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Two Rooms And A View: 25 - Football Crazy

...Most of my free time while at Fence Houses was spent at the local recreation ground, commonly known as the 'rec'. If it was not raining, the rec was always full of youngsters playing on the swings, in the sand, flying a kite, kicking a football or swinging a cricket bat. Aided by the long daylight hours provided by double summertime, we were often still out playing until 10 p.m...

Robert Owen tells how he became a football fan and an enthusiastic follower of Newcastle United - the Magpies.

For earlier chapters of Robert's life story please click on Two Rooms And A View in the menu on this page.

Although a 'Townie', I was soon accepted as a member of the 'Sixth Pit Gang'. This was a group of about half-a-dozen lads of similar age. We used to play in the back lane, where air raid shelters provided make-believe goals during the winter and wickets during the summer. Judging by the smell inside the shelters, they were never used for the intended purpose.

Most of my free time while at Fence Houses was spent at the local recreation ground, commonly known as the 'rec'. If it was not raining, the rec was always full of youngsters playing on the swings, in the sand, flying a kite, kicking a football or swinging a cricket bat. Aided by the long daylight hours provided by double summertime, we were often still out playing until 10 p.m.

Sixty years later I visited the 'rec' again and was so disappointed. I was told all the fencing around the field had been used for firewood during the famous miners' strike of the 1980's. The grass was like a jungle and there wasn't a child in sight. I couldn't believe it was here where my interest in football was born six decades earlier.

To be more precise, it was actually born on 13th November, 1943, when Bob Charlton took my mother, John and me to see a Tyne and Wear Derby at St James' Park. I suspiciously think Bob must have had a good win on the horses that week to take us to such a game. Newcastle, (the Magpies) won and I have been one of their supporters ever since.

We sat in the stands; the admission price was 2s. 6d (12 p) and there was a modest war-time crowd of about 25,000. I was in another world with excitement and questioned Bob all the way home about the rules and techniques of the game. John was just as excited. However, I think this was the only football match my mother ever attended. She was not a football fan.

She enjoyed it much more when we had another day out at Newcastle just before Christmas. We went to see my first ever pantomime at one of the city's three theatres. It was Cinderella with the comedy duo of Nat Mills and Bobbie as the ugly sisters. I enjoyed the live theatre show, but not half as much as the football match at St James Park.

After that, I wanted to go to every home game, but this was impossible for financial reasons. I discovered, however, the progress of the Magpies could be followed in the Evening Chronicle and Sunday Sun - both of which were delivered to Finchale Terrace. At the same time, Bob Charlton used to talk football and cricket with me and try to answer my never-ending questions about positions, skills and techniques etc.

By the start of the following season when I was "nine going on nineteen", I was badgering my mother to be allowed to go to a Newcastle match on my own. My arguments were that I already travelled to South Shields on my own, it cost only 9d (4p) to get into St James's Park, I could get half-price on the bus and go to my aunt Ada's for tea!

Bob Charlton was adamantly against the idea and refused to let John accompany me. I must have been a persuasive pest because eventually my mother, who had always given me responsibility in advance of my years, agreed and said the magic words, "You can go on your own."

At the next appropriate home game and equipped with 2s 6d (12p), I got the Newcastle bus from Sixth Pit at about 12 noon for a 3.15 p.m. kick off. Getting off the bus at Worswick Street bus station, I just followed the growing crowd to St James's Park. Stan Seymour was manager of Newcastle United at the time and also had a shop selling sports equipment at the corner of Market Street and Pilgrim Street. On a later visit I went into the shop expecting to find him serving behind the counter. Needless to say, he wasn't there.

I always aimed to be in what I thought was the best position in the ground on the front wall just to the left, behind the goal at the Gallowgate end, by about 1.15 p.m., two hours before the kick-off. This was fine until in later seasons when the crowds grew to over 40,000. Then if youngsters arrived late and could not see from the rear, they were 'handed down' over the heads of the crowd to the front, to compete with us for a place on the wall. I found this grossly unfair and I remember getting into a fight with someone, who came and sat in front of me after I had been there two hours!

St James's Hall Boxing Arena was then just behind the Gallowgate end of the ground and I recall the crowd who had watched our scuffles, teasing us about being in the wrong place. My idol of the time was Newcastle's ginger-headed centre forward, Albert Stubbings. He was a draughtsman during the week and a top class goal scorer on a Saturday. He scored 231 goals in 188 games for Newcastle during the war years and played for England once in 1945. I modelled myself on him, hoping to become a draughtsman and a professional footballer. I managed one but not the other!

The game I remember best was on 22nd September, 1945, when Newcastle beat Stoke City by nine goals to one. The game was attended by 46,000, many of whom had come to see the world-famous Stanley Matthews, who then played for Stoke. The Newcastle defenders Corbett and Crowe had obviously been briefed to mark Matthews, because he hardly got a kick. At the other end, my favourite, Stubbings, scored five! The only member of the forward line who did not score was a relatively new, tall, local lad called Jackie Milburn!

Whenever a team scored, the scorer would amble back to the centre of the park, while being gently patted on the back by some of his colleagues. There was none of the near obscene antics of fifty years later. If any player had attempted to kiss or cuddle Albert Stubbings after he had scored one of his many goals for the Magpies, I think he would have hit him!

Segregation of supporters was unknown. Home supporters stood alongside visitors and discussed the virtues and weaknesses of the respective teams. Two or three part-time special constables wandered around the touch-line talking to the crowd. There was no fighting, little foul language - certainly not in the presence of a woman or child - and no running onto an unguarded field. They were just spectators who wanted to see a good game of football and who would applaud a fair goal by any team.

All the players during the war were part-timers or on leave from the armed services. Sometimes the crowd did not know who was playing until the guest players were announced over the P A system. Such was the case when Stan Mortenson, a local lad from Tyne Dock, South Shields and a future England International, 'guested' for Newcastle during the war. A local player might be working down the pit on Saturday morning and playing at St James's Park in the afternoon.

Most people smoked, and it was often joked that one of the main tasks of the trainer, was to have eleven cigarettes lit and ready for his team at half-time!

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