England's return to Newcastle's St. James' Park isn't enough - Three Lions must tour the nation
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Tony Blair was prime minster, Robots and The Ring Two were released at the cinema and the likes of Nelly, the Stereophonics and Girls Aloud were battling for number one spot in the charts.
Despite Girls Aloud recently announcing a reunion tour, it would be safe to say the world was a very different place in March 2005. Manchester City, not yet lavished with Abu Dhabi riches, were fighting what would be an unsuccessful battle for a place in the following season’s UEFA Cup (Europa League in new money) and a thrilling Chelsea side led by the inspirational Jose Mourinho (no, really!) were easing their way to the Premier League title.
At St. James' Park, Newcastle United were languishing in the bottom half of the table as the ill-fated appointment of Graeme Souness managed to suck all of the energy and enthusiasm out of a Magpies side that had been full of both qualities under his predecessor Sir Bobby Robson. That month would also represent the last time a senior England side ran out at Newcastle’s famous old home as Steven Gerrard and David Beckham scored in a 2-0 win against Azerbaijan to help the Three Lions take another step towards qualifying for the 2006 World Cup Finals.
Since that March night on Tyneside, Newcastle have seen off 12 permanent managers, been relegated twice and are still awaiting a major trophy (even though the Intertoto Cup absolutely should count!). Jose Mourinho has ‘enjoyed’ another spell at Chelsea and managed the likes of Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Manchester United. Manchester City have become perennial trophy winners after years of disappointment and England’s golden generation exited stage left with no major trophy wins to their name.
Yet now, some 19 years on, England’s latest golden generation are now returning to St. James' Park to face Bosnia & Herzegovina in one of their final warm-up games before they look to end 58 years of hurt at this summer’s European Championships. Naturally, and somewhat sadly, the Three Lions will then return to Wembley to face Iceland four days later in a move that will disappoint supporters from around the country.
We are frequently told this current crop of England heroes have given the country something to take pride in and there is more than an element of truth in that fact. In these difficult times, where social division and equality issues are commonplace, the Three Lions players have stood up for what they believe in and have never shied away from being forthright in their opinion. They represent each and every part of our country, encompassing most races and religions and a wide range of different backgrounds.
On the pitch, there has been progress as Southgate, for all of his faults, has shaken off something of a morose under Roy Hodgson and a quite frankly mystifying chapter under Sam Allardyce to put together an England side that has reached the ‘business end’ of major competitions. Sometimes, admittedly, it has been uninspiring, and yes, there have been some quite frankly atrocious results and questionable selections, but this current Three Lions side feel like our best bet to win a major tournament for many a year.
So why limit their influence and the depth of the inspiration they can provide to a one-off venture outside of the capital before returning to Wembley? The answer, given this is modern day football, is, of course, money. Building Wembley did not come cheap and there are bills to pay. Yet sadly, for many, England remain something to watch on television, rather than having the opportunity to watch the Three Lions in person.
Throughout Southgate’s reign, just ten out of a possible 43 home games have taken place away from the home of football. This feels like a missed opportunity, especially when you take into consideration just how many top class stadiums England can boast after the consistent regeneration of venues over the last two decades. There really are no excuses and a chance to inspire further generations is being wasted in front of our eyes.
If this England team does indeed represent the country with pride and, as many say, represent the very best of us, why not take them to the country and allow them to forge strong bonds with every city, town and region? There is a feeling this England side will truly flourish if they are allowed to play without restrictions and that should stretch to where they play their 'home' games. Returning to Newcastle for the first time since that March night in 2005 is a start - but so much more should be done over the coming years.