Friday 11 August 2023

The Death of a King and the 40,000 Who Turned Up to Watch Gateshead FC

At 11:15am on the morning of 6 February 1952 and the day of Gateshead FC’s fourth round FA cup tie with West Bromwich Albion, the BBC announced that the King had died. “It is with the greatest sorrow that we make the following announcement..." were the words listeners heard when John Snagge told the nation that his majesty had passed away. 

That evening a club record 39,287 spectators turned out to watch the Tynesiders in a match that had been moved two miles across the river Tyne to Newcastle United’s St James’ Park home. The whole stadium stood in silence before kick-off to mourn the death of their monarch. 

At 7:30am that morning King George VI had been found dead in his bed at Sandringham House in Norfolk having died in the night from a coronary thrombosis at the age of 56. After hearing the news, his daughter Elizabeth who was touring Kenya headed straight back to London now Queen Elizabeth II.

If you asked many today which current non-league sides had previously packed out Newcastle’s St James’ Park for FA Cup home ties, of course, they would most probably tell you about the famous Blyth Spartans of 1978 but would likely not be aware of anyone else. But actually, Gateshead FC did it first! The almost 40,000 in attendance that day was almost double the club’s previous home record in 1937 and roughly six times higher than that season’s league average of 6,114. If compared to the modern day, however, then the gap is even wider with last season's home average of 1,218 roughly 22 times lower than the attendance at St James’ Park that day.

Beside me, as I type, is a copy of the Gateshead FC matchday programme from their recent pre-season match at home to Newcastle United. If I open it on the first page inside I will see at the bottom a list of attendance records for the club at both their current Gateshead International Stadium home and the now long gone Redheugh Park. But the St James’ affair of 1952 is conspicuous in its absence. The fact that the match was actually played away from their usual home at what some might call a neutral venue may have something to do with this. But the reality is Gateshead were the designated home side and the visitors had travelled roughly 200 miles to be there whereas Gateshead just two. This is seemingly the Gateshead home game that no one remembers even though it was, in attendance at least, by far the biggest of them all - and intertwined with a death that brought a nation into mourning it is definitely a story worth telling.

For the fourth round of the 1951-52 FA Cup, Third Division North side Gateshead had, in West Bromwich Albion, been drawn at home to strong First Division opposition who had comfortably dispatched of fellow top-flight side Bolton Wanderers 4-0 at home in the previous round. Obviously, despite home advantage, the Tynesiders, sitting two divisions lower, were always going to be rated as clear underdogs in this fixture.

Gateshead had met the same opposition in the FA Cup just three years earlier when West Brom travelled to the Tynesiders’ Redheugh Park home for a third round tie that they would ultimately win 3-1 after extra-time in front of over 17,000 spectators (in the early post-war years, extra-time was often played in the first match before any potential replay to save on costs but this was no longer the case by the 1951-52 season). Despite the defeat the following day’s Sunday Sun said “No praise can be too high for Gateshead.” (The pair would also meet again in the third round in 2015 but West Brom, who were this time the home side, won 7-0 so the less said about that the better)

That 1949 tie was pretty much a sell-out but potentially might have attracted an even bigger crowd if Gateshead had agreed to the opposition’s suggestion of moving the tie to the much larger St James’ Park home of their First Division neighbours Newcastle United. The fact that gate receipts were split in the cup may have been behind the Baggies idea but Gateshead declined the proposition preferring the home comforts of their own stadium. Three years later, however, and things were different.

Middlesbrough were the only one of the North East’s big three to have a scheduled home fixture the weekend of the 1952 fourth round ties as Newcastle were playing away from home and Sunderland were already out the cup. With that in mind, Gateshead obviously thought they had an excellent chance to draw a bumper crowd for what was a huge cup tie against top-flight opposition. To attract the huge crowd they so desired a bigger venue was something the club were keen to find. The great news, however, was that because their near neighbours Newcastle United were playing away it meant that United’s 60,000 capacity St James’ Park home was readily available so long as all concerned parties could come to an agreement. 

Gateshead were keen that the tie not be made all-ticket and despite initial reservations on that front West Brom agreed to switch the tie to Newcastle with the Football Association more than happy to ratify the decision and Newcastle themselves clearly having no issue. It was all relatively straightforward and in the words of Gateshead’s Chairman-manager Mr. W. R. “Bill” Tulip: “The Football Association certainly acted quickly and helpfully,” The stage was set.

Gateshead’s cup campaign that season had started in the first round proper with a replay victory at fellow Third Division North side Stockport County before a 2-0 home win against non-league Guildford City in round two. The win over Guildford was a far easier passage to the third round than that of Tranmere Rovers who took three replays to eventually dispatch Gateshead’s modern-day arch rivals Blyth Spartans 5-1. Still, Gateshead came close to matching them in the third round but their eventual 2-1 win over Ipswich Town of the Third Division South came in what was only the second replay of the tie and not the third.

The Gateshead squad of that 1951-52 season were an average Third Division North side devoid of any star names. As a Football League side, perhaps of greater status than the modern-day club but still very much small fry. The side included stalwarts such as the Callender brothers Jack and Tom who between them would make over 900 appearances for the club. George Wilbert, meanwhile, was a genuine one-club man with Hebburn born John Ingham another mainstay who would score 119 goals in 468 league and cup appearances for the Heed. On the other hand, Scottish inside forward Willie Buchan had ended up at Gateshead after failing to recapture the pre-war form that had seen him win a Scottish league championship with Celtic and earn a big-money move to England and First Division side Blackpool. Gateshead’s league campaign would end with the club off the pace in fifth place but the season would be remembered for their colossal St James’ Park cup tie.

The big match was originally scheduled for Saturday 2 February but the weather would put pay to that with the ground sadly covered in ice. “The pitch is in a very bad state” Bill Tulip had said a couple of days beforehand and he was not wrong. He’d warned of a postponement and he was unfortunately proved right so the match would have to be played at a later date.

The freezing temperatures mattered little to the stadium's usual occupants, however, and the roughly 5,000 supporters who travelled down to London to watch Newcastle United face Tottenham Hotspur, in what was also a fourth round tie, saw Chilean star George Robeldo score twice as the Magpies won 3-0. For those who stayed at home, though, there was no such luck and they would have to wait until the following Wednesday to see a fourth round tie of their own - this one featuring United’s little brother from across the Tyne. 

The postponement was even more harsh on the travelling support who’d made the long trip up from the West Midlands and the Shields Evening News described their plight: “During the morning, groups of rather depressed West Bromwich supporters could be seen complete with team colours walking aimlessly around the city.”

Unexpectedly, the postponement and the subsequent battle to get the pitch playable for the replay was detailed last year by TV personality and West Brom supporter Andrian Chiles in a Guardian newspaper column. This came after a visit to a friend's house saw him notice an old black and white photograph of his friend’s late mother which he found out to be, unbelievably, taken on the terraces of St James’ Park during the 1952 Gateshead cup tie.

Having begun to feel disconnected from his club this photograph apparently helped remind him why he loved his team so much but of real interest are the events that lead up to the hastily rearranged tie of which he wrote:

At some stage Betty and her posse helped clear the pitch to get the game on. The photo, we think, is from a newspaper article praising their efforts. Newcastle was a long way from West Bromwich by charabanc in 1952 so, in gratitude for their efforts, Betty, her husband and presumably many others were put up by locals until the game could be played on Wednesday, 6 February.

Chiles also noted the other aforementioned events that, aside from any further bad weather, could have put paid to the rearranged fixture also. Indeed, unlike this cup tie many other events were actually cancelled because of the King’s death with play in the India v England test match in Madras being suspended for the day being just one example.

“A man with a face of sorrow entered the room. Princess Elizabeth and her husband the Duke of Edinburgh gally turned to greet him. Their laughter stopped abruptly,” that was how the Daily Mirror described the moment the new Queen found out her father was dead.

The sorrow of that man who broke the news to the new Queen and her husband extended to those all around the commonwealth including the fans who turned up at St James’ Park that night. How those at the match marked their respect was detailed in the following days Birmingham Gazette: “The Gateshead and West Bromwich Albion football teams with referee, linesmen and officials stand in silent tribute to the King before beginning their cup tie,” was the caption to the St James’ Park photograph that appeared in the paper. The paper noted that there were two minutes silence before kick-off followed by “three verses of ‘Abide with Me’.” The players also wore black armbands.

Obviously, just like the Mirror, all the newspapers on the day after the tie were evidently preoccupied with the death of a King and the ascent of a new Queen with this the case even in the local media where coverage actually extended far beyond just tributes at the football. Yes, there was only limited coverage of the match and yes in some editions it focused more on the St James’ response to the King’s death but, nonetheless, all local publications did, at least, seem to find some space to actually mention events on the pitch. Unfortunately, on the day that King George’s sixteen-year reign came to a sad end, those events at St James’ Park culminated in a 2-0 defeat for the hosts.

The main headline on the front page of the local Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette read “The Queen’s Air-Liner Will Be Here Today” and its other front page headlines included “World Mourns King’s Death.” Inside, meanwhile, for the slender coverage of the Gateshead match they opted for a seemingly controversial headline in: “Gateshead Refereed Out of Cup?”

The paper claimed one of West Brom’s goals would have been given offside by “3 out of 4 referees” and insisted Gateshead should have been awarded a penalty after a blatant handball. The latter was something Newcastle’s Evening Chronicle agreed with whilst the former they thought was debatable. The referee later admitted goalscorer Ronnie Allen was in an offside position but thought he “was not interfering with play as the ball went to him off a defender.” Meanwhile, the honest assessment of that handball incident from West Brom favouring media in the form of the Birmingham Post read: “[Joe] Kennedy handled the ball above his head near the penalty spot and got away with it.” 

But aside from the referee, it was for Gateshead a case of missed opportunities against a side who the aforementioned Sunderland newspaper claimed for the first 45 minutes at least “were a poor advertisement for First Division Football.” Albeit this even though the visitors did find themselves 1-0 up at the break. If the same paper is believed then after the break, however, there was seemingly only one team in it despite the fact they did only manage one more goal. On the other hand, “Gateshead’s Spirit Won New Admirers” was the headline the Evening Chronicle had decided to go with so there were clearly mixed feelings in the local North East media about the performances of both sides. 

However, unsurprisingly, the Birmingham Post felt West Brom “outplayed and outstayed Gateshead” on what they described as a “wet and slippery” surface. If Gateshead did have their moments then a failure to take advantage of them was also summed up by the Post who claimed: “Nothing went right for Gateshead in front of goal.” There was limited praise for the Gateshead front line across the different papers, though, with, in particular, John Ingham’s name mentioned. But the reality was that in front of goal, the Heed were not good enough.

As for the goals themselves, both were described to the Sunderland readers as “scrappy”, The first had caused the offside controversy and its scorer was also on hand to score the second. Ronnie Allen was in his second season with West Brom. He would go on to make over 400 appearances for the Baggies and gain 5 caps for England before a managerial career that would take him as far afield as Greece and Saudi Arabia. His first strike came on 31 minutes when he drove the ball home from 8 yards out whilst his second came 9 minutes after the break and was described by the Birmingham Post as follows: “[Goalkeeper Bob] Gray fell on a shot sent in by [Reg] Ryan but [Gateshead’s Harold] Wyles behind him, kicked the ball from under the goalkeeper's body and against Allen, from whom it rebounded into the net."

Gateshead were out of the cup but they had drawn their biggest-ever crowd and even a Redheugh Park quarter-final tie against eventual runners-up Bolton Wanderers which Gateshead lost 1-0 the following season could not match that - less than half that previous season’s St. James’ Park crowd were in attendance to see a Heed side who had progressed further in the cup than ever before (or since). I believe already out of the cup Newcastle had a home league match that day. But who knows, if the Magpies had have been playing away then maybe Gateshead could have brought out the masses once again? In that instance, the £4,500 worth of gate receipts from a year earlier, about £165,000 in today’s money, would have surely been even greater! 

…and to think the Heed were voted out of the Football League just six years later! The new Queen would have better luck though. Her reign lasted 70 years, 214 days before her death last year making her the world's second longest-serving monarch of all time.

This article was produced with the help of the British Newspaper Archive

Gateshead Football Club Attendance Records:

Record attendance at Redheugh Park: 

20,756 v Lincoln City, Third Division North, 25 September 1937

Record attendance at Gateshead International Stadium: 

11,750 v Newcastle United, pre-season friendly, 7 August 1995

Record attendance for a competitive fixture at Gateshead International Stadium: 

8,144 v Grimsby Town, Conference play-off semi-final second leg, 4 May 2014

Record attendance for a league fixture at Gateshead International Stadium: 

4,129 v Hereford, National League North, 7 May 2022

Record attendance for a home fixture moved to another venue: 

39,287 v West Bromwich Albion (played at St James’ Park, Newcastle), FA Cup fourth round, 6 February 1952