Toon fans keep faith despite trophy drought
By John Mehaffey
NEWCASTLE, England, March 31 (Reuters) - At the heart of Newcastle, by the ruins of an ancient city wall, St James' Park soars over Tyneside, its white cantilever roof gleaming in the pale sunlight.
"On a good day you can see the North Sea, on a bad day you can see Sunderland," says a stadium tour guide to knowing chuckles from tourists conscious of the ancient enmity between the two northeastern English cities.
The stadium's location in the city centre overlooking the banks of the river Tyne gives a clue to the enduring affection local fans hold for Newcastle United Football Club.
It is a devotion which survives despite the club's repeated inability to win any trophy, domestic or European, since the 1969 European Fairs Cup. Last season they were relegated from the Premier League.
"It's the only ground in England that's in a city centre, it's the heartbeat of the city, it's the heartbeat of the region," explained life-long Newcastle fan Mick Edmondson in one of a series of interviews conducted by Reuters this month.
"The city wall is right next to St James' Park, it's a stone's throw from the original city wall from the Roman times. It's always been part of the city."
Within kicking distance of the ground, near the ruins of the old brewery which used to produce the local ale Newcastle Brown now brewed in Yorkshire, stands The Strawberry public house where fans meet on match days. It is named after the strawberry fields cultivated by nuns who made wine from the fruit until 1840 despite threats of excommunication from the Bishop of Durham.
Beyond a street containing the city's China Town, Edmondson runs The Back Page, a shop selling sports books, mostly on football, DVDs and assorted memorabilia. At the foot of the hill lies the 12th century St Andrews church, the oldest in Newcastle and the parish church of St James where the Reverend Glynn Evans presides.
"Football teams are based on parishes. The original football games were played between parishes," said Evans, a dedicated Newcastle supporter since moving to the northeast from south London 23 years ago.
"I have been a football fan all my life and I've always seen a comparison between football and religion, the coming together of communities."
Evans wears the black-and-white Newcastle strip to conduct weddings. He shows red cards to parishioners who nod off during sermons, rewords hymns (sample offering "All Things Black and Beautiful") and named his son after one of Newcastle's former managers, Argentine Ossie Ardiles.
"When people go to a football ground they have hope," he said. "You go together, you sing songs together, you have a love of football from everybody."
The Adelphi, a 15-minute walk from the ground and formerly a theatrical pub as befits its location in Shakespeare Street near the Theatre Royal, is now a shrine to Newcastle United. A portrait of Jackie Milburn, Newcastle's favourite son, stares at the bar and the exhibits include the wrapping from a loaf of bread entitled "Northern Pride", baked to celebrate an FA Cup triumph in the 1950s.
Milburn scored in two of his three FA Cup finals, each won by Newcastle in the early 1950s. The third was in 1955, the club's last domestic trophy.
Edmondson's earliest footballing memory is travelling with his father on the back seat of a double-decker bus to the airport shortly before his fourth birthday to watch Newcastle bring back the 1969 European Fairs Cup, which was to evolve into the UEFA Cup.
Edmondson, a promising footballer who once roomed with the young Paul Gascoigne, another Tyneside native, said Newcastle supporters were inured to disappointment.
"What we want when we go to St James' Park is to be entertained, not necessarily to see a winning team," he said.
"All we want is the players to give 100 percent. Put on that shirt, get on the field and give us 100 percent and we don't care if you're not the greatest."
Terry Mann, who runs the Adelphi, is less sanguine and not optimistic that the present Newcastle side, who look assured of a swift return to the Premier League this season, can regain past glories.
For Mann, 41 years without a trophy is far too long. "We are not a big club," he said. "We are big fans."
Newcastle is reversing a decline after the slow death of the ship-building and coal-mining industries which had been the life blood of one of the world's great workshops.
Parts of the city have regenerated. Posters now boast the virtues of a flourishing airport where travellers can fly direct to long-haul destinations without a stopover in the distant south.
The Angel of the North sculpture south of Gateshead near the city is an impressive landmark, Newcastle's pubs and restaurants appear to be thriving despite the recession and the city's reputation as a party town is confirmed nightly.
Newcastle football fans, long overdue some silverware from their club, pray for a similar revival.
(Editing by Clare Fallon; To query or comment on this story email firstname.lastname@example.org)