The amended plans that could end Newcastle United's hopes of St James's Park expansion
The demand for tickets at Newcastle United has further stressed the need for a stadium expansion at St James’s Park.
Over 30,000 Newcastle fans virtually queued for 1,000 season tickets for the upcoming 2022-23 season on the club website earlier this month. The club has also seen unprecedented demand for pre-season friendly matches at St James’s Park against Atalanta and Athletic Bilbao.
The Bilbao game on July 30 has seen the level seven section of St James’s Park open for the first time in a pre-season friendly since the club hosted Barcelona in the summer of 2002. Back then, Newcastle were preparing to compete in the Champions League, now the club are toying with those ambitions once again.
Since the club’s £300million takeover last October, every home match has been virtually sold out. That includes an FA Cup third round tie against League One Cambridge United, though the less said about that game the better.
The demand is such that Newcastle could conceivably fill a 75,000 seater stadium without an issue. But as it stands St James’s Park only holds just over 52,000.
Calls to expand the stadium are merited as they are necessary – but doing so won’t be simple.
Newcastle United are staying put at St James’s Park
Building a new stadium entirely is, according to Newcastle co-owner Mehrdad Ghodoussi, a non-starter. So expanding the current stadium is the only way forward for the club.
Ghodoussi addressed the issue early this year as he told The Athletic: “Are we going to build a new stadium? No. It would be like tearing your soul out.
"We’ll definitely look at expanding [St James’s Park]. We're working with the council to see what we can do. There are a lot of things that need to happen first, but that’s the way forward.
"If we can get it to 60 or 65,000 thousand, and we’ll look at every possibility.”
The late 90s saw St James’s expanded from a 36,000-seater stadium to one of the biggest in England at the time. But what was previously the second largest stadium in the Premier League behind Manchester United’s Old Trafford is now only the seventh largest following new stadiums for Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Manchester City, West Ham United and an Anfield expansion for Liverpool all within the past 20 years.
There is limited potential in terms of expanding St James’s Park without causing considerable upheaval. The listed buildings on Leazes Terrace and St James’ Terrace prevent any outward expansion to the East Stand, which has led to the lopsided aesthetic of the ground.
A vertical expansion of the East Stand, while theoretically possible, poses significant logistical and legislative challenges.
Further expanding the Leazes and Milburn Stands is also difficult to envisage given the existing size of the stands and proximity to the Leazes conservation area.
In 1997, Newcastle submitted plans to build a new stadium within the Leazes Park area but they were blocked following fierce local opposition.
Suggestions have been made to negotiate a move of St James’s Park further into the Leazes conservation area as it would allow for further expansion. The significant issue with that is that it would require Newcastle to play at another stadium while the work is being carried out.
While Spurs could play at Wembley Stadium as White Hart Lane was demolished and the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium was built on the site, Newcastle don’t have that luxury.
Expanding the iconic Gallowgate Stand has been considered as the most viable option for Newcastle for years given the ample space to the south of the stadium.
But the decision of former owner Mike Ashley to sell the plot of land previously owned by the club has proven costly.
The Strawberry Place issue
The ‘Stawberry Place’ land sold by Ashley will undoubtedly hinder any hope of a significant Gallowgate expansion. Plans for a £120million mixed use development on the land were controversially approved by city planners in 2019.
The development plans include residential accommodation, a 128,000 square-foot grade A office, a 200 bed hotel and improving the public space around the St James’ Metro station and Sir Bobby Robson memorial garden.
Three years after the plans were approved, work is still yet to begin on the site – with that hope remains that the club’s owners could buy the land back.
But the developers have recently doubled down with amended proposals submitted only last month. The amendments are yet to be approved but they suggest that there is no intention from the land-owners to appease the club and that work will eventually commence on the land.
What is the solution?
The most practical solution to satisfy the demand for tickets would be to build a new, larger stadium on a different site.
But as Ghodoussi is well aware, the sentimentality and history connected to St James’s Park – not to mention its iconic ‘Cathedral on the hill’ location in the heart of the city – would make it incredibly difficult to relocate.
Since the takeover, the owners have made several well-received improvements to St James’s Park on a cosmetic level. The Sports Direct logos are gone, Shearer’s Bar has returned, his statue has moved, a new warm-up room has been added and the concourse areas have been given a new lease of life.
Still, the most pressing issue remains the stadium’s capacity. The mere hope and possibility of success is enough to attract a level of ticket demand not seen by the club before – this will only increase if success actually transpires.
While the Gallowgate Stand won’t be able to be significantly expanded outwardly due to the development plans on Strawberry Place, a vertical expansion that would add an overhanging second tier is still theoretically possible.
The future of St James's Park in terms of an expansion is far from clear. But what is clear is that the owners will explore every possible avenue in an attempt to do it.