AS unaccustomed as are Newcastle United to the last 16 of the FA Cup, so are the St James’ Park executive boxes uncharted territory to a common or garden column like this.

Those lofty heights – Level 5, they call it – were reached last week when United played Premier League champions Manchester City, though firstly a pint in the more familiar environs of the Strawberry.

The Magpies had again crashed out of the Cup just three days earlier, the Strawberry not sweetness and light but restless rather than rebellious.

The Chronicle talked of keeping the faith and of pulling together, the fans talked of sitting-in and standing up if you hate….

They hate Mike Ashley, the United chairman.

At level 5, box 522 almost straddling the halfway line, things are more relaxed if no more optimistic. We’re guests of Bishop Auckland engineering company boss and leading Durham County councillor Rob Yorke, a Newcastle fan since early days in Witton Park.

There, too, are familiar faces like the indomitable Lady Elsie, like Durham County lord lieutenant Sue Snowdon and Ebac group chairman and celebrated Euro-sceptic John Elliott, who goes 23 minutes without mentioning Brexit.

This is believed not only to be what athletes call a personal best but to be in line for the Guinness Book. John talks sheep, baa humbug, instead.

The food’s first class, more Marco Pierre White than prawn sandwich brigade, the operation impressive. The conversation’s again steered towards sheep and, for some reason, to pregnant goats.

A business boss says that his friend’s a sheep farmer in Swaledale and that one face of the valley’s known as the sunny side and the other the money side. Unfortunately I forget which is which.

Someone comes round with golden goal tickets – “St James’ Park, where history is made and legends are born” it says on the front – someone else with the bookies’ odds.

A home win’s on offer at 11-1, at once remarkable in a two-horse race, yet how might it be otherwise? United, relegation haunted, haven’t beaten the champions in the past 22 attempts. City haven’t so much as conceded a goal since January 3.

They’re 2-9, 9-2 the draw. It’s only 23-10 against the visitors hitting four or, coyly, more.

If Rob and his guests are to be condemned, however, they eat heartily before the drop. Three courses are served before kick-off, pudding and cheese and biscuits at half-time, sandwiches and pie and peas (honest) after the final whistle.

The antipasto come with a separate bowl of greens. “Best eat them,” says John, “you won’t get any after March 29.”

A notice in the gent’s advises that there’s a waiting list for hospitality boxes. The way things have been going, there mightn’t be for season tickets.

The game’s 24 seconds old when Aguero scores for City. It’s 25 seconds old, perhaps another pb, when the Gallowgate End stands up if – well, unconditionally, really.

The chant’s coupled with another, describing the poor chairman as a portly Londoner of questionable lineage – or words, let it be understood, to that euphemistic effect.

Rob’s trying to be cheerful. “I had a bet on City to score first,” he says, though it’s probably not true.

After 33 minutes something else happens. “Caroline Spellman’s amendment has been carried by 318 votes to 310,” reports former Durham County Council chief executive Kingsley Smith, phone in hand, and is upbraided for inattentiveness.

“Multi-tasking,” says Kingsley.

At half-time it’s still 1-0, United defending resolutely but City stunted. John Elliott asks if anyone knows what a gimmer is.

After 65 minutes something happens that’s totally unexpected, not least by Joe Coral. Rondon scores for Newcastle. A quarter of an hour later, Magpies ascendant, Ritchie converts a United penalty to secure a famous win – 2-1 having been offered at 28-1.

There’s also talk of a £20m striker. No one saw him coming, either.

Whatever the feeling on the Gallowgate End – “Stand up if you’re ambivalent about Ashley” doesn’t really scan – Rob Yorke’s ecstatic, may never have been happier since Caroline Spellman’s amendment was carried by 318 votes to 310. Someone’s opened a bottle of champagne, perhaps on ice since 1969.

It’s all a bit vertiginous up there, of course, physically and socially giddying, but if this is the high life, I could probably get used to it.

THE Newcastle programme records the death, at 84, of Alex Tait, a Northumberland lad who on December 22, 1956 became the first Magpie to score a hat-trick against Sunderland, a feat later equalled by Peter Beardsley and Kevin Nolan.

Davies, White and Casey were also on target in United’s 6-2 win.

The greatly curious thing was that the St James’ Park crowd was just 29,727, at the time the lowest of the season and rarely undermined despite a now-familiar 17th place finish.

Everyone skint for Christmas or something? United historian Paul Joannou blames the encircling gloom. “It was so foggy, many thought the game was off. They were the days before mass media and there was total confusion. I have pictures somewhere and you can hardly see the players.”

Further sign of changing times, Newcastle also played on both Christmas Day and Boxing Day – home and away to West Brom.

Back to Tyneside last Saturday, but by the time that the Railroad to Wembley got there – running, as they used to say, tender first – the big Vase match between Hebburn and West Auckland had been called off. One of the London lads had a return ticket that could only be used on the 18:30. What’s a man to do?