Grassroots football at the Langdale Centre is about as far from the Premier League as you can get. But as Newcastle United’s fans plan a boycott of the Magpies’ game against Wolves on Sunday, this glorified school field is hosting an alternative – FC United of Newcastle take on AFC Killingworth in the Northern Alliance.
Even in the days of Kevin Keegan’s entertainers, Alan James, an archetypal footie-mad Geordie, was looking for ways to rebuild a connection between football and fans. The all-seater era left him cold; today’s hyper-inflated transfer market and battle of the billionaires is, for him, the logical conclusion of a process that began in the 1990s. Now, inspired by the rise of FC United of Manchester, he’s out to produce a Tyneside version.
However, he’s also quick to point out that it takes effort and commitment from those same fans to force a change – and moaning on social media isn’t going to be enough.
“It’s down to us,” he said. “Fans need to be more active. It’s no good just shouting at the TV. Stand up, take action, form supporters groups and support the ones that are already there. It’s about people taking action for the game, for what they love about it.”
For James, that means going back to basics. “We’re not trying to compete with Newcastle United, we’re looking to complement them,” he said. “It’s not about trying to get rid of Mike Ashley – I’d be happy to have a pint with him. I think that’s why a lot of the supporters groups at Newcastle can’t get their heads around it.
“We want to create an alternative to the Premier League, something that can bring people back to grass roots football and let them shape their own club. The vision is to have a 5,000-capacity stadium with 80% standing and for the whole thing to be owned and run by the supporters. Fans making the decisions, raising and spending the money, even picking the team.”
Fan ownership is key to the vision. The region’s non-league success story, South Shields, might be marching up the leagues in front of four-figure crowds, but the Mariners are no inspiration for James and his colleagues.
“What [South Shields] are doing is great, but it’s another millionaire spending his money on his hobby,” he explained. “We’re not against having money and investing it in the club but we don’t want someone coming in with a pile of cash and taking over. That just gets us back to the place we’re trying to leave.”
At a midweek fixture against Whitley Bay ‘A’ early in the season, the dream of a rising fan-owned team seems distant. A feisty game – nine goals, four red cards, a dramatic Bay fightback to win it 5-4 – is watched by a couple of dozen. These seem to be friends of the players or curious onlookers from a training session on an adjacent pitch. Even the logos around the ground still talk of Wallsend Town, a former Northern Alliance club and a “great learning experience” which James once ran with current FCUN manager David Grandini. Manchester’s protest club started with a blaze of national attention, Newcastle’s, so far, is going almost unnoticed.
That’s partly down to doing everything in a rush. The opportunity to get a team into the top flight of the Northern Alliance came about suddenly last summer when Grainger Park ran into difficulties. Forming a club and getting a team out at short notice with no budget was a struggle – no league wins in that first season – but the club survived, paid its own way, and is ready to build.
A 25-year lease on the ground, the name – and all the positive connotations shared with the Mancunian original – is secured. On the field, the team has won twice in the league and goes into Saturday’s game defending a two-match winning streak after thumping Cramlington in the Bill Gardner Cup. Publicity pushes have involved leafleting the renowned People’s Theatre – once patronised by an Edwardian Magpie legend Colin Veitch, more recently a site where James cleaned windows – as well as more conventional sources. There’s even been encouragement from former Newcastle owner Sir John Hall: “I wrote to him asking for some advice about leadership and we’ve spoken on the phone a couple of times since then,” James said.
Hall famously dreamed of making Newcastle the “Barcelona of the North”. And James, too, believes his club can outstrip its famous inspiration. “I’m full of admiration for what FC United of Manchester have done,” he said. “But if you look now, it seems like they have similar crowds to when they started. I think we can do better than that, we can build something even bigger here.”