Having spent the morning and early afternoon of my first birthday treat touring a brewery before taking on a sampling session of wonderful beers, it was going to take a lot for me to budge from my stool on this particular Friday afternoon. To say that I was settled was the proverbial understatement and on any other day, I would have been more than happy to order another drink and carry on chatting about whatever subject cropped up next. But, a long held love was calling, not just for me, but for my drinking partner too. Newcastle United was once again whispering sweet nothings in our ears.
We’d been sitting in the Brinkburn Street Brewery and Kitchen for a few hours, so heading across Newcastle having drunk a sample of six amazing beers, it’s safe to say the legs were slightly unsteady. Not only that though, having not visited this side of the city for many, many years I felt like an alien. The city has transformed over the 20-something years that I’ve been away and this means that sadly, there’s not a lot left that I recognise. And I haven’t visited regularly enough to keep up with the changes in the skyline.
Where we were heading though, was probably even stranger to me. St. James’ Park, home of our beloved Newcastle United had been somewhere I’d spent a large chunk of my childhood and early adult years, watching any and every game played. However, reacting mainly to our previous owner and the early signs of his mismanagement but also the prospect of becoming a father of two, I stopped going to games. I gave up my season ticket early, feeling like I was falling out of love with the club and the game. Today would be the first time that I’d set foot in the stadium in nearly 13 and a half years. 4913 days, to be precise.
As part of my 50th birthday celebrations my wife had booked a stadium tour for my self and my mate David. I hope I don’t get it wrong when I say that we were both a little giddy as we arrived at the reception desk to check in. I think the beer helped a bit as well, if I’m being completely honest!
Once checked in, we put on our tour lanyards and were given an initial introduction to the tour by our guide Carol, who then ushered us in to the lifts that would take us up towards our first stop on the tour; the executive boxes.
I’ve never particularly fancied watching a game from a corporate box and although it was amazing to be inside the two that we looked at – in through Jonjo Shelvey’s and out again through Callum Wilson’s (steady at the back there fans of double entendre) – this didn’t do a great deal for me as a fan. That said, if anyone at the club or even Jonjo, Callum or any other box owning players wanted to invite me to a match to try and change my mind, I’m sure I could forget my working class roots and decades on the terraces in order to give it a go!
Our tour guide, Carol, was a mine of information at this point, letting us know everything we could wish to know about the corporate hospitality at The Toon, including the detail that would really put me off; the price! That said, if you have the money it looks like a pretty decent experience to have once a fortnight!
After the boxes it was Level 7, the highest point of the ground. You can take the rooftop tour at St. James’ as well and this was something I’d considered, despite not being that comfortable with heights. However, the reminder of how high Level 7 is made me thankful that I’d not taken that particular plunge. This was also the level where I had last had my season ticket and so walking out onto the concourse and then out towards the seats felt ever-so-slightly emotional. As far as I could remember, we even came out quite close to where I had sat in those days. However, I wasn’t going to let those kind of memories get in the way of the childlike giddiness I felt at being back in the ground, especially with everything that’s happened since October.
We took in the view, learning about the fact that on a clear day you can see the Stadium of Light – so if you’re ever sitting there, look the other way, claw your own eyes out or pray for cloud – as well as many other much more pleasant sights. We were told about the broadcasting facilities, matchday control and lots of other small details that as a fan, you probably don’t ever realise about.
After this we headed down to the dressing room area, starting by taking in the away dressing room which was a rather spartan affair as you’d probably expect. However, the best was yet to come. You’d imagine that sitting in the same dressing room as your heroes – and alongside their shirts – would be the kind of thing that would be most enjoyable to the several under 10s on the tour. Think again! This 50 year old was very excited indeed at being there and sitting next to those shirts! Ridiculous really, but what a thrill!
I had the same experience on the tour of the Allianz Arena a few years back and still found myself grinning from ear to ear at sitting next to shirts with the names of Davies, Lewandowski, Coman, Ribery, Muller and Neuer. No idea why, really, but it was umpteen times as exciting to be doing it at St. James’ Park. Isn’t it strange how ridiculously we behave when faced by almost anything to do with our beloved game? I struggled to get the grin off my face from that point onward though.
Once we left the dressing room, we assembled in the tunnel area and after a few minutes more information from Carol, it was time to make like a player and head for the pitch. Newcastle try to make that matchday experience side of the tour as authentic as possible by blasting out ‘Local Hero’ as you walk down the tunnel and even as a middle aged man, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Is that sad? I genuinely don’t care! I’ve followed this club for over 40 years, dreaming of playing for them as I grew up; of course walking down that tunnel is going to be exciting.
Seeing the whole place from pitchside was amazing and it makes you fully take in what a magnificent stadium we have. I somehow resisted the urge to skip over the rope and run onto the pitch, filling my time by taking photos and having a little sit down in Eddie’s chair in the dug out, again all done with a huge grin on my face. And then, it was time to go.
Newcastle United had made me feel like a kid again. Touring the stadium, somewhere I felt I knew so much about, was a brilliant way to spend the afternoon and I found out a lot of things that I didn’t actually know. Our tour guide Carol was excellent; the perfect balance of fun and knowledge – she knew her stuff and clearly loved her job making the whole thing even more of a pleasure.
If you’re a Newcastle fan, this is a must. If you’re a football fan (you know, of one of those other clubs) you’ll enjoy a look round St. James Park too. Either way, it made for an fantastic birthday treat and I’d thoroughly recommend giving it a go!