As we celebrate 30 years of Kingston Park Stadium, Kingsley Hyland charts the birth of the venue that Newcastle Falcons are proud to call home.
THE OPENING OF KINGSTON PARK
Monday August 31 marks the 30th anniversary of the day on which the public were first admitted to what has become known as Kingston Park Stadium.
Newcastle Gosforth, as they then were known, were still a wholly amateur club – the game had to wait another five years before ‘going open’ – running six adult sides, an under-19 Colts team and a thriving mini-junior section.
Following the sale of their former ground, ironically still referred to as the New Ground, just north of the Shell Filling Station on the Great North Road, the club had endured a miserable season in exile playing home matches at Percy Park, Northern and, in one case, Gateshead Stadium. The team finished rock bottom of Division Two, and were saved from relegation only by virtue of a league restructure.
The bankruptcy of the developer mid-project meant that the club had a race against time for the ground to be ready for the start of the 1990-91 season, but when the move was eventually completed it gave the club real momentum.
Mike Mahoney became the country’s second salaried full-time director of rugby, and full-time commercial and facilities managers were also appointed in an attempt to make the spanking new clubhouse a source of profit to support the ever-increasing cost of playing top-level amateur rugby.
One initiative was to take advantage of slightly relaxed licencing laws to attract social members from the locality, with the offer of a £1 social membership. It was hoped that this would attract as many as 500 local drinkers to use the clubhouse on non-match days. In the event, the membership secretary was swamped with over 3,000 applications in the first month!
The fixture list was kind, giving the team an away match on the opening day of the season – for the record, a 35-22 victory at Roundhay on September 1.
The formal opening of the new stadium and clubhouse was a three-day affair over the weekend of September 7/8/9.
The opening ceremony was conducted by the RFU President, Commander Mike Pearey RN, fortuitously a former Gosforth player whose influence ensured that England began the season’s pre-World Cup preparations with a three-day training camp at Kingston Park, culminating in a match on the Sunday between Newcastle Gosforth and an RFU President’s XV – petty regulations meant that they couldn’t call themselves ‘England’.
For the non-players, the weekend of celebration had kicked off with a black-tie dinner in the clubhouse on the Friday night and a barbecue on the Saturday, the catering for both events being undertaken one of the club’s veteran players who happened to be the catering manager of the famous Mayfair Ballroom in town.
As for the match itself, no doubt England saw it as a useful training exercise which they assumed would be something of a cakewalk against a team that had struggled so badly the previous season.
They were in for a rude awakening as courageous defending kept the internationals at bay for lengthy periods of time. The Newcastle players saw the game as an opportunity to impress both the new director of rugby and the national selectors. Lock Kevin Westgarth gave Paul Ackford a particularly torrid time, which was enough to win him selection for the North in the RFU Divisional Championship.
An estimated crowd of 3,000 crammed into a stadium which at that time consisted of what is now the East Stand, and a few rows of open terracing.
Ironically, it was Ackford who opened the scoring, taking advantage of a quickly-taken penalty by scrum-half Richard Hill. England had to wait until the 22nd minute for their second try when they ran two penalties and Chris Oti went over in the corner, with Rob Andrew converting.
Newcastle opened their account on 25 minutes when Graeme Spearman kicked a penalty after Dean Richards had been dumped on his backside by home centre (and new commercial manager) Paul Holdstock, and failed to release the ball. This stung England back into action and, after a Will Carling break had been ended by a last-ditch Steve Douglas tackle, Alan Buzza picked up the loose ball to score.
Just before half-time, having recovered his equilibrium, Richards powered over for a try with a forward drive, Andrew converting for a half-time score of 3-24.
Newcastle enjoyed much the better of the third quarter. After sustained pressure on the England line, former Lions lock Steve Bainbridge, playing No.8, narrowly failed to score from a pick and go, but the ball was moved wide to Ross Wilkinson, who was held up over the line. The home side were rewarded for their efforts with a second Spearman penalty.
England’s superior fitness told in the final quarter, and they were rewarded with late tries from Rory Underwood and a second from Oti. For Rob Andrew, this was his first experience of the capricious Kingston Park wind, exacerbated in those days by the wide, open spaces to the north, south and west. He managed just two out of seven conversion attempts as the internationals ran out 32-6 winners.
The teams that day were as follows:
Newcastle Gosforth: J.Whisker; G.Spearman; P.Holdstock; C.Leslie (rep.R.Wilkinson, 40); M.Winham; P.Clark; S.Douglas; I.Davies (rep.I.Shanks, 44); N.Frankland; M.Fraser; K.Westgarth; T.Roberts (capt.); B.Chick; J.Baldwin; S.Bainbridge.
RFU President’s XV: A.Buzza; R.Underwood; W.Carling (capt.); J.Buckton; C.Oti; R.Andrew; R.Hill; J.Leonard; J.Olver; J.Probyn; S.Shortland; P.Ackford; M.Teague; P.Winterbottom; D.Richards.
Referee: D.Leslie (SRU)
Newcastle Gosforth went on a enjoy a relatively successful season, finishing mid-table and laying the foundations for the promotion to the top flight that was to follow two years later. As for the commercial side of the venture, that too enjoyed initial success. The East Stand clubhouse was widely regarded as the best in English club rugby, whilst after initial teething troubles with drainage channels, the playing surface also came to be recognised as the country’s best.