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St. James' Park is the oldest football stadium in the North East, football having first played on the turf as early as 1880.

The story of the development of Newcastle United's traditional headquarters on the edge of the city centre has been one of much intrigue featuring intense local politics over the years. It has been a talking point in the region for generations, and even at one stage led to words being spoken in the House of Commons.

The ground has been the home of three clubs; Newcastle Rangers, Newcastle West End and Newcastle East End who moved to the arena in the summer of 1892 shortly before changing their name to Newcastle United.

Situated on a small hill overlooking the city and part of the historic Town Moor owned by the Freemen of the City - which further complicated any development proposals - St James Park is very close to the spot of the city's execution gallows, the last hanging taking place in 1844, less than 40 years before football was first played in the vicinity.

Back in Victorian Tyneside, St James Park was barely a rough patch of grazing land and had a notorious slope, a drop of fully 18 feet from the north to south goal. Local butchers could still graze their animals on the pitch before being led to slaughter!

The ground was bounded by Leazes Park and the exquisite Georgian Leazes Terrace, built to house some of the elegant ladies and gents of Tyneside. While the classical architectural features of Leazes Terrace provided a magnificent backdrop to the arena, it would in the future cause the Club untold difficulties in trying to develop stands around such a historic and listed building.

By the time Newcastle East End had been installed at St James Park development had only been completed in a minor way. And when Newcastle United started to take part in Football League action a small stand had been erected, but local residents were soon complaining to the Town Clerk and threatened to take legal proceedings to stop the "intolerable nuisance" of playing football!

With Newcastle United's promotion to the First Division in 1898, the club made a big effort to start to develop the ground. However, approvals from the local corporation came very slowly and in February 1899 it was recorded that the club were even prepared to move from the site because of the poor state of the pitch and accommodation.

Major building work eventually started though, with a new stand at the Gallowgate End being erected, the pitch being levelled and re-laid and a terrace formed on the other sides of the ground. A corrugated iron fence enclosed the ground and the capacity was announced at 30,000.

A much bigger and grandiose development plan was put in to action only 5 years later when a complete reconstruction of the ground took place. United's growing stature - they were to win three Championships in the coming years - prompted the club to think and act big.

From a modest 30,000 stadium United soon opened what was classed as the best stadium in the country at the time, one to house upwards of 60,000. A huge new stand was erected on the Barrack Road side of the ground and substantial terraces formed on the remaining three sides of the ground.

Also built was a vast swimming pool beneath the stand with player's facilities, a luxury touch the envy of every club in the Football League. The new stadium was opened in September 1905 with pomp and ceremony. Tyneside at the time had a stadium to be proud of - however one that remained largely unaltered for the next 70 years as further development plans were constantly thwarted.

During the Twenties the club attempted to take development a stage further, putting plans together for covered accommodation on the open sides of the ground. Archibald Leitch, a distinguished football ground architect who built, among others, Stamford Bridge, was employed to produce a scheme which included double-decker stands and complete cover around the ground.

However, after much wrangling between landlord and planners which lasted to 1930, all that was built was a modest cover over the Leazes End enclosure.

NEWCASTLE United have - as tenants of the prestigious St. James' Park site - never had an easy route from the outset in attempting to modernise their facilities.

Immediately after World War Two, the board again attempted to erect a stand on the Leazes Terrace side of the ground but could not come to any agreement.

And during the Fifties United's officials were again in turbulent disagreement with the Council over the thorny question of developing the same side of the stadium. United applied to build a two-tier stand, which would have increased capacity to 80,000. Newcastle United's plan never got off the drawing board.

Relationships between club and council dipped to an all time low in the early sixties once United lost the 1966 World Cup attraction due to the inability to secure a development package for St James Park. The World Cup organising committee not unreasonably insisted that substantial improvements had to be made before handing the lucrative stage venue to St James Park.

With no decision having been made regarding the club's 1958 proposals, United lodged further plans in 1963 together with a request for a lengthy extension to their lease to protect Newcastle's proposed hefty investment. Meeting after meeting followed, claim and counter-claim bounced around, and headline after headline was created. All that came out of a sorry saga was that the two parties couldn't agree.

The council even drew up their own proposals for a multi-purpose stadium, a 40,000 capacity "Wembley of the North", but the club wanted no part of it. Intermingled into the dispute was a local political Labour v Tory feud as well. There was even talk of the club being evicted from Gallowgate! It was no surprise when the World Cup managers called it a day and handed the stage matches to Middlesbrough instead. Newcastle missed out on the biggest feast of football Britain was to see.

Newcastle United's board was furious. And it was certainly not the end of the affair. For another 20 years the battle over development raged on. After another multi-use sports centre concept was put forward by the Council, the Magpies made serious plans to move from the site.

In April 1966 details were revealed of a new arena in Gosforth and by 1968 Newcastle had applied for planning permission. Minister for Sport, Dennis Howell was asked to mediate between the club and landlord, but United pressed ahead with a £1m super-stadium near the racecourse.

However, at the last moment in 1971, some semblance of agreement with the Council materialised and the plan was scrapped. A new scheme had at last been agreed for the transformation of St James Park. Yet there was still a long way to go, and many more arguments before redevelopment took shape.

The agreed proposal consisted of four new cantilevered stands all around St James Park, giving an eventual capacity of 47,340. In January 1972 work started on a new Leazes Terrace stand - almost 50 years since the club had first applied for planning permission on that side of the stadium. A year later the stand was opened - even then it appeared to be jinxed and was some months late due to a builder's strike.

It was some time before the next phase started. In 1978, the Leazes End terrace - for so long the favoured haunt of United's fans - was demolished and work started on a cantilevered stand behind the goal. But relegation and recession hit United's finances and there were more problems with the City planners - the Leazes Stand never got out of the ground.

IN THE aftermath of the Bradford City fire disaster in 1985, local councils aimed safety checks on all existing facilities and considering the age of United's West Stand, the Magpies were bound to have problems - and they did. The structure came under vigorous inspection. Newcastle had to start to plan for a replacement.

Another redevelopment proposal was lodged - with the original scheme now scrapped - but the City Council refused permission for the project. Further discussions took place and eventually part of the scheme was accepted.

In the close season of 1986 United demolished the 80 year old West Stand and commenced work on an impressive looking £5m structure to become the centre-point of the club's activities. To be named the Milburn Stand as a lasting tribute to Jackie Milburn, it was opened during the 1987-88 season.

Still there was much needed further development of the arena required to take St James Park into the modern era. This however was shelved due to the club's perilous financial position. Newcastle United needed a miracle both on and off the field as the nineties decade opened. That miracle arrived in the shape of Sir John Hall who completed a take-over of the club in the opening weeks of 1992.

From that moment everything changed in the fortunes of Newcastle United. And the thorny question of redeveloping St James Park was high on Sir John's agenda. With his experience in property development and his substantial financial backing, a complete new proposal was submitted to the Council for approval. This time Sir John and his team were to reach a quick agreement.

The adversity of the past was over. The years of feuding buried. Work started immediately to transform the Gallowgate site at a cost of almost £25m into a stadium to rival any in Britain.

Firstly the Leazes End structure at last rose from the ground. Renamed the Sir John Hall Stand, it was opened for United's debut in the Premiership in 1993. Substantial modifications to the Milburn Stand took place, a new pitch and drainage system installed, new floodlighting as well as the construction of the Gallowgate Stand and infilling all corners of the stadium to produce a marvellous all seater bowl with capacity of around 37,000.

Added were impressive corporate and office facilities. Within the space of three short years the new showpiece stadium had been completed. It was a remarkable feat when compared to the previous 70 years of feuding.

Yet the Club still had one major hurdle to overcome. The success of the Magpies warranted a much, much bigger capacity. Newcastle soon needed to expand. Three options were on the table; further develop St James Park, move to another site close by and construction a brand new arena, or move out of the city, to somewhere like Gateshead. A whole new prolific debate was unleashed on the Tyneside public. Few supporters wanted to move from their traditional home, while the majority were totally against moving outwith the city boundary.

After much heated debate the club drew up plans for a new 55,000 capacity, £65m stadium to be constructed next door to St James Park in Leazes Park. The existing facilities would be transformed into an indoor arena with extensive parkland between the two centres. It appeared the perfect answer and would have been a great sporting monument for the region to rival Europe's best; the Amsterdam arena, San Siro and Stade de France.

But Newcastle United fell into a political quagmire and had to cope with every sort of fringe opposition group with the outcome that the scheme would have to go to Public Enquiry and result in a lengthy delay before commencement - if indeed at all.

Newcastle could not afford to wait. With almost 20,000 paying customers not being able to gain entry to Gallowgate, the club had to reconsider and switch to further developing St James Park. The club's revised proposals to increase the much needed capacity to over 52,000 has been achieved by constructing two huge double tiers to both the Milburn and Leazes Stands at a cost of over £40m.

After a lengthy - and another controversial planning process - permissions were granted in July 1998 after the Secretary-of-State refused to call-in the application, avoiding the same fate as the Leazes Park development.

The conclusion to a century of development wrangles was finally sealed. With completion achieved in August 2000, United's new Millennium stadium is an impressive sight and a landmark for the region.

THE 21st century sees the Magpie's famous nest transformed into a towering structure housing 52,404 supporters with facilities the envy of most clubs in Europe.

In November 2011, Newcastle United announced plans to licence the full naming rights to the stadium, in order to generate additional commercial revenue from advertising and sponsorship.

And until a sponsor is found who will be granted full naming rights, the stadium would be named the Sports Direct Arena.

In October 2012, Wonga, the digital finance company was announced as Newcastle United new partner in a four-year deal which at the time was the made them the Club's leading commercial sponsor. In addition to sponsoring the team shirt from the start of the 2013/14 season and working on a range of other initiatives with fans, Wonga will invest at least £1.5m in two of the Club's most important projects.

Copyright: P. Joannou, Newcastle United Club Historian

FACTS AND FIGURES

Stadium
Address
Newcastle United Football Club
St. James' Park
Newcastle-upon-Tyne
NE1 4ST

Ground Capacity
52,338


Pitch Measurements
105 x 68 Metres

Record Home Attendance
68,386 v Chelsea, 3rd September 1930 (Division One)

Record Average Attendance
59,229 Season 1947-48 (Division Two)


Copyright: P. Joannou, Newcastle United Club Historian