NEWCASTLE UNITED is the equivalent of the punch-drunk boxer sitting in a bar claiming, “I could have been a contender”. For more than half a century, the Magpies have been waiting for just a hint of silverware, going close on a number of occasions and occasionally delighting people with their cavalier footballer, most recently during the Kevin Keegan era. Their distraught fans, who provided some of the most vivid images of the early Sky Sports era, continue to be thwarted, despite their club being firmly rooted in regional culture.
Newcastle is a great city that has given us so much – a wonderful dialect, Newcastle Brown Ale, The Likely Lads, Alan Hull and Lindisfarne, Gazza(!), Bobby Robson, Mark Knopfler, the foggy Tyne and George Stephenson. The club represents a region and a city, it is rarely mentioned in the same breath as the Manchester giants, Liverpool and the big Londoners. But it wasn’t always the case as Newcastle’s pre-eminence in the professional game preceded London’s success by more than 25 years and was just ahead of Manchester’s rise.
Why has it changed so much? Modern day hierarchy, to an extent, comes down to geography and Britain’s over-emphasis on London and the south. Furthermore, Newcastle is a city that is incredibly proud of its local identity, but many investors are more interested in how a club can expand its geographical footprint. While clubs like Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool have owners with a high degree of worldliness, Newcastle have Mike Ashley, a very successful businessman from the world of retail.
Over the years, the club has been seduced into hiring big names, notably a string of high-profile managers following Keegan at the end of his first spell in charge: Kenny Dalglish, Ruud Gullit, Bobby Robson and Graeme Souness. None of these luminaries could bring a trophy to the banks of the River Tyne.
When were Newcastle a powerful and truly massive club? You have to go back many years to find them at their most influential and potent, the Edwardian period when their status was never in doubt. Between 1900 and 1910, Newcastle won more trophies than any other club – three league titles and the FA Cup once. The club also had a strong set of values and was keen to have players who were “free of undesirable roughness” and had the qualities to play “clean, scientific football”.
In that 10-year period, Newcastle averaged a final league placing of just over fourth, hardly surprising given they had a seven-year stretch that saw them finish 4-1-4-1-4-1-4. They were the most consistent team during this decade and saw their average crowds rise from 14,000 in 1902 to 33,000 in 1907. Aston Villa, Everton and Sunderland were the other leading clubs of the time.
Newcastle, in the early 20th century, was growing at a rapid rate, with high levels of industrial output, a rising population and considerable wealth drawn from the coal trade and the manufacture of ships and armaments. In 1801, the city’s population was just 30,000 but 100 years later, it had grown to 246,000 people. It is no coincidence that clubs like Newcastle, Sunderland and Aston Villa all prospered in Britain’s industrial age, feeding off the mass working class population that was attending games in increasing numbers.
There was poverty in these cities, but there were also wealthy businessmen, mill and factory owners who were willing to flex their wallets in the direction of football clubs, which, after all, kept their employees happy. These same benefactors were the motivators behind professionalism entering the game, the money that was paid to star players predominantly came from business owners who had a stake in the clubs. Even in those sepia-tinted days, the ego of club owners was a factor.
The city’s prosperity really took off with the growth of the railways, until then its role in the industrial revolution was to provide raw materials – coal – to richer parts of the country such as London. Engineering was at its most creative in that period in the north-east and historians have called the region “the silicon valley of its time”. Newcastle helped drive the rise of electricity and in a 50-year period, the city quadrupled its coal shipments and tripled the tonnage of its port. Either side of the River Tyne iron shipyards and engineering works proliferated.
Newcastle United’s 1904-05 campaign almost resulted in them winning the double, a feat no club had managed since Aston Villa in 1896-97. They won their first league title by a single point and finished runners-up in the FA Cup, losing to Villa at the Crystal Palace in front of a crowd of 101,000.
They were also quickly becoming a wealthy club, their balance sheet for 1904-05 showed a profit of £ 5,487 ,the best in the land, and a cash balance of £ 16,379. Newcastle’s income for the season was £ 17,065 – the highest in the Football League and their wage bill (which included transfers) was £ 5,118 which was less than Villa, Woolwich Arsenal, Blackburn and Middlesbrough.
Newcastle were renowned for their artistic, short-passing style of football, making them favourites with neutral football fans and welcome visitors to most grounds. They were a big draw because their team was packed with household names, in fact nine of their regular line-up were either current or future internationals.
The team of 1904-05 included new arrivals Jimmy Lawrence, a goalkeeper who, like many of the squad, had come down from Scotland. Lawrence was signed from Hibernian and went on to make more than 400 appearances for the club. Another Scot, Andrew McCombie, was signed from Sunderland in February 1904, a tough but skilful full back. He cost Newcastle a club record fee of £ 700.
The club’s star was Colin Veitch, a versatile player with matinee idol looks and the air of a man who could do anything. An educated fellow, he was a scholar, musician and actor and turn out at half back or inside forward. He won six England caps and later became a football journalist. Then there was Jimmy Howie, an inside forward who had a very distinct hopping action when he ran, and Jack Rutherford, a speedy winger whose prematurely-balding head made him very identifiable. The team’s captain was Andrew Aitken, another versatile player who excelled at centre half and won 14 caps for Scotland.
Newcastle’s talented side clinched the league title on April 29 1905, the final day of the season, beating Middlesbrough away by 3-0. Two weeks earlier, they had lost the FA Cup final. The double had already slipped away, largely blamed on fixture congestion caused by Newcastle’s extensive cup run that included a number of replays.
The 1905 league title win was just the start of a glorious run of success. Another champion ship was won in 1907 when Newcastle were unbeaten in the league at home as they finished three points ahead of Bristol City in the final table. Thier third title of the era was won in 1909 by a seven-point margin over Everton. Newcastle finally won the FA Cup in 1910 after being runners-up in 1905, 1906 and 1908. The 1905 line-up, though, is still considered by many historians to be the finest ever to wear the black and white striped shirts.
The Edwardian era really was Newcastle’s time but the club’s position as England’s finest came to a close with the first world war. The last league title was won in 1926-27 and they won the FA Cup again in 1932, but then it wasn’t until the 1950s that silverware was secured once more. Newcastle, with Jackie Milburn leading the line, were FA Cup specialists in the 1950s, winning the competition in 1951, 1952 and 1955. The club’s last triumph of any sort was in 1969 when they lifted the Inter-Cities’ Fairs Cup, the forerunner to the UEFA Cup and Europa League.
Nobody could have foreseen that Newcastle would still be waiting for a trophy for 51 years after they clinched a European prize in 1969. Considering that clubs like Wimbledon, Coventry City, Luton Town, Oxford United and Wigan Athletic (to name but a few) have all tasted success at Wembley since Newcastle’s last moment of glory, it seems bizarre that a club of their size continues to underperform.
Sooner or later, somebody is going to buy Newcastle United and make them into a global powerhouse. At the moment, they are scarcely a “national” club, let alone a recognised name around the world. In today’s football industry, to become a powerhouse, a club has to challenge the domestic and European giants, all of which are global institutions. Newcastle United has to be able to make that step in order to become a force to be reckoned with once more.
That requires investment, marketing savvy and a long-term strategy. Too many managers, a lack of clear vision and a possible shortage of ambition seems to epitomise Newcastle’s modern history. The club has the support of a powerhouse, but does it think big enough anymore? For some clubs who have had golden eras, the fire has long gone out, but 50,000 crowds suggest there’s no shortage of passion. The Edwardian era, when the club had aspiration and was, apparently, well run and full of invention, can surely act as a source of inspiration for a club for whom real success is long overdue.