Albanians to venture where even the witches fear to tread

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The Independent Football

England's post-Wembley tour reaches the northern outpost of St James' Park on Wednesday night, when Albania visit the Toon Army fortress for the group nine World Cup qualifier. It is not the first time England have striven to carry goals to Newcastle. The last occasion, funnily enough, was preceded by a little Anglo-German hype.

"We are ready for peace but we are fully resolved to defend ourselves," Adolf Hitler was quoted as saying in the Newcastle Journal on Wednesday 9 November, 1938 – the day Norway were in Toon to play England at St James'. Tyneside's morning newspaper also carried an advert urging spectators to enjoy a four-course lunch at the Terrace Tea Room at Fenwick department store "for two shillings in gay surroundings, listening to Guy Bland and the Terrace Tea Room Band playing 'Music, Maestro, Please' and other hits of the moment."

The Norwegian party had arrived the previous morning on the Norway-Tyne motor mail boat Vega. They had trained at North Shields Youth Centre before "retiring" to the Rex Hotel in Whitley Bay. "It is difficult to get a line on the Norwegians in the competitive sense," the Newcastle Journal reported, "but if they are capable of becoming the first Continental side to win in England then there is a very big surprise in store for most of us."

The very big surprise for the 39,887 spectators was that the England side, captained by the Arsenal full-back Eddie Hapgood, showed the unknown Scandinavian quantities 58 minutes of mercy after wrapping up a 4-0 victory – with goals by Reg Smith (two), Ronnie Dix and Tommy Lawton – in the opening 32 minutes. "No one who saw the game could say the visitors were good enough to hold England to four goals," the local paper reported the next day. "Much of the play was of the exhibition type." Chief culprit among the exhibitionists was deemed to be Stanley Matthews: "a two-footed artist, if inclined to be selfish," the Newcastle Journal's man at the match observed.

The match report also noted "the numbering of the players for the first time in a match at Newcastle". It was not, however, the first time anyone's had been up at St James' Park. Until the middle of the 19th century the patch of land on the edge of Newcastle's Town Moor was used as a site for public executions – hence the Gallowgate district in which the stadium stands and its Gallowgate End.

On one day alone in 1650 some 22 people were led to the gallows there, 15 of them for being witches. The last execution – of wife-murderer Mark Sherwood – took place in 1844.

The great allure of St James' Park is the sense of place it has – not just in the geographical sense, up the hill from Newcastle's vibrant city centre, but in the historical scheme of things on Tyneside. It became a football ground when Newcastle Rangers leased the land in 1880 and the record books show the curious fact that Sunderland actually played a match there before Newcastle United, who did not come into being until 1892. It was utilised as a rifle range during the First World War and as a base for the Home Guard in the Second World War. It has also been used by the first touring Australian rugby union team (in 1908), by the Harlem Globetrotters (in 1958) and by Bob Dylan (in 1984).

The ground staged three group matches in Euro '96 – France v Romania, Bulgaria v Romania and France v Bulgaria – and has hosted four full England internationals. The first was in 1901, when the Derby legend Steve Bloomer scored four goals in a 6-0 win against Wales. Bloomer also struck the equaliser in a 1-1 draw against Scotland in 1907, while Wales won a Home International fixture 2-1 in 1933.

On Wednesday it is the turn of the Albanians to join the list of visitors to St James' Park. In doing so, they will be treading in the footsteps of their adopted national hero. Norman Wisdom has been a lifelong United fan.