagers, Led Zeppelin IV was being aired on the old-fashioned turntable on the bar.
“Stairway To Heaven” was played and it felt really incongruous. Not a football song. Not a football moment.
“There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold.
And she’s buying a stairway to Heaven.”
It made me wonder if her name was Amanda Staveley.
We caught a cab to the stadium at about 2.15pm. The cabbie, from Morocco, claimed he was a Chelsea fan, but was able to reel off a few of the former players that he had met in London in the Gullit and Vialli years. And there was me thinking that it was just a ploy to get a big tip.
The stadium is so close to the city centre. I love it.
Never mind stairways to heaven, we just wanted to get our arses in the lift to the top tier. Once there, there was the usual meet and greet with a few familiar faces in the bar areas. As we walked into the top tier with ten minutes to go the kick-off – perfect timing – the pounding “Blitzkrieg Bop” by The Ramones provided a fine accompaniment.
If this was heaven, I was happy.
Next up, “Blaydon Races” boomed out.
This took me back to 1974. I can well remember my father teaching me the words to this well-known Geordie song, no doubt during the time leading up to that very first game. It would have been further engrained in my memory bank by the time Newcastle United played in the 1974 FA Cup Final two months later.
“Gannin alang the Scotswood Road, to see the Blaydon Races.”
I shook hands with Alan and Gal. No John on this occasion. We were in the third row, just wide of the goal.
The familiar view, more familiar for me now. This was my fifteenth visit to this stadium and I looked south to the high land of Gateshead, Felling to the left, with Low Fell just about visible between the towering roofs of the Gallowgate and the Milburn Stand – no, not the railway line – and a church spire right at the top of the hill. I have had some good times here. Julie and I are sadly not an item anymore, but a thought about her too. With that, the PA boomed with “Going Home : Theme Of The Local Hero” – and I turned to Paul and said –
“Some city this.”
I will admit, I was a bit emotional.
A massive flag crowd-surfed in the lower tier below me as the two teams appeared.
Back in March 1974, the visitors to Stamford Bridge memorably wore hooped socks. They have chosen white ones this season, so we were forced into wearing blue ones.
James – Badiashile – Silva – Cucarella
Fernandez – Ugochukwu – Gallagher
Palmer – Jackson – Sterling
Time to think about the game. I had previously mentioned that after four goals against Tottenham and City, were we in line for four more against the Geordies? I was of course joking. This would be a tough one. We agreed that a draw would be fine. But – a big but – a win would be seismic.
The game began.
They attacked us, the old Leazes End. We attacked the Gallowgate.
It was a busy, lively first five minutes. I was keen to find positive signs to assuage any fears of a poor performance. I continue to live in hope. There was a shot from Conor Gallagher – wide, no Hughie incarnate – and we traded a few punches with the home team. Every time the recalled Benoit Badiashile touched the ball, his song cascaded down the terraces from behind me.
“In a Lamborghini…”
It was a decent start, but on thirteen minutes a ball was threaded through for a Newcastle United player to tap home. In my mind, the scorer was offside. I expected the lino’s flag to be raised. I waited in vain. There was no flag, no VAR decision. We were 1-0 down. The goal scorer was Alexander Isak. It was, I believe, their first effort of the game. The home crowd had been pretty quiet but now they found their voices.
We tried to find spaces and Raheem Sterling was particularly busy. After one advance down the left, he was fouled just outside the “D” by Kieran Trippier. I settled my nerves to time a photograph as he shot. The ball dipped over the wall and the Toon ‘keeper Nick Pope did not move. The ball nestled into the goal.
A guttural “YES” from me and a clench of both fists. The scorer ran away to a corner, and team mates joined in. He was booed for the rest of the first-half.
It developed into a decent half. I disliked the way that Cucarella was often exposed with a wide man often in space. But Cucarella seemed to be trying his best, full of endeavour, I could not fault that. The man from Brighton, though, never ever seems to make a regular bog-standard block tackle. The bloke is forever scurrying after people.
I thought Cole Palmer was having a quiet game.
I caught a terrible miss from Joelinton at the far post on film. The goal was gaping. He really should have done better.
The best move of the match followed, the ball pushed one way and then the other, with Reece James eventually setting up Enzo who sadly shot too close to goal and Pope tipped it over. Later, a terribly weak effort from Gallagher with his left foot was scuffed past the post. I could see Hughie Gallacher pointing at the goal and shouting in rage.
Just before the break, a Trippier free-kick touched the top of the bar.
It had been a decent enough half.
The night began to fall during the break. And as the second-half began, the temperature fell too. There are safe-standing barriers throughout the away section in the Leazes now, but the trick on an afternoon like this was to avoid touching the exposed metal. Hands were stuffed deep inside pockets. My camera was used sparingly.
Five minutes passed, then ten, then fifteen. It sadly dawned on me that we were not in this now. The second-half was being punctuated by free-kicks and there was little flow. What football that there was came from the home team despite very little backing from the home support.
On the hour, a cross from James Gordon – a very fine cross, it has to be said – was met by a free-header from Jamaal Lascelles, who firmly planted the ball wide of Robert Sanchez.
Now the bloody Geordies sung.
“E I E I E I O – Up the Premier League we go.”
Not a minute later, Thiago Silva slipped, Joelinton pick-pocketed him, and easily struck the ball past Sanchez.
Silence in my head. Silence in our end.
St. James’ Park was in heaven now.
The noise was deafening. I wondered what the visitors from Minneapolis thought of the noise, the city, the whole buzz.
Sadly, many Chelsea left.
A triple substitution.
Mykhailo Mudryk for Gallagher
Armando Broja for Jackson
Moises Caicedo for Ugochukwu
While I found myself looking back at the faces of a few familiar supporters in the rows alongside me and behind me, I missed the foul by James that resulted in a second yellow.
Silence in my head again.
Levi Colwill for Palmer.
Mudryk had a couple of runs from deep but typically ran out of gas and ideas.
On eighty-three minutes, with the spritely Gordon running at full pelt, I uttered the immortal line.
“Don’t let him come inside.”
At that exact moment, he came inside. His low shot was perfectly placed beyond the despairing dive of Sanchez. There’s that fourth goal.
Newcastle United 4 Chelsea 1.
Noni Madueke replaced Sterling.
The game ended. It was cold now. A few handshakes. A few nods. Not good Chelsea. Not good at all.
This was the worst Chelsea defeat that I had ever seen at St. James Park. The worst in our history was a 5-0 reverse in October 1974. Ah, back to 1974 again. Perhaps I had best stop talking about it. We made our way down to street level. There had been no stairway to heaven on this visit to Tyneside. Not for us anyway. We walked down Barrack Road outside the glass and steel of the Milburn Stand, then stopped by for a cheeseburger with onions at a stand outside the Gallowgate.
We walked all of the way down, through the Bigg Market – a few locals wished us well, “have a good night lads” – finally stopping at a familiar chip shop right at the bottom of the hill.
While The Toon was in full flow, we caught a cab back to Felling.
But there will be another time in Newcastle. Another visit. It’s a favourite city.
Next up, a home game against Brighton next Sunday.
See you there.