Away day heyday: On the road with early NUFC fans

Away days adventures are among the many joys of being a football fan, and have been since the Victorian era. But how did fans travel to or follow away matches in the days before cars and buses, or TV and radio? This article looks at Newcastle’s earliest away days, tied to the release of my new book All With Smiling Faces.

For many of us, an old-fashioned away trip meant a sweaty Armstrong Galley coach journey to somewhere as exotic as Burnden Park. But football fans have been travelling to away matches for the best part of 150 years, by steam train or horse-drawn carriage – and even by boat, while those who didn’t travel waited at home for the results to arrive by telegraph wire or carrier pigeon.

Newcastle United fans have been travelling away since the 1880s, when the club was still known as East End. A root around the archives while researching my book about Newcastle’s early history revealed that newspapers advertised football special trains, and fans subscribed to ‘brake clubs’ to travel by brake carriages. In those days the furthest journey they had to make was to Darlington, but even that was a decent outing at a time when most folk never ventured outside of their home town.

In the 1890s, after Newcastle entered the Football League, they began to make longer away journeys, to the North West, to the Midlands, and to London. ‘When the town to be visited is very remote, the journey has, of course, to be begun very early,’ wrote a reporter at the time. ‘The stupendous jaunt may be made for a very few shillings, and if the window is not clouded with human breath all the way, the mere spectacle of so much of England’s surface ought to be worth twice the money.’

One notable early away trip was to the first league derby between Newcastle and Sunderland at the then-new Roker Park ground on Christmas Eve 1898. ‘Long before noon there was a lengthy queue at the special box provided outside Central Station by the North-Eastern Railway Company for the issue of tickets to Sunderland,’ reported the Journal, ‘and until half-past one o’clock there was a constant stream of people clamouring for speedy conveyance to the Wearside borough.’

Newcastle United fans travel to the FA Cup Final, 1906

Newcastle United fans travel by horse-drawn brake to the FA Cup Final, 1906, and (top) Father and son Newcastle United fans dress up for the FA Cup Final, 1910

The Newcastle fans who made it to Roker impressed Sunderland Echo football columnist Ixion. ‘The loud applause which greeted the “magpies” clearly indicated the immense strength of their followers in all parts of the ground,’ he wrote. And the travelling fans would have thoroughly enjoyed their day – the ‘magnificent’ Jock Peddie scored two goals in a 3-2 win for Newcastle.

For those Victorian-era fans who didn’t travel to away games, there was no radio, television or internet, no match commentaries, no Sky Sports or Twitter feeds. Telegraph wires and carrier pigeons distributed scores around the country, and fans would gather outside newspaper offices to see updates posted in windows.

For Newcastle’s first FA Cup Final in 1905, at least 25,000 fans travelled by train, horse-drawn carriage, and even by steam boat. Newspapers printed photos showing them arriving in London on brakes and steamers. There were no replica strips or scarves or flags, but it was reported that Newcastle fans wore ‘black and white ties and hat bands, or rosettes of the favourite magpie colours’.

They disembarked, wide-eyed and excited, and set about exploring the capital’s sights. But they weren’t universally welcomed. ‘The average Londoner does not pretend to understand the football excursionist from the North,’ wrote the Daily Mirror. ‘On cup-tie day he is confirmed in his opinion that industrial England is a very strange place, containing an almost alien people.’

Londoners soon got used to the sight of travelling Newcastle fans, with the club reaching five finals by 1911. The only one they won was via a replay at Goodison Park in April 1910. On that day, 50 special trains ferried supporters from Newcastle to Liverpool. Albert Shepherd got the goals in a 2-0 win that saw the old FA Cup brought home to Tyneside, after one of the greatest away days the club has ever known.

My new book, All With Smiling Faces: How Newcastle Became United, is out now.

This article originally appeared in issue 1 of The Popular Side.

 

Paul Brown

Hello. I am a writer called Paul Brown. This is my website. It's basically a portfolio of recent work, plus an outlet to post quick pieces and plug my books. I write about football history, extraordinary true stories, and all kinds of other stuff. For more info please see my about page or contact me.