Newcastle’s Katie Barker breaks new ground to fulfil St James’ Park dream | Women’s football

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The tone of the announcement issued over the public address system was apologetic yet proud. Kick-off had been delayed by 15 minutes because of crowd congestion at the turnstiles where an unexpectedly high number of Newcastle fans were queuing to see the club’s women’s team play at St James’ Park for the first time.

By half-time, when the official attendance – an extremely impressive 22,134 – was announced, those club officials who had forecast an audience somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 had fully woken up to the often underestimated pulling power, and immense potential, of women’s football.

Given that Becky Langley’s side reside in the fourth tier of England’s female pyramid, were facing lowly Alnwick Town Ladies and have just lost their battle with Liverpool Feds for the National League Division One North’s sole promotion place, it was a remarkable turnout rewarded by a highly entertaining, decent quality game won 4-0 by Newcastle.

Goals from Katie Barker, who was buoyed by a pre-match good luck message from Alan Shearer, the retiring captain Brooke Cochrane, Georgia Gibson and Bethany Guy were fully celebrated by the biggest women’s domestic crowd in England this season.

“I’ve dreamed of playing here since I was a child,” said Barker. “It was amazing – and a few tears were shed when I scored.” Cochrane had similar emotions. “Overwhelming, unbelievable, phenomenal,” she said. “From now on this team is going to fly. This is just the start.”

Well before kick-off the Gallowgate End was already almost as packed as on a Premier League men’s matchday and much of the stadium a sea of black and white flags. Granted tickets were priced at a modest £3 but the crowd’s passion spoke volumes.

Newcastle Women line up for a minute’s applause.
Newcastle Women line up for a minute’s applause. Photograph: Serena Taylor/Newcastle United/Getty Images

As things finally got under way a giant “Howay The Lasses” banner was unfurled in the Gallowgate and the watching Amanda Staveley would not have been human had she not felt a certain sense of vindication.

Newcastle’s co-owner may be a minority shareholder in the Saudi Arabian-controlled club but she and her husband, Mehrdad Ghodoussi, are responsible for day‑to‑day football operations on Tyneside. So far at least they appear to be doing an excellent job.

Part of Staveley’s brief has involved ensuring all Newcastle’s staff are paid at least the living wage and offering them access to a decent pension scheme but supporting Langley’s women is another centrepiece of the many welcome changes made since Mike Ashley finally sold the club last October.

Next season the women’s squad will start turning fully professional and begin benefiting from some hefty investment. The ambitious plan is to reach the top tier Women’s Super League and qualify for the Champions League within five years.

Brooke Cochrane (left) celebrates her goal against Alnwick Town.
Brooke Cochrane (left) celebrates her goal against Alnwick Town. Photograph: MI News/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

Given that Saudi Arabia is not exactly known for promoting women’s rights that might seem paradoxical but football, like life, is full of paradoxes. Maybe, just maybe, the sight of a female football team bankrolled by the Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund might help to augment the efforts of those Saudi modernisers striving to enhance women’s freedoms in their part of the Gulf.

“I’m so proud of my players as fantastic female role models,” said Langley. “I hope the sight of them playing in front of 22,000 will inspire girls and women everywhere.”

Tellingly as the victim of plenty of sexism and, sometimes, downright misogyny, in the City of London during the course of her job as a financier, Staveley understands the wider social importance of promoting women’s sport.

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Langley, who has been invited to discuss tactics over coffee with the Newcastle men’s manager, Eddie Howe, who sat alongside Staveley on Sunday, is suitably grateful. She said: “We really appreciate the emotional support and of course the investment in the women’s team by the new owners. It’s a special moment in our history and it’s been such a fantastic experience but, even though we had very limited resources before the takeover, I’m still so bitterly disappointed that we’ve just missed out on promotion.”

What a shame St James’ Park, so conveniently situated in Newcastle city centre, was not chosen as a venue for the Women’s European Championship this summer when few would have bet against it being filled to its 52,000 capacity.

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