High above the River Tyne in Newcastle is a shrine. This one is called St. James Park, capacity 52,000, and home of The Magpies, Newcastle United - a religion here in Geordie Land. A 'Geordie' is the nickname for somebody born within the Tyne area. Legendary players include Jackie Milburn, Kevin Keegan. Malcolm McDonald, Alan Shearer and currently the long injured Michael Owen. The largest bar in the city , SHEARER'S after the famous No. 9, takes up three floors at one end of the stadium. Their fans are called The Toon Army and the club dates back to 1881. It has just been announced that the Board has accepted a take over bid led by US based financial company Polygon and the UBS United Bank of Switzerland, for just over $500 million. The Hall family and Chairman Freddie Shephard would make about $140 million profit. $40 million has been earmarked for manager Glenn Roeder to spend on new players when the 'transfer window' opens in January, and paying off a debt of $160.
The North-East is considered a hot bed of football, and on the mouth of the nearby River Wear sits Sunderland in their new home, The Stadium of Light. They have had mixed fortunes and yo-yo back and forth from Premier League to The Championship. A few months ago controversial former Manchester United and Republic of Ireland captain Roy Keane was appointed manager and he has managed to stabilise the club. An old player that I used to enjoy watching was Len Shackelton, who became a respected football journalist. Many years ago he published his autobiography Clown Prince of Soccer. One chapter, labelled 'What the average club director knows about football' was a blank page.
Another club, Hartlepool United were once managed by Brian Clough, who had to retire due to injury after being a formidable striker at Middlesborough. He went onto glory managing at Derby County and Nottingham Forest where he won the European Cup twice. They are nicknamed The Hanging Monkeys. During the Napoleonic Wars in early 1800's a French navy ship ran aground nearby and the crew escaped. The locals ransacked the ship and supplies and only found a pet monkey on board in sailors uniform. After a quick trial it was hanged as a spy Recently the official mascot H'Angus Monkey (Stuart Drummond in a costume)was elected Mayor of Hartlepool in 2002 with a small majority. In 2005 he won again by a landslide. His platform included free bananas for school children
Middlesborough also play in a relatively new stadium and their most famous player was Wilf Mannion with blond flowing hair. About 20 years ago I was sitting beside him and his wife Bernadette in the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro for a derby between Vasco da Gama and Flamengo. He was a frail old man. He along with Harry Keough and Walter Bahr had been flown over as surviving members of the England and USA World Cup teams . In 1950 England had lost 1-0 in Belo Horizonte . Fireworks and big bangs really frightened him and he clung to me all the match. He told me lots of old tales when he had challenged his club over the retain and transfer rules and was suspended without pay. He had played for England many times and in 1947 went to Hampden Park in Glasgow to play in The Victory International for Great Britain vs The Rest of Europe. Returning home by train he had a third class ticket on a full train, and stood up in the corridor the whole journey. Association officials would have travelled first class out of the proceeds from the crowd of 130,000. That's how players, then earning about $15 a week, were treated in those days. Outside their new stadium, The Riverside, there is now a statue of Wilf Mannion. In 1966 I went to their old stadium, Ayresome Park to watch Italy vs North Korea in the World Cup. The Koreans sensationally won 1-0 with a goal by Pak Doo Ik. I had an official World Cup blazer and badge and got into the locker room straight after the match to see the winners celebrating with rice wine. That stadium is now a housing estate with a plaque in a front garden saying where the centre spot was. the survivers from Asia visited England and Middlesborough for a TV documentary and book in 2000. In the next round, the quarter final at Goodison Park, Everton they were leading Portugal 3-0 before Eusabio hit back with 4 goals and Jose Agusto a 5th, and they lost 5-3.
Darlington F.C. the Quakers are the least successful area club team. Despite having to apply for re-election to the Football League 5 times(nowadays its automatic demotion), they left Feethams, their old ground for the Reynolds Arena, with 21,000 seats -four times their average crowd. The owner and chairman George Reynolds, an ex safe cracker, finally went bankrupt and one of his creditors took over and it is now named Williamson Motors Arena after a local car dealership.
On the A1 motorway going to and from Scotland in the City of Gateshead, south of the Tyne, is the huge sculpture by Antony Gormley, ANGEL OF THE NORTH ,on a hill by the road and the Edinburgh-London railway line. 65 feet high and a wingspan of 175 feet, its made of steel and copper and 90,000 people pass by daily. I was visiting Gateshead International Stadium, famous for its track and field competitions and the ajoining Gateshead College with the North East branch of the English Institute of Sports. One of 3-4 UK based companies was organizing a Soccer Showcase for prospective young players who want to play and study in the USA. There were about 30 US college coaches from NCAA all divisions and NAIA watching talent that pays these companies between $800.00 to $2500.00 each for the privilege of advice and placement. The next day we went to a similar event in Leeds, Yorkshire at the John Charles Sports Centre, and then the show moved to Bristol in the South West. The showcase was utilising a superb third generation all weather full size field, part of superb sports complexes popping up all over Britain these days. Local authorites plus the National Lottery, which funds The England Institute of Sport, are helping England prepare advanced competitors with the London 2012 Olympics in mind. Fiona Lothia the N.E. Director of E.I.S showed me around, and also Mel Rea, the women's coach at Gateshead College who is a top player on the Newcastle United Ladies Football club, and her photo featured on the www.thefa.com women's web page this week. I was later told that she was Alan Shearer's cousin. I must also mention the receptionist, Mrs. Ball - an appropriate name, who made sure I go a hot cup of tea.
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