The biggest domestic league attendance in the English women’s game last season gathered for a fourth-tier fixture.
Given that Newcastle had just missed out on promotion there was little at stake against struggling Alnwick Town but 22,134 fans watched Becky Langley’s side canter to a 4-0 Mayday win at St James’ Park.
As the Gallowgate End became a sea of black and white flags, a giant “Howay The Lasses” banner was unfurled and the place pulsated, you wondered why a fabulously atmospheric 52,000-capacity arena situated, ideally, in Newcastle city centre had not been chosen as a Euro 2022 venue.
There are myriad reasons why many non-Newcastle supporters cite St James’ Park as their favourite Premier League ground but, on a practical level, its close proximity to restaurants, hotels, shops, parking, taxis, a mainline train station, an underground Metro system, an international airport and the A1 (M) help visitors maximise enjoyment while minimising stress. Such factors explain why it hosted 2012 Olympic football and, this October, will stage the Rugby League World Cup’s opening match.
The infrastructure surrounding Sunderland’s 49,000-seat Stadium of Light is not too shabby either. With an adjacent Metro station and excellent road links it is no coincidence it has become a leading summer concert venue.
Elton John has just played at an arena extremely familiar to England’s Lucy Bronze, Jill Scott, Beth Mead and Demi Stokes as well as Northern Ireland’s Rachel Furness. That quintet are all north-east-born products of a once-groundbreaking Sunderland Ladies team. As Furness puts it, the organisers seem to “have missed a trick” in omitting the region from Euro 2022’s map.
It is a similar shame no games are being played in the Midlands or the south-west either but, with the tournament’s most northerly outposts stretched across a trans-Pennine line embracing Rotherham, Sheffield and Greater Manchester, Tyneside-based women’s football aficionados face 275-mile round road trips to South Yorkshire or 300 miles to Manchester and back in order to catch live matches.
Do not forget that, geographically, Manchester and Sheffield are barely long goal-kicks away from the Midlands and an awful lot of “the true north” of England lies beyond those “gateway” cities.
Moreover, with the majority of Euro 2022 fixtures kicking off at a child-unfriendly 8pm BST, public transport options are extremely limited, so long drives home are the only realistic option for north-east based fans. So why weren’t Newcastle, Sunderland and, maybe, Middlesbrough’s well-appointed 35,000-capacity Riverside Stadium called up for international duty?
After all, St James’ Park would surely be full and bouncing for England – or even non-England – games. The trouble is that, in 2018, when venues were selected, Newcastle and Sunderland’s homes were deemed too big. As the unexpectedly catalytic 2019 World Cup in France created a whole new cohort of female football aficionados, football executives were caught cold.
Importantly – and this partially absolves Euro 2022’s organisers (the FA and UK Sport) from blame – in 2018 cities were invited to apply for selection with clubs following suit once their local authorities exhibited a willingness to be tournament hosts. Ultimately only the currently deployed grounds – Wembley, Brentford, Brighton, Southampton, Milton Keynes, Leigh Sports Village, Manchester City Academy Stadium, Old Trafford, Rotherham and Bramall Lane – actually applied to stage games, so choice was limited.
Nonetheless, the inclusion of the 5,000-capacity Academy Stadium – where Italy will play – seems downright unambitious. And to think the French complained their smallest 2019 World Cup outpost – Grenoble’s 18,000-capacity Stade Des Alpes – was too cramped.
High-profile football matches – night games especially – involve sizeable logistical demands. Among many other things, police officers need to be drafted in, anti-terrorism experts consulted (the extremist threat has not disappeared), roads closed and stewards engaged.
“These tournaments place a lot of work on local authorities and grounds meeting Uefa’s criteria aren’t always available in July,” says Bev Ward, Euro 2022’s senior host city manager before stressing the existing venues are “terrific”. Yet one game apiece at Wembley and Old Trafford apart (both sold out), Euro 2022 features several grounds that cannot possibly accommodate every reporter requesting accreditation.
Several are shut out of England’s group games while French journalists complain about Rotherham’s limited media numbers. With increased exposure essential to piquing and sustaining interest in women’s football, this matters. What a shame a few arms were not twisted in the north-east. where Newcastle and Sunderland could have accommodated supporters and reporters galore.