Thursday, 23 June 2011

There Again: Lansdowne Road

I got into Dublin just after noon with a hangover to match the Irish economy. ‘Greed is the knife & the scars run deep’ someone had spray painted by the side of the road into the city, glass edifices and sleek, modernistic bridges lining the out-of-town end of the Liffey. 'Buddhism and the financial crisis,' said a sign on a lamppost outside Trinity College, 'Resist Minister Button's Attacks,' began a United Left Alliance flyer pushed into my hand outside the GPO. It took thirty minutes on the bus to the Spire of Dublin on O’Connell Street and a couple of hours longer to loop around the city’s tourist sights: Grafton Street, St Stephen’s Green, Merrion Square and the Aviva Stadium…well, it just happened to be on the way.

I’d been to the Aviva – or Lansdowne Road as it was called at the time – once before. Newcastle had pipped Sunderland to the summer signing of Jon Dahl Tomasson, bought to play off Alan Shearer in a new formation which left Les Ferdinand surplus to requirements after 41 goals and a pair of second-placed finishes in his two seasons at the club. The undisputed star of a four-team tournament featuring Celtic, PSV Eindhoven and Derry City, the Danish international’s purple patch would last for all of a week until Shearer’s ankle ligaments and Newcastle’s hopes for the season were simultaneously ruptured at Goodison Park, the team shorn of a centre forward as Ferdinand agreed to sign for Spurs the very same day. Pressed up front alongside Faustino Asprilla, Tomasson vomited in the tunnel before the opening game of the season, missed a one-on-one after ninety seconds and scored just three goals in twenty-three games, one of them mishit and another deflecting in off his arse while he looked the other way.

Newcastle being Newcastle, these things are always predictable. “Howay, let’s gan back to Temple Bar,” someone suggested as the final whistle blew. (We didn’t know then that Temple Bar’s pubs were only for wankers. Or maybe we did and were proving the point.) “Nah, hang on, this might be the only chance we get to see us lift a cup,” someone else replied with infinitely more logic than he’d shown in attempting to chat up a burger van girl in the half time break. “Are ye from ‘roond here, like?” he’d begun, liberally coating his burger in onions and sauce. “Yes,” she said, hesitantly, trying out an answer to a question she didn’t understand. “Whereboots?” he asked, aiming for a sauve expression as he lifted the bun in the general direction of his mouth, boiled onions splattering the concrete. She looked puzzled. “Erm, no, I’m wearing trainers.”

Opened in 1872 as an athletics stadium, the old ground later hosted Irish rugby and football internationals. James Joyce spent part of one summer living in a terraced house by what’s now Entrance Number One; Sammy Davis Junior and Frank Sinatra held concerts on a pitch graced by Brady and Stapleton, Johnny Giles and, erm, Eamonn Dunphy. But by the summer of 1997 Lansdowne Road was as hopelessly unfit for purpose as Newcastle’s front line a few weeks later. “An old grey building,” Ray Houghton once described it, “leaky and it wasn’t a great place to bring your family and friends.” When they knocked it down a decade later the only thing that remained was the DART station, the lines cutting directly behind the south stand. 410 million euros, 50,000 seats, 150 CCTV cameras and 69 bars, “a shimmering form of transparent 'shingles' rises in the east and west to position the majority of spectators in the desirable side locations of the pitch,” if you believe what architects tell you. It’s an infinitely more impressive structure than the old stadium, though to me it looked more like an avant-garde contemporary art museum than a football ground – a factor which might go some way towards explaining the size of those crowds at the Celtic Nations Cup.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

1644: The first Tyne - Wear Derby?

It started with coal. In north-east England it always started with coal. Newcastle's merchants had been exporting the produce of the Northumbrian coalfield since the middle of the 13th century, around the time the city’s mayor, Nicholas Scott, was leading a group of armed merchants in setting fire to the rival port of North Shields (an historical re-enactment by residents of the Meadowell Estate would later go slightly awry). Although the Prior of Tynemouth took legal action, Newcastle’s traders effectively checkmated him by making King Edward I a financial offer he couldn’t refuse, leading to the sale and export of coal becoming the sole preserve of the Freemen of Newcastle.

The city’s trading dominance was every bit as entrenched at the beginning of the 17th century, Elizabeth I  reaffirming Newcastle’s monopoly in exchange for a one-shilling tax on every wagonload of coal exported from the Tyne. After two failed attempts to annexe the Bishop of Durham's holdings in Gateshead, Newcastle’s coal magnates turned their attention towards shutting off the nascent trade from the River Wear. In 1609 11,648 tons were shipped out of Sunderland, a tiny fraction of the 239,000 which left the Tyne. Nonetheless, King James I was persuaded to issue a decree compelling a percentage of Wear coal revenues to be paid to Newcastle’s merchants.  The economic preeminence of Newcastle’s Company of Merchant Adventurers - which had already resulted in the development of the world's first railway to transport coal from Whickham to the Tyne at Dunston - was given its final seal in 1637 when Charles I doubled the tax the Crown levied on coal shipments, allowing the Company to set production rates and raise prices in return.

Sunderland's Stadium of Light from Boldon Hills.

Newcastle’s prosperity – in 1635 a traveller described it as "the fairest and richest town in England inferior for wealth and building to no city save London and Bristol" – and strategic importance made it an attractive target for the Scottish Covenanters. In 1640 a poorly-trained English force was soundly defeated at the Battle of Newburn and hastily withdrew from the garrison at Newcastle, which, together with the counties of Durham and Northumberland, was ceded to the Scots in the subsequent Treaty of Ripon. Charles agreed to pay £850 a day towards the maintenance of Scottish troops in Newcastle and was forced to recall Parliament after an eleven-year gap to negotiate a financial settlement before the Scottish would agree to withdraw. Parliament re-opened on November 3rd 1640. By the middle of 1642 the country was at war.

Returning from South Shields, the Scottish troops took up positions across the valley on Cleadon Hill, seriously disrupting bus traffic and several games of golf

After failing to capture Hull, William Cavendish, a Nottinghamshire landowner who Charles had ennobled as the First Earl of Newcastle, was hurriedly sent north to secure the coalfields of Durham and Northumberland. Although the blockade of the Tyne by Parliament's ships had seen coal exports plummet to 3,000 tons in 1642, Charles’ control over north-east England wasn’t seriously threatened until January 1644 when a Scottish army of just over 20,000 re-entered Northumberland, crossed the Tyne at Ovingham and took Sunderland unopposed. After initial skirmishes around Penshaw Hill, the Scottish besieged and captured the Royalist fort at South Shields in the third week of March, manoeuvering south to face Cavendish, who had brought up troops from the garrisons at Newcastle and Durham City.

West Boldon and the Tyne

Who, if anyone, triumphed in the engagement which resulted is unclear, though popular myth – perpetuated by this Guardian article – asserts that the Battle of Boldon Hill was fought between the armies of Newcastle and Sunderland (who presumably arrived dressed in Stone Island chain mail and Burberry helmets and then spent the battle threatening to "do" each other while waving their arms and gradually retreating) and resulted in the red and whites’ first Tyne-Wear derby win - “bolstered by the anti-Royals from Scotland,” as Sunderland’s Wikipedia entry puts it. What is known is that the two sides exchanged cannon fire across what is now East Boldon and Cleadon and that Cavendish was unable to force an entry into Sunderland itself. The two sides met again, indecisively, at Hylton Castle at the end of the month, but the Scottish made no attempt to capture Newcastle until Charles suffered a calamitous defeat at the Battle of Marston Moor on July 2nd and consequently abandoned much of the north of England. Cavendish sailed for Germany the following day, remaining in exile until after the 1660 Restoration.

Besieged by a Scottish army of 40,000 troops, and with scant hopes of relief, the city of Newcastle refused to surrender for three months until its defensive walls were finally breached. The garrison of 1,500 made a last-stand at the Castle Keep, Sir John Marley – the Royalist mayor whose statue is one of four on the façade of 45 Northumberland Street – eventually handing over the city on October 20th. Charles followed suit within months, surrendering to the Scottish army at Newark and spending the best part of a year as their prisoner in Newcastle.

The Tyne – Wear rivalry didn’t end with the Civil War. Although Sunderland had closed the gap on its wealthier neighbour, the town’s trade was again restricted by Royal Charter after the Restoration. This allowed Newcastle to dominate coal exports until the end of the 19th century, by which time the mutual antagonism had begun to extend to the football pitch.  After the teams first competitive meeting in 1898, an estimated 50-70,000 spectators packed in to St James' Park on Good Friday 1901, overwhelming the 25 police officers present, swamping the pitch and causing the game to be abandoned when the players were unable to make their way out of the tunnel. The mood quickly turned violent, punches and missiles were exchanged and “three or four thousand persons, mostly young fellows with caps, formed themselves into one compact body and went on an expedition of wreckage,” the Athletic News later reported.

Nicholas Scott would have enjoyed that one.