If it took my fancy, I could, via a quick Internet search, pinpoint the exact date that I sampled my first beer in a bar in Newcastle city centre. I remember the night because of a series of bizarre happenings, one of which was quite painful.
I had gone to St James’ Park with my friend, Mark, to watch Newcastle United play Southport in a midweek League Cup tie. We set off earlier than usual, because this was the night that the big question was to be answered: would we be served alcohol in city centre bars?
The first bar in which we tried our luck proved successful, so we stayed there. It is an old pub in the Haymarket area that is still busy today. I won’t name it, because we were both underage at the time.
The bar was packed with supporters enjoying pre-match refreshments. Mark and I partook of something called Pipers’ Scotch Ale, which our untrained beer palates considered not bad. After two pints, we left and set off for the ground, happy that our mission had been a success.
The game had already kicked off when we made our way to the turnstiles. When we turned the corner from the East Stand to the Leazes End of the ground, a surprise awaited us. There, in the darkness, was a wooden builders’ ladder propped up against the Leazes End wall (this was quite a common occurrence, I learned later). We watched as two people climbed the ladder and successfully gained entry into the ground. We both worked for roofing firms at that time, so shinning up ladders was second nature to us, and we decided to get ourselves a ‘spuggy ticket’* each.
I followed Mark up the ladder. There was a gap of about three feet between the top of the wall and the roof. I thought that negotiating this might be a bit tricky, but there were plenty fellow supporters who were ready to lend a hand and haul us in. After thanking our aides, we disappeared into the middle of the stand, where the crowd was thickest.
The match proved very disappointing. Most people expected Newcastle to overhaul their lower league opponents quite easily, but the game was goalless at half time. During the break, Mark suggested that we return to the bar to buy more beer with the money we saved by not paying at the gate. I agreed, and we slunk out of the ground and headed back to the city centre.
Back in the bar, I wavered a little by trying a pint of Worthington E instead of Pipers’. The ambience was relaxed and we enjoyed some banter with other customers. Then the bar suddenly filled up very quickly with boisterous football supporters. The match had finished, and jubilant Magpies were celebrating their side’s six-nil victory. We had missed six goals and learned a valuable, if clichéd, lesson about football: it’s a game of two halves.
We lingered over our last drinks, allowing the thousands who had spilled onto the streets time to disperse. Finally, we drained our glasses and our bladders (it was an hour’s bus ride home), and we left the bar. The Haymarket bus station was almost deserted by this time, and as we waited, I became aware that we were being watched by a gang of youths, nine in total, and all about our age. Although they were fellow Newcastle supporters, some of them were giving us pretty nasty looks. I ignored them.
Our bus came in, and as I went to grab the vertical hand rail to board, someone grabbed my hair from behind and pulled me backwards. I was punched several timed and forced to the ground, where I underwent a ‘good shoeing’. Most of the kicks were pretty feeble, but some hit home. One assailant stamped on my head.
A curious thing about getting a kicking is the noise. The sound of shoes and boots stamping and scuffing on the pavement with urgency as the kickers adjust position and regain balance after a kick is quite loud when your head is in close proximity. The gang had split into two, and Mark was getting a similar kicking further down the road. I grabbed the leg of one of my attackers in an attempt to slow down the kick rate, but they suddenly ran off, chased from the bus station by a taxi driver and several passers-by.
I was a little shaken and I had a huge bruise forming on the right side of my forehead. Mark had a cut lip, but he was otherwise all right too. We got the bus home, and played down our injuries to concerned parents.
Fate was cruel to us that night. Had that ladder not been propped against the Leazes End wall to tempt us, we wouldn’t have had the spare cash to return to the bar. Had Newcastle scored their six goals in the first half, we would have stayed till the end and gone with the masses to the bus station at full time, thus avoiding the gang.
We didn’t let this stop us supporting our team, and a few weeks later we were at another game at St James’ Park. One of our group went for a pie at half time and, as he sat on the terracing tucking in, a passing supporter lashed out with a kick that smashed hot mince and pastry into his face.
Football hooliganism was rife in those days, with gangs of rival fans duking it out in train stations and motorway services up and down the land. Yet with ‘friends’ like those we encountered, there was little need for our rivals to turn up.
* The word ‘spuggy’ is a local term for a sparrow, and the term ‘spuggy ticket’ refers to the act of climbing a wall or fence to gain free admission to an event.