Edwina Sandys on Newcastle United: Why it is possible to love the city even without a club

They grew up together and forged lifelong links with their club. But now there are fears among Newcastle United’s supporters that the financial might of their new owners will spell the end of the traditions and sense of belonging that had distinguished this club.

At its high point, when Sir John Hall was at the helm, Newcastle was an outlet for dyed-in-the-wool Geordies from the townships around South Shields and Hetton-le-Hole. It was also an incubator for radical politics, with many members travelling, as they put it in their local paper, to “the Birthplace of the Labour Party”. But with the 12-times English champions finally free of Sir John’s clutches, that sense of shared identity is fading fast.

Back in 1970, when this journalist was working for the Daily Mirror, someone drew an elaborate map of the town on his desk and the Stoke Six – six white Newcastle fans who were spending a year protesting at racism in the Staffordshire town – were a big influence on the drawing.

Years later, around that time, I became friends with a good friend of mine, Shehan Patel. A saxophonist with a band called the Argosophiliacs, he told me he had gone to prison, aged 16, in the flute section of Birmingham Jail because he and a few others were shouting abuse at a black man whose kids were playing in the pit by the entrance to the jail.

When the word spread around the prison that he had played in Geordie blues band Chasms (named after the lengths of imaginary drainpipe which underlay their set), friends were coming forward to tell me what a man of few words Shehan had been when he was younger.

He said he looked down at his feet and sometimes wondered what he had done with them, and wondered whether it was time he went to the gyms to try and find out. In the back of his mind, it was clear that some city where he came from had more cultural continuity than Newcastle. This is why it was especially important that his brothers, who were also musicians, seemed to keep on playing, thank goodness.

Shehan’s father had played cricket for Tamworth, his town, and he had grown up in that sort of community, one without easily visible cultural boundaries. He was still a Newcastle United fan, but he was a north-east folk with his heart in his mouth. It was his attempt to live through his father that led him to go to Birmingham Prison.

The city of Gateshead, however, is also at the heart of his life. His parents had a pub in Gateshead, which had an old door made of the ancient city wall, a feature replicated by his father’s chosen tattoo design. As a young man, Shehan had followed Gateshead’s football side back when they were managed by the amazingly named “All Purple Gents”.

Gateshead, especially, embodies a sense of romance, which permeates Newcastle. “When I moved down here I found it quite marvellous,” shehan told me. “I loved to walk through the cathedral and see the dockworkers in their suits in the undercroft. To walk round St James’ Park, and not see the fire engines standing alongside, it just seems so sad.”

Shehan might well have longed to live somewhere where he could walk around the city and feel as close to the sense of belonging as he did in the 19th century when Newcastle was much more urban. In fact, St James’ Park was built at the site of the old mining town’s orca lighthouse.

Perhaps the most glaring difference between their city today and the days of Sir John is that the black man, as we now know, has been brought up back into the industrial working class. The Labour party is a coalition between working people, including black people, and it was Labour’s embrace of the United Nation’s 1948 definition of slavery that led to the banning of the practice in 1961. In one sense, this explains the changing of Newcastle’s cultural status.

Today, all Chasms’ CD-ROM logo features just the face of a black man holding a baguette – it stands in for the dilemma of millions of black people who prefer to pick and choose their own life opportunities and become what they can be, rather than eating the odds. But Newcastle United, stripped of its long links with their town, could easily end up becoming a product on a shelf.

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