Tuesday, 14 September 2021

Newcastle United and Schalke 04: Two Clubs and Their Common Identity

My first real glimpses of the city of Gelsenkirchen came through a tram window. Arriving via train from Düsseldorf, my first destination after exiting the platform was the station's underground tram stop and before I knew it we were travelling through the streets of what clearly was a football mad city much like my hometown is. The colour of blue was evident on walls, shutters, and window frames whilst there were blue flags hanging from buildings. Our eventual destination was the city's VELTINS-Arena which is home of local club FC Schalke 04 and you guessed it they play in blue.

It's pre-season 2014 and my hometown team Newcastle United are playing in a warm-up tournament called the Schalke Cup. Me and three friends are amongst almost a thousand Geordies who have made the trip from the North East of England to watch their side in this two day long summer football extravaganza. Like the home support of Schalke 04, the travelling Toon Army of Newcastle have a strong love for both their football club and their city. Both of these sides hail from one club cities and there are many other similarities between Newcastle and Schalke/Gelsenkirchen both on and off the pitch. More than that, the two cities are actually twinned and arguably in many ways like kindred spirits. So what connects these two cities and their clubs?

The formal relationship between the two cities of Gelsenkirchen and Newcastle Upon Tyne began in 1947, shortly after the war and, according to the website of Newcastle City Council, there are school exchange programmes between Newcastle and Gelsenkirchen as well as joint cultural and community projects. The City of Gelsenkirchen, meanwhile, state on their website: "The close connection to coal brought Newcastle upon Tyne and Gelsenkirchen together in 1948," and coal has certainly played a part in the histories of the two cities, both are in fact synonymous with the stuff.

Gelsenkirchen was historically a huge coal mining city with the industry once employing swathes of local residents - something that is celebrated by Schalke who a few years back transformed the players tunnel at their stadium so that it looked like a mine shaft. The mining of coal in Gelsenkirchen began in 1840. At that time the city had about 6000 inhabitants but, such was the growth of the coal industry that by 1900 its population had increased to 138,000. Gelsenkirchen would become known as the 'city of a thousand fires' due to the flames of mine gases flaring up across the night sky but that phenomenon is long gone and the city's last coal mine closed in 2000.

As for Newcastle, situated on the northern banks of the River Tyne, it was historically more of a shipbuilding city. It was, however, also famous for the building of tanks at the renowned Vickers factory and was, like Gelsenkirken, very much synonymous with coal mining too. Sadly, as with Gelsenkirchen, Newcastle's coal mining heritage is also a thing of the past. Coal mining though was once a massive industry in North East England and the numerous pit villages that surrounded the city of Newcastle saw whole communities rely on coal mining for employment. In fact, such an abundance of coal gave the phrase 'selling coals to Newcastle' which was used to suggest something was utterly pointless because why would you sell coal to Newcastle when it is surrounded by the stuff? To emphasise the importance of coal, whilst nowadays there is a huge footballing rivalry between the North East's two largest football clubs Newcastle and Sunderland the rivalry between the two cities from which they hail can be traced back to coal disputes almost as early as the middle ages. 

In the modern day of here and now, however, the similarities between the two cities might not be so striking. Whilst Gelsenkirchen has struggled to shake off its past and is not particularly known as a tourist destination, Newcastle is nowadays considered a vibrant modern city and is famed throughout the UK and beyond for its nightlife in particular. Nonetheless, both can still today be considered very much working class cities that very much have similar pasts. Also, with the old industries now gone both have turned to service industries for much of their local employment so there are still some commonalities there too.

One other thing that connects the cities, as mentioned, is, of course, their love of football and the similarly troubled pasts of their respective sides. Indeed, when Schalke faced Manchester United in the Champions League in 2013, Newcastle's local newspaper The Chronicle declared that they were 'the Newcastle United of Germany'. After discussing some of what I have mentioned above about the two cities, they also referred to the similarities between the two clubs and proclaimed: "The most striking similarity between Schalke and Newcastle United is the shared spirit of supporters in the face of adversity." 

That adversity referred to in the local paper was a reference to the lack of success at both clubs something which is unusual for traditionally big name clubs with such fervent support. Quiet simply neither Newcastle nor Schalke have recorded the achievements club's of such size and stature might hope for.

Although in my lifetime Schalke have, it turns out, had more success than Newcastle thanks to winning the UEFA Cup in 1997 and the DFB-Pokal in 2001, 2002, and 2011, they have never actually won the Bundesliga having last been crowned German champions pre the Bundesliga era in 1958. That lack of Bundesliga success is unprecedented for a team that has spent so much time near the top of Germany's top flight. Runners up in successive seasons in the 1990s, Newcastle, meanwhile, were last crowned English league champions in 1927. Their last major trophy came in 1969 when they won the old Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, and their last major domestic trophy came in 1955 when they won the FA Cup for a sixth time. Like Schalke, Newcastle are a big name club with a large fanbase and like Schlake probably should have had a lot more success than they actually have. With both teams continuing to struggle at this current time too, any sort of further silverware seems a lifetime away. Indeed, Schalke were actually relegated from the top flight last season whilst Newcastle regularly flirt with the drop these days. 

As mentioned, both Newcastle and Schalke can be famed for a lack of league success but in the lifetimes of many of their fans both have had very famous near misses. For Newcastle see 1996, for Schalke read 2001.

In the 1995-96 season, Newcastle United found themselves twelve points clear at the top of the Premier League at Christmas. The pressure seemingly got to Newcastle, however, and Manchester United pipped them to the title on the final day of the season. After beating Leeds United towards the end of the campaign, Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan, upset at comments made by his Man Utd counterpart Alex Ferguson, went on a now infamous post match rant where he exclaimed "I will love it if we beat them, love it." Sadly for Keegan, his side finished runners up as Ferguson got his hands on the Premier League trophy. Having seemed like they had the title in the bag just months earlier they had capitulated in an unprecedented manner and failed to end an almost 70 year drought.

Schalke's 2001 title despair came, however, just after full-time in their final match of the season when they thought the title was in the bag. At the start of play on that final day Schalke had to win their match and hope league leaders FC Bayern München lost at Hamburg. This all seemed a tall order but there were wild scenes inside Schalke's now former Parkstadion home at full-time when supporters charged onto the pitch thinking their 5-3 win over Unterhaching had secured them the title as Bayern were losing. Word quickly spread that the score in Hamburg was a full-time one but this was what nowadays would be described as fake news as Hamburg and Bayern were still playing and there would be one last twist to what had already been a dramatic afternoon. With seconds remaining Bayern grabbed an equaliser to win the title by a point and by now Schalke fans were nervously watching events on their stadium's large video screen. Those mad celebrations just minutes earlier were soon replaced by scenes of despair as the Parksatdion turned into what felt like a morgue. Bayern were crowned champions as Schalke had the title cruelly snatched from their grasp.

Yes, the supporters of both clubs are familiar with pain.

It must be said, however, that despite all of the above there is no formal fan friendship between Newcastle and Schalke supporters that I am aware of. I myself, though, have been following Schalke as my 'German club' ever since that visit some seven years ago. Even though I have yet to go back to watch the club on subsequent visits to Germany it is definitely on my to do list, even if Schalke have just been relegated to the 2. Bundesliga. 

There is definitely much common ground between Schalke 04, Newcastle United, and the cities from which they hail, and their shared heritage will, no doubt, surely remain for many years to come. Who knows, maybe supporters of both clubs can one day turn their kinship into some sort of everlasting friendship too? Whatever happens though, these are two historic clubs that both on and off the pitch have strikingly similar stories and one wonders if their futures will also continue down similar paths? If they do let's hope it's definitely on an upwardly successful trajectory!

A footnote about my 2014 trip to the VELTINS-Arena. Whilst queuing for refreshments inside the stadium we got chatting to a fellow Newcastle fan who, unlike most Geordies who were staying in Düsseldorf, had based himself in nearby Essen for the trip. He told us Essen was a complete dump and that the whole town seemed to have only two bars and one of them was a gay bar (not that I have a problem with such things myself you understand). Not only that but since arriving he'd discovered one harrowing fact: the town of Essen was twinned with Sunderland, the home city of Newcastle United's arch rivals. "Nee wonda the plairce is a shithole' he exclaimed in a thick Geordie accent. "If aarnly ad knaan beefore ad booked up then ah wud hev stairyed elsewherya!"

Wednesday, 18 August 2021

Heading to Dunston UTS and Having the Tyne of My Life

Living north of the river, whenever I go to watch Dunston UTS I always walk there from the centre of Newcastle and what a beautiful amble along the banks of the Tyne it is. This evening is no different and before I know it I'm leaving Newcastle by way of the High Level Bridge, the noise of buses hurling passing alongside me and the roar of trains overhead on the top deck of this fine structure. 

The River Tyne is famous for its bridges and having crossed over to the southern side I head down to the riverfront where several more bridges loom above in front of me. I may have bypassed the Swing Bridge, the world renowned Tyne Bridge, the much newer Millenium Bridge, and of course crossed the High Level Bridge, but there are plenty more bridges still to come... As I stroll along the riverfront I find myself walking underneath two more rail bridges, the Queen Elizabeth II and the King Edward VII Bridges, and then the Redheugh Bridge from which you can eventually find yourself on the A1.

I continue my constitutional along the banks of the Tyne looking at the stodgy wet sand and the river itself that flows quietly beyond it. With the sun beginning to poke through the clouds on this warm late afternoon saunter there is the odd, cyclist, dog walker, and jogger about but all in all it's very peaceful. It wasn't always like this, however, the river was once very busy with its banks thriving with heavy industry. Such business and manufacturing included the Vickers tank factory and various shipyards building gigantic vessels that would sail along the Tyne and off into seas around the world. That, of course, is all now long gone and most of said shipyards were further along towards the coast anyway. This is nonetheless still a historic river which will always have a special awe about it, something you could probably write a song about. In fact, Jimmy Nail did just that - and BIg River got to number 18 in the charts.

Eventually, though, I must leave the river behind and head inland, after all, tonight's football match won't watch itself! I soon complete the last leg of my journey and find myself at the UTS Stadium about an hour after I set off.

Dunston play at the same level as Hebburn Town further upstream who I visited a few days earlier and tonight is their first home game of the season in the eighth tier Northern Premier League Division One East. The club who won the FA Vase in 2011-12 after defeating West Auckland Town at Wembley were promoted to this level after winning the top division of the Northern League in 2018-19, the same year in which they reached the fourth qualifying round of the FA Cup. After beating Hebburn themselves in the extra-preliminary round they defeated a further four teams including then seventh tier North Ferriby United and sixth tier National League North side Chester FC who were dispatched of 4-3 at home in a pulsating tie.

In the final qualifying round they were handed a dream draw when they were paired with then National League side Gateshead to set up an all Gateshead derby at home, Dunston actually being an area within the town of Gateshead. Some 2520 were in attendance, almost 10 times the club's usual attendance and some 1647 higher than the bumper crowd they'd had in the previous round. BBC television even streamed the match live online (they don't show games live on any of their main TV channels until the first round proper). Sadly for the Dunston, however, fifth tier opposition was a step too far and the club lost 4-0.

Today's game is £7 entry and sadly, for the second time in four days, I find no paper programmes on sale. This scenic ground is surrounded by trees and has two small stands on either side of the pitch, one with benches but some proper seating in the middle section and the other with rail terracing. The former was actually was built with financial help from local footballing star Gazza at the height of his career. Behind one goal there are amenities such as a bar, a club shop, and a serving hatch for food from which previous experience tells me offerings are nothing much to write home about - like at a lot of grounds at this level sadly. 

In terms of further food and drink there is nothing in the immediate vicinity outside the ground though you might find the odd pub if you are prepared to walk for 10 minutes or so. Alternatively, if you get a bus to Gateshead Interchange you can either enjoy one of the many pubs on nearby Gateshead High Street or hop back across the river to Newcastle city centre where you certainly won't be short of options.

Dunston itself is also only a short drive from the massive Metrocentre shopping complex that was once the largest shopping centre in Europe and the brainchild of former Newcastle United owner Sir John Hall. I don't have much else of note to say about this suburb of Gateshead although my brother did buy a house in Dunston about 6-7 years ago but now lives in America so rents it out. I think I only ever visited his humble abode once whilst he briefly lived there.

The match itself is end-to-end stuff but there is little in the way of clear cut chances albeit just enough to see the away side win the game. Tonight's opponents are newly promoted fellow North East side Shildon AFC from County Durham who bring with them a healthy away following amongst an overall attendance of 380. The visitors are 1-0 up at the interval and although much of the second period is in Shildon's own half a rejuvenated Duston are caught on the break on 72 minutes and when the goalkeeper comes too far out Shildon slot the ball home behind him to secure the win.

At full-time with myself ready for home I shoot off to catch a bus back to the interchange as it's getting late and rather dark. Dunston actually has its own train station but it's a 15 minute walk from the ground and services are infrequent.

It may not have been the result the home side wanted but I still had an enjoyable evening of football in a picturesque setting. This came after a calming stroll along the riverfront and you could certainly do a lot worse than all that for £7. A riverside wander to Dunston UTS FC - you should definitely try it!

Sunday, 15 August 2021

Hebburn Is a Place On Earth

They have been very busy this summer at Hebburn Town, well they've installed some new seating at least. There have been changes on the pitch too, however. As well as the usual incomings and outgoings of players the club have also moved up a division. Despite last season being curtailed again due to COVID-19 the FA were keen to introduce already delayed changes to the non-league pyramid structure and this has resulted in Hebburn moving up a level. For the 2021-22 season, the North East club are now playing in the new Northern Premier League Division One East as the Northern Premier League adds a third section to its second tier. This is part of the eighth tier of English football overall.

Hebburn are a club on the up. Almost bankrupt a few years back, significant investment has seen much improvement on the pitch. Recently in the season before last's COVID delayed FA Vase final they defeated fellow North East side Consett AFC in a sadly empty Wembley stadium just before fans started to returning to venues. Their other achievement of note came pre financial woes in 2011 when starting in the extra-preliminary round they got through five ties to reach the fourth and final qualifying round of the FA Cup having dispatched of several higher division sides along the way. Their run sadly for them came to an end at that final qualifying stage when they headed four stops up the local metro rail line to face then National league side Gateshead and lost 3-0.

I have ventured from my home on the other side of the River Tyne to visit Hebburn Town Football Club several times before. With my Uncle Kevin having lived in Hebburn all my life I am very familiar with the town and it is he along with his next door neighbour Malcolm who I am meeting at the game today. The club's Energy Check Sports Ground home is just a 10 minute walk from Hebburn metro station at which you are only a 15 minute train ride from the city centre of the region's thriving metropolis of Newcastle upon Tyne.

It's £7 entry and for some of the hardcore groundhoppers out there they will be dismayed to note that the club has recently gone digital only for their matchday programme. This is a very minor annoyance to me but from what I've heard some hoppers refuse to attend grounds where paper programmes are not available. I often watch a lot of the same local teams so I'm sure if I can class myself as a true groundhopper anyway although I do like the odd football trip abroad.

I arrive unusually late by my standards and the game, Hebburn's opening fixture of the season, is already a minute or so underway. But I soon find my uncle in the main covered stand talking to none other than the league's chairman who happens to be here in attendance today! 

The stand is complete with rail terracing but many people are sat as opposed to standing. Either side of this stand are two new sections of uncovered seating they have just installed. Talking to a friend the other week I was told the new seating came from South Shields FC down the road. Shields are making way for a fantastic new stand so the seats were obviously no longer needed. There is also a small covered section at one end whilst opposite the main stand another area of field lies alongside the football pitch. This ground used to double up as a cricket venue but sadly the local cricket club went out of existence a couple of years back.

Today the visitors are Frickley Athletic from West Yorkshire and the first half is fairly even though perhaps Hebburn just shade it. At the interval, it is time for a visit to the grounds crowning glory known as Hebburn Sports Bar which sits at one end of the ground. Opened a couple of years back, this is truly the best bar I've come across at a non-league football ground and the two story affair complete with a balcony overlooking the pitch apparently gets rather busy on a Friday and Saturday night and is also popular on a Sunday afternoon too. This is certainly more than just a bar at a football ground it is one of the town's popular entertainment venues. Having said that although Malcolm pays a very reasonable £2.10 for a pint of John Smiths, I am rather dismayed at the lack of real ale, craft beer, or even just a lone IPA, and decide to stay alcohol free. It is also worth noting that there is a serving hatch outside selling food and off memory from previous visits it is standard fare.

Before kick-off, Hebburn were boasting on Twitter that they'd won each of their previous three opening day fixtures but today it isn't to be. The match is settled by a second-half penalty for the visitors who twice nearly extend their lead in the dying moments when the home goalkeeper ventures forward and leaves his goal wide open. The visitor's fire wide on both occasions.

Not too disheartened by the defeat, however, Hebburn after the match proudly declare on Twitter that the 452 in attendance gives them the largest crowd of the day in the division. I'm not too dispirited myself either as despite the result I've had an enjoyable afternoon at a terrific non-league venue. For any football fans visiting the area, I would highly recommend, amongst others, a visit to watch Hebburn Town. 

Saturday, 14 August 2021

Save the Crew

I haven't posted many new articles or features on this blog recently but I am busy writing at the moment so hopefully, my next piece won't be far away. 

In the meantime, I recently watched an excellent three-part documentary from copa90 about the supporters of MLS side Columbus Crew and the struggles they faced trying to stop their team from moving to Austin, Texas. Well worth a watch.

Wednesday, 28 July 2021

The History Makers: Those Original Sixteen Bundesliga Clubs and Where Are They Now?

First mooted in 1932 but rejected by the local associations, Germany's first national football division finally appeared on the scene for the 1963-64 season with the best teams from the varying regional divisions selected to join. Gone was the old end of season national championship for the regional league champions and in its place was a 16 team top flight division known as the Bundesliga. But what of those inaugural 16 teams? What happened to them and where are they now? James M. Gowland takes a look.

Borussia Dortmund

Since its formation, Dortmund have spent only two seasons outside the Bundesliga. The club had a solid start to life in the new division with finishes of 4th, 3rd, 2nd, and 3rd but then began to struggle. However, after a brief second tier spell in the mid-seventies, they were soon back in the top flight and have yet to leave. The club now has five Bundesliga titles to their name but did not manage to win their first until 1995. The last of those triumphs came in 2012 under current Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp but they have only once finished outside to the top four since, managing to finish runner up five times over that same period.

Eintracht Braunschweig

Braunschweig won the Bundesliga in 1967 but were relegated six years later. The club have spent only a limited number of seasons back in the top flight since, spending most of their time in the second and third tiers. Last season they were relegated from the 2. Bundesliga.

Eintracht Frankfurt

Despite having never won it, Frankfurt, who finished third in the inaugural season, have barely been out of the Bundesliga since it was created. The club actually managed to last all the way until 1996 before suffering their first relegation. It only took a couple of seasons for Frankfurt to return to the top flight and although they've suffered a few more relegations in the years since, it never seems to take them long to find their way back to the top table.

Hamburger SV

Until 2018, Hamburg held the record for never having missed a Bundesliga season but a disastrous 2017-18 season saw the club relegated to the second tier for the very first time and they have been stuck there ever since. The club have six Bundesliga titles to their name the last of which came way back in 1983.

Hertha BSC

After trying to bribe players, the Berlin side were forcibly relegated from the Bundesliga in 1965 and replaced by fellow Berlin side Tasmania who went on to have the worst season in Bundesliga history. Hertha were not out of the Bundesliga long, however, and have spent much of their history since then back in it. There has though been a few notable spells outside of the top flight including a brief period in the third tier in the 1980s. Hertha have never won the Bundesliga but were runners-up in 1974-75. That lack of a top flight title is rather unusual for the number one side of a capital city.

1. FC Kaiserslautern

Two times Bundesliga winners, Kaiserslautern were first relegated in 1996, five years after their first title. Two years later in 1998, they became the to date the only newly promoted side to win the title at the first attempt. The club has struggled over the past 15 years or so, however, only briefly appearing in the top division, and currently ply their trade in the 3. Liga.

Karlsruher SC

Karlsruher lasted five seasons in the Bundesliga before being relegated and have been in and out of the Bundesliga in the years since. They most notably sat at the top table for 11 seasons straight from 1988 onwards. The club last graced the Bundesliga with their presence in 2009 and currently sit in the second tier.

1. FC Köln

Köln were the Bundesliga's inaugural champions finishing six points ahead of the runners-up in that first season. The club won the title again 14 years later in 1978 but have yet to win another championship since although they do have five runners-up finishes to their name. First relegated in 1998 they have now become a bit of a yo-yo club and last season only survived relegation from the Bundesliga thanks to winning the relegation play-off.

Meidericher SV

Now known as MSV Duisburg, the club finished as runners-up in that inaugural season and spent 19 seasons straight in the Bundesliga before relegation in 1982. Duisburg have spent the odd season back in the top flight since but have mostly been plying their trade in the second and third tiers. They currently sit in the 3. Liga.

1860 München

FC Bayern München may be the Bundesliga's most successful side of all-time with a record 30 titles to their name, but it was actually their nowadays less fashionable rivals 1860 who were the city's sole Bundesliga representative for its first two seasons and first side from Munich to be crowned Bundesliga champions. 1860 won the Bundesliga title in the division's third season, three years before their city rivals first won it, but are still waiting for that elusive second title. The club were relegated from the Bundesliga in 1970 but have been in and out of it in the years since with promotion in 1994 seeing a ten-year stint at the top table. Having since then dropped down the divisions, 1860 currently ply their trade in the 3. Liga having recently spent a season in the fourth tier Regionalliga Bayern.

1. FC Nürnberg

Known as Der Club due to their all-conquering side of the 1920s, they won their first and only Bundesliga title in 1968 only to be relegated the following season. The club did not return to the top table until 1978 but since then have spent more seasons in the Bundesliga than out of it. In the very recent past, however, the club have found themselves struggling at the bottom end of the 2. Bundesliga.

SC Preußen Münster

Runners up in the 1951 German championship, Münster have achieved little since. Founding members of the Bundesliga, they were relegated at the first attempt and have yet to return. They currently play in the Regionalliga West.

1. FC Saarbrücken

Saarbrücken finished rock bottom of the Bundesliga in its inaugural season. They did manage a couple of seasons back in the Bundesliga in the late 1970s and were promoted back to the top flight again for one lone campaign in 1992, but have spent most of the Bundesliga era in the lower divisions. Promotion from the Regionalliga Südwest in 2019-20 means they now play 3. Liga football.

FC Schalke 04

Schalke, last crowned German champions in 1958, are probably the biggest name side never to have won the Bundesliga. The club have seven times finished runners-up, however, and infamously thought they had won the title in 2001 only to see FC Bayern pinch the crown away from them with a dramatic stoppage-time goal in Hamburg. Last season Schalke suffered relegation from the Bundesliga thanks to finishing rock bottom with just 3 wins and 7 draws. Prior to last season, the club had previously been relegated three times although despite this had spent only five seasons away from the top flight. Financial troubles, however, suggest that their recent fourth relegation could well bring a longer stay away from the Bundesliga than they have previously seen.

VfB Stuttgart

Three times Bundesliga champions, Stuttgart last won the title in 2006-07. The club have spent only four seasons outside the Bundesliga since its formation with the last of those coming as recently as 2019-20.

SV Werder Bremen

Having spent only one season outside the Bundesliga since its formation, the club were relegated for a second time just last season. Bundesliga champions in only the league's second season, the club have four Bundesliga titles to their name, the last of those coming in 2003-04, and have seven times finished runners up.