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 and before that guns for warships at the renowned Armstrong 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 whilst in earlier years the banks of the Tyne itself were covered in the stuff and ships would send much of this coal down to London to help power the capital. 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!"