A whopping 74,415 supporters clicked through the turnstiles at St James’ Park over the weekend, but should we even be surprised anymore?
While there may be bigger stadiums elsewhere in the country, no other men’s and women’s double-header had a bigger audience as Liverpool and Alnwick Town came to town. Sell-outs are nothing new for the men’s team – the days of 10,000 half-season tickets being given away are long gone – but Geordies certainly turned up in their numbers to support Newcastle United Women for a historic occasion on Sunday as well.
Such was the interest in the women’s team’s first ever game at St James’, kick-off was even delayed by a quarter of an hour because fans were still queuing to get into the ground. Remarkably, there were 22,134 fans present to support Becky Langley’s side against Alnwick Town. It was the largest crowd for a women’s league match in England this season and to put that support into perspective, there was more fans at St James’ for a fourth-tier game in women’s football than there were at Vicarage Road for a Premier League clash between Burnley and Watford’s men’s teams a day previously.
This occasion had been 33 years in the making, but you suspect it was worth the wait for players, staff and all those who have been associated with Newcastle Women. Indeed, the players could not help but look around and point to Wor Flags’ ‘Howay the Lasses’ banner in the Gallowgate End and the flags dotted around the stadium as they walked out to ‘Local Hero’ before the game. Katie Barker, Brooke Cochrane, Georgia Gibson and Beth Guy went on fire the hosts to a 4-0 win and you could see how much it meant to these lifelong Newcastle fans as they passionately celebrated each goal.
Newcastle Women may have narrowly missed out on promotion from National League Division One North, but that almost felt like a footnote in some ways on Sunday. This was a glimpse of a brighter future and real strides have been made this season. On the field, the Lady Magpies amassed the highest number of points in a season on record; scored the most goals; and fielded the youngest ever side in the women’s team’s history. Off it, most importantly, Newcastle Women have been brought into the heart of the club again.
The club’s new owners want to pay the players as professionals and help take Newcastle Women into the Champions League one day, but the little things have meant a lot to Langley and her side, too. The women’s team were given the chance to train at the men’s training base on Tuesday ahead of this game, for example, while a special two-in-one programme was produced for both the Liverpool and Alnwick fixtures.
It also did not go unnoticed that Eddie Howe and first-team coach Simon Weatherstone were there to support their female counterparts from the directors’ box alongside part-owners Mehrdad Ghodoussi and Amanda Staveley on Sunday. This was not a token gesture; the club feels a lot more united than it did in a previous era just a few months ago and there will be footballers out there, male and female, who will want to be a part of this journey moving forward.
Indeed, just as there will be players who were inspired by Sunday, the pictures that were beamed around the world ahead of the men’s team’s 1-0 defeat against quadruple-chasing Liverpool were also striking on Saturday. If Howe felt the scenes after Bruno Guimaraes’ dramatic late winner against Leicester City were a ‘great advert’, when it comes to transfer targets being ‘motivated to try and experience it’, then you suspect the Newcastle head coach felt similar about the deafening noise before the Liverpool game as a giant surfer was unfurled in the Leazes End and hundreds of flags were waved around the stadium.
Is it any wonder that the owners do not want to build a new stadium? As Mehrdad Ghodoussi previously put it, it would be like ‘tearing your soul out’.