Newcastle United fans finally bid an official farewell today as the famous St James’ Park lettering was hacked off by workmen.
It was announced in November that the ground would be renamed the Sports Direct Arena in order to “showcase the sponsorship opportunity to interested parties”. And much to the dismay of Geordie purists, new “Sports Direct Arena” signs were put up outside the ground earlier in the day.
Mike Ashley, owner of both United and the sports store, has endured a strained relationship with supporters since his 2007 takeover. A large and loud advertising sign for Sports Direct already appears on the lip of the Gallowgate End’s roof and has provoked opprobrium from fans.
As a crowbar was taken to the Magpies’ history, so its supporters became another victim to English football’s rampant commercialisation.
Opened in 1892, St James’ Park hosted its record attendance of 68,386 in 1930 against Chelsea in a league game, and throughout the decades has developed a reputation for symbolising the hot-bed of English football.
Housing fervent loyalists whose worship is celebrated outside the stadium, a statue of Jackie Milburn and a bar named “Shearer’s” are two tributes to past goalscoring heroes. Both examples epitomise English clubs’ bids to retain their history whilst conforming to the modernisation of the 21st century football stadium.
The most recent expansion of Newcastle’s ground finished in 2000 at a cost of £42m, making St James’ the second largest club stadium in England at the time with a 52,143 capacity. Arsenal’s Emirates stadium has since usurped the Toon Army’s home in 2006, housing 60,000.
Some fans have already expressed an unwillingness to accept the name change:
Yet as the stadium has expanded (it currently holds 52,387) its followers have ironically become disenchanted. The Leazes End upper tier, the ground’s largest stand that houses away fans, sparked the “Toon Ultras” movement in a bid to counter vociferous visitors as the makeup of supporters changed as ticket prices inflated. Fans of fierce rivals Sunderland nicknamed the arena "Sid James Park", in reference to the Carry On... actor.
Toon Talk fanzine editor Steve Wraith stated: "From my perspective, it's not a great shock, we knew it was going to happen," reported BBC Football.
The club announced in 2007 plans to expand St James’ Park up to a 60,000 all-seater stadium, but difficulties have delayed the redevelopment due to the proximity of a nearby road, Strawberry Place, as well as issues regarding the underground St James Metro station.
And although on-pitch performances have seen the Toon shoot up to sixth in the Premier League table, it remains to be seen whether it compensates for a potential loss of identity.
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