"Death by a thousand cuts": the atmosphere issue at St James's Park

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Many English grounds have an atmosphere problem, and St James’s Park is no exception. We spoke to Ed Renwick, from fledgling atmosphere group Wor Hyem 1892 to learn more about what’s going on…

“For me it was the move into all-seated stadiums,” says Ed when we asked him what he thought the cause of declining atmospheres across English football was. “The fact that you have to sit down has a huge impact on English football.

“If you look at clubs down the leagues that still have standing you’ll find better atmospheres.”

It’s a common complaint and tension amongst supporters - between those who want to stand, and those who wish to sit.

Ed adds that all-seated venues aren’t the sole cause of the decline at St James’s Park. Like elsewhere an aging fanbase, ticket prices and football tourism have all contributed to the change.

“It’s death by a thousand cuts,” Ed said. “This isn’t just a Newcastle United problem – this is an Arsenal problem, a Tottenham problem, a Manchester United problem. Everybody is facing this.”

Like countless other supporters across the country, Ed believes the introduction of safe standing in English football would go some way to addressing the atmosphere question – but that’s a longer-term answer, what about the here and now?

“We did have an official singing section and we hope to get that back. It did make a difference on matchdays.

“Fans can have a huge effect on what happens on the pitch. Teams used to hate coming here, now that's not the case.”

Wor Hyem Logo banner

Wor Hyem was established at the back end of 2016 after Ed and his friends were discussing atmosphere over and over again after every home game – is it up to the fans to generate atmosphere? Is on-pitch action the key to unlocking it? 

“The four of us kept finding ourselves having the same conversations,” he said.

“Moaning about the atmosphere, moaning about the booers, then moaning about the moaners moaning about us moaning.

“I find myself apologising to my 12-year-old son saying, ‘I’m sorry it didn’t use to be like this’. We had some cracking atmospheres in the eighties and nineties, we need to recapture some of that.

“I want my son’s generation to experience a proper atmosphere, to know that going to football is being an active part of something, not a place to go for a coffee.”

Since forming, Wor Hyem have had more than 1,800 Newcastle United fans sign-up and contribute their thoughts on the atmosphere question. They’ve also begun to have meetings with the club to see what can be done.

Progress so far has been steady, but noteworthy – Newcastle United recently helped fans record a supporters’ version of the Blaydon Races, Wor Hyem amongst them. Ed hopes the relationship with the club continues to be productive.

Does Europe have the answer?

For inspiration, Wor Hyem have been looking closely at what European fan groups are doing and at Celtic to see what’s possible.

“We want to bring like-minded people together, to give people the confidence to shout and sing - there’s definitely demand for that,” Ed says.

“We’re keen on bringing that positive contribution that the Ultras movement in Europe has, the likes of Dortmund and Sparta Prague. They’re community-based and an intrinsic part of their clubs.

“And what the Celtic fans have achieved is fantastic, they have a cracking atmosphere at that ground.

“That’s the kind of thing we want to see at St James’s Park.”

With a capo and drummers leading choregraphed chanting in European grounds and Celtic Park, Ed acknowledges that many traditional match-going fans in England can be suspicious of the idea.

“We know in England there’s a stigma attached to Ultras,” he said. “It will take a lot of re-educating and that’s the long game.

“We’re demonstrating to supporters, clubs and authorities that the Ultras movement isn’t about disorder and violence – it’s about fans doing more than just turning up and sitting down for 90 minutes.”

Wor Hyem are the latest of a new wave of atmosphere groups to spring up around the country. Union FS at Leicester City and the 1881 Movement at Vicarage Road have become well-established in recent years, whilst North Stand Loyal have made a great racket at Huddersfield Town this season.

Rafa Benitez display Gallowgate flags photo action images

Another is Gallowgate Flags who’ve added colour and life to St James’s Park – crowdfunding impressive displays before a number of Championship fixtures.

“We’re right behind Gallowgate Flags, they’ve achieved a lot this season,” Ed says. “They’ve broken down a lot of those health and safety barriers with the club, which will help us in the long run.”

But there’s a catch, Ed says: “We need something on top of the displays to continue to generate the noise and sustain an atmosphere.

“They reel the flags out and it makes a difference for ten minutes, then they reel them back in. After that the ground goes quiet again.”

Pressure from fans

Ed believes the solution to the atmosphere problem is a bottom-up one, if supporters are happy with the status-quo little will change.

“The grounds are full and clubs are going to keep generating revenue. So why would they change?” he says.

“You can go on about the support, the 50,000 to 52,000 crowds, but it means nothing if we’re being out shouted by 800 away fans. It’s unacceptable.

“It’s up to fans to keep the pressure up, keep demanding these things from their clubs and eventually we’ll get the change we need.”

Thanks to Action Images for the pictures used in this blog.