It will go down as the day Canadians took over St. James’ Park. A familiar place to anybody who watches English Premier League matches, this wonderful venue welcomed Canada’s Olympic women’s soccer team with open arms for the past couple of days and, whether it was the integrity of its play in a 2-2 draw with Sweden or glaringly obvious hand-balls missed by the Korean referee Eun Ah Hong, the locals didn’t take long to side with their North American visitors.
“Seeing the team down 2-0 is not too dissimilar to watching Newcastle United some days,” Canadian coach John Herdman said, smiling. This is his hometown. “His patch,” as he called it. “And then seeing the Geordie spirit, with our comeback … it was one of those days on the touch-line, where you’ve seen coaches like [Kevin] Keegan, [Alan] Pardew – top coaches – operating and … it was just an honour to be anywhere near that football field,” he said.
Herdman name-dropped Geordie greats in his news conference. Melissa Tancredi, who had two goals and told a pre-game interview piped in over the stadium scoreboard that she had posters of Alan Shearer (Newscastle’s all-time leading scorer) up on her walls as a child – “Could have worn the No. 9,” he said, referring to Shearer’s number. Diana Matheson, who has been along with Tancredi Canada’s most consistent player in the tournament so far, reminded him of Chris Waddle.
It’s quite a stadium, engulfing fans in a Yankee Stadium-esque way on one side and yet quaint because of a smallish stand opposite, it’s roof covering much of the seating area and corners enclosed. This is a proper football stadium for proper fans – big sections in the ends, and stewards wearing black-and-white-striped Newcastle ties. It was noisy enough with 12,719 in attendance on Tuesday. Can’t imagine what it would be liked filled with 52,409 for a match. The sound must just roll down. Walking into the stadium through a crowd composed of a generous portion of younger fans, it was somehow comforting to hear and see young kids getting their pictures taken around the statue of Sir Bobby Robson. “Sir Bobby Robson,” they’d whisper to each other, pointing.
“For me, this game was personal,” said Herdman, who watched the first part of the game from a perch in the stands. “It’s in your hometown – your own patch – in front of your family. I know the girls felt that way in Vancouver [during Olympic qualifying], but I wanted to make sure we got something out of this game.”