My learned father is quite correct in his assertion that history happens slowly, then all at once. Inevitabilities only seem obvious in hindsight and the implementation of new ideas often have decades of effort and heartache in their preparation. So it is, I think, with Newcastle United Women’s Football Club, and their triumphal progress to the third round of the FA Cup by beating Barnsley Women 2-1 with 2 long-range second-half shots into the goal at the Gallowgate End in front of 28,550 cheering Geordies. Us lads would die happy having accomplished such deeds and now the lasses can join in what Newcastle’s own Edwardian footballing superstar, Colin Veitch founder of the People’s Theatre, the PFA, Lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery and one of the original Ouseburn Valley intelligentsia, called “the beautiful game”. Pele, who gets the credit for that immortal phrase, and certainly deserves some, scored a hat-trick against NUFC in 1972 in Hong Kong, maybe that was his revenge.
Back in Veitch’s soldiering days, the women’s teams of “munitionettes” starred in front of capacity crowds and achieved fame but no fortune before being unpersoned and abolished, literally cancelled by the male football associations as their sport was forbidden and their deeds removed when the surviving lads came home to a fake normality. The girls lost their jobs, their incomes, their independence and their game. The likes of Cissie Charlton (born a Milburn), played with her footballing brothers and Uncle “Wor Jackie”, who taught her World Cup winning sons but couldn’t play in a women’s (or even a men’s) team. My sister and thousands like her should have had the opportunity, but netball and hockey were all that was then available until the 1970s in theory but more like the 21st Century in practice. The wonderful spectacle of St. James Park on Sunday waving the “Howay the Lasses” flag, belting out the chants, and looking forward to a better future as a team and city shouldn’t stop us from regretting the wasted past where sexual discrimination and the stupidity and ignorance that underpinned it still taste foul in the memory. The players for Newcastle United Women who perform in front of crowds exceeding most male professionals only went full-time professional last year.
Newcastle United Women
Football in Newcastle is all about levels and potential. Performance, position, numbers, media, understanding, and the great unanswered question of just how high a level the volcano of football that is Tyneside can reach when all of its obsessions and collective strengths are utilised. The previous decades saw levels of incompetence that should be studied in business schools of failure to understand the brand, failure to develop the strengths, and how many in an engaged but despairing fanbase sought to preserve what was important about the positive spirit of football that supporters from all identities, orientations, and opinions could unite around. NUFC Women were certainly part of that struggle. They had to beg for permission to call themselves “Newcastle United” Women. They funded their own team; when the sponsorship changed from the bust Northern Rock to the novated Virgin Money the girls had to scrape the funds to alter the shirts as contractually they had to play in identical kit. Appeals to Richard Branson who had himself photographed in Black’n’White juggling a ball went unheard. Even the unlamented loan-sharking sponsors Wonga, desperately trying to ingratiate themselves, (and failing), with our friend and early supporter of NUFC Women, Chi Onwurah MP, gave £5000. Later Rafa Benitez helped the women’s team, but they were still “officially” a product of the NUFC Foundation, not the club.
The latter integration took the intervention of club co-owners Amanda Stavely and her husband Merdad Ghodoussi, who took time out of the men’s team’s desperate struggle against relegation last year to support our footballing sisters. Their position as people whom most fans wanted to have selfies with from 7 October 2021 (before Bruno, Eddie, ASM, Trips, and the rest of them rose in that hit parade), their public commitment to and presence at NUFC Women’s games at Kingston Park and Bullocksteads before the end of season friendly vs Alnwick Town in May in front of 23,000 gave the girls the recognition that was theirs all along but had been denied by fake expedience. NUFC Women have worn that attention and lived up to it giving effort, endeavour, athleticism, standards, and passion. They’ve booted it long when necessary and kept the one-touch dexterity of skilled football when possible; they’ve tackled and headed and showed the immense bravery of footballers who accept pain and injury as everyday, or every weekend anyway.
They are still in the fourth level of English Women’s football – the National English Division North playing teams that do not have the ability, capacity, and interest to provide much competition for long, we hope. Instead Newcastle United, both men’s and women’s teams aspire to the rarefied company of the tens of thousands attending matches at Arsenal, Man. City, Barcelona and Lyon. The expertise of club CEO Darren Eales, who pioneered football in Atlanta, taking a club from an idea to 50,000 crowds in Major League Soccer, will surely be useful in taking a new generation of fans, many who haven’t been able or willing to sup at the cup of the latterday glories of the mighty NUFC Men’s team, into a new adventure.
Positive and transformational
If my experience of their matches at SJP and Kingston Park is anything to go by this could be positive and transformational. The crowd at the women’s match is more female with more kids and with no smell of beer, no casual or expressive swearing, less litter, and exactly the kind of experience I’d imagine would delight every marketeer and commercial manager everywhere. Maybe it’ll be different when we’re playing Chelsea in the cup and there are 50,000 screaming their support as we attack downhill towards the Gallowgate in the dark, and VAR,(they don’t have that yet), gives a bad decision but I doubt it. The truth is that sitting in the stand watching the match, whatever the sex of the players, isn’t like it was in the bad old days with 15,000 snowballs coming towards me in front of the scoreboard, policemen’s helmets flying and the only “lady” allowed in the Gallowgate bogs was the lit Catherine Wheel thrown into the unmentionable cubicle occupied by an unlucky victim of the exclusively male toilets that swamped with two inches of gallons of steaming beery piss every Saturday. Glory days indeed. That transformation isn’t a forlorn hope. I believe anti-racism in our region was forever changed by Tony Cunningham, Franz Carr, Andy Cole, and Les Ferdinand. I believe that homophobia at NUFC has been and is successfully challenged by “United with Pride” and the rainbow flags displayed as routine. Despite NUFC only having one out gay player, the late Justin Fashanu, it’s one more than most, and my memory of his short career here was no one cared that he was gay, we just wished he’d score some goals. Now we have to confront and defeat sexism and its attendant stupidities. Maybe football fans can use the platform of constant media attention to finally make a difference at long last.
Newcastle fans of whatever gender have always taken a lot of stick and we’re getting plenty now. The latest “stick”, of course being our Saudi ownership. The notion that of all the billions of investments that “The Kingdom” has made in arms, horses, shares, F1, boxing, property, art, jewellery, media, and golf the least fiscally expensive of all, the c£300m into NUFC, is the most offensive of all. That somehow all Newcastle fans that wanted their club, city, and people to do better now deserve the opprobrium of allegedly civilised opinion and the disdain of Sunderland, (as if they ever liked us or we cared).
Still the position of women, trade unions, minorities and many others in Saudi, British and world society needs immediate and total equality but experience and hindsight possibly require governmental action to be accompanied by societal change. Maybe a nudge alongside a big stick? Maybe nuance and gradual progression then rapid change?
A friend of mine who’s been to Saudi says it’s changing slowly, the lads we’ve met here seem decent enough and the unveiled appearance of NUFC women on a poster there, the unveiled women in the Saudi crowd beating Argentina last week, and Amanda Stavely being the public leader of the whole Newcastle United project can hopefully influence a whole Middle-East region alongside legal changes to the status of the religious police and other barbarities. Maybe, football can succeed where war, colonialism, diplomacy, trade, religion, and politics all failed, or maybe the world is more nuanced than headlines and slogans. The basics are that the Saudis didn’t buy Newcastle because we’re a Wahabist stronghold, but because, they’ll have fun, make money and maybe bring some of the unity and community spirit their way. Inshallah.
There is room for optimism though, from Gallowgate to the Gulf. Amanda’s husband Merdad, an Iranian Shia Muslim has indicated his support for his Iranian sisters in their life and death struggle (going on now as we sit here) and the NUFC Fans Foodbank, where I volunteer for matchday collections, featured a hand-drawn “WOMEN. LIFE. FREEDOM. Howay the Lasses. Reclaim the Night” banner. The “Reclaim the Night” march from the Bigg Market to the Baltic happened the evening before with one of our volunteers, the Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner Kim McGuiness speaking, and, if we get the panopoly of food based Family Fanzone’s, and the restriction of all that alcoholic blooterism into carefully regulated bouncer-dominated, male-orientated “funzones”, (where they throw beer on each other instead of drinking it), maybe that reduces the domestic violence statistics and enhances the safety of our civic neighbourhoods? It’ll probably be pioneered by the women’s game before making the obvious transition to the men’s, but it’s a wonderful thought.
Oh, and before you think I’m getting all “sugar and spice and all things nice” the girls are just as entitled to foul, swear, get drunk in town, and rampage in packs, as all do anyway in Toon, it’s just that I think we’re all getting a bit knackered now and maybe want the quiet life. Like it says in Paddington, (who should have had the sense to go to Kings Cross and head for Newcastle) there’s a place for everyone here. With the Newcastle United Women playing at St. James, and seeing the beaming smiles on the faces of local girls waving at their mams in the stands there’s a definite place for optimism. Because a positive united community can defend itself against most things. NUFC Women are and have always been a part of that, but they’re getting better, bigger, and more significant. Maybe this is how history changes? Maybe we have better days to come?
Howay the Lasses!