When Newcastle United’s relegation was confirmed the vast majority of rival fans were understandably pretty happy with that result, with the Magpies seemingly the team most wanted to go down. I say understandably because they’re a big club, the biggest of those involved in this season’s Premier League relegation fight by some distance.
Most want to see them struggle, some probably want them stuck in the Championship for a few years, and in normal circumstances I probably wouldn’t mind that too much myself – because who doesn’t like to see a big club struggle from time to time?
But these are not normal circumstances. Usually when it becomes clear a club is being run by dubious owners football fans unite in solidarity, there is sympathy from even the bitterest of rivals. Newcastle are not getting this. The current or previous regimes at the likes of Blackpool, Bolton, Blackburn, Charlton, Aston Villa and more have all been roundly criticised by the football community but for Newcastle, it is only those associated with the club in some way who are calling for change.
Newcastle’s owner, Sports Direct businessman Mike Ashley, is a private guy, or alternatively smart enough to know to keep his mouth shut depending on your viewpoint. Away from football, the billionaire has refused to appear before a committee of MPs investigating pay and working conditions at his retail empire. At various stages different media outlets have been banned from press conferences at St James’ Park. Why the lack of transparency? What’s he got to hide? Whatever is going on, this is not the kind of behaviour you want from the guy in charge. Fundamentally, you want someone at the helm who cares more about success than making a profit, and has at the very least a facade of being trustworthy. Clearly, that is not always possible – it is an ideal rather than the norm – but Newcastle are getting a raw deal compared to most.
Poor managerial choices, equally poor signings and what appears to be a policy that ‘cup competitions are not a priority’ can kill the confidence of even the most ardent of supporters. Many football fans may feel like their club has certain priorities but you don’t want explicit confirmation that the FA Cup, for example, has been deemed as basically an annoyance by the powers that be. Even if that is true you’d hope the owners, or those they employ, would at least have the decency and – arguably more importantly – the good sense to lie about it. Reports later emerged to the contrary, that in fact cups were now a target, but by then the damage had already been done.
There are mitigating factors at play as to why the wider world of football doesn’t seem too worried about the situation at St James’ Park. For one, unlike at places such as Bolton and Villa, Ashley appears to have been putting money into the squad, he also sanctioned the arrival of Rafael Benitez as manager so on the surface it seems as if he isn’t running the club into ruin and maybe he isn’t – but then again maybe he is.
The club owe him £129m “in the form of interest-free loans from Mike Ashley and companies under his control”, and despite the fact profits are being recorded results are not improving, nor is their debt to him reducing. What happens if he decides to stop putting money into the club and begins a search for a new owner (which could already be in progress)? According to local rag the Chronicle, it would take £260million to buy him out, and no one is going to pay that for a Championship team.
The attitude of the supporters is also cited as a reason to mock the Toon, but in reality you have every reason to expect results if you’re getting around 50,000 going to games, historical struggles to secure silverware aside. Despite Newcastle being largely woeful over the course of the campaign; only Manchester United, Arsenal and Manchester City averaged higher attendances this season. Even if Newcastle fans were only demanding top 10 Premier League finishes that’s not outrageous, a relegation battle shouldn’t even be on the radar. In any case the Newcastle fans aren’t a bad lot, if you ignore the occasional horse puncher, just a few weeks ago the supporters belted out a rousing rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ in tribute to the Hillsborough victims in support of their Liverpool counterparts, maybe it is time the rest of the footballing community showed them the same kind of solidarity – because their club is not in a good place.
The Newcastle United fans are a proud bunch and they’re probably as unwilling to accept any sympathy as others are to dish it out. The situation is bigger than that though, because what happens to one club could conceivably happen anywhere. Newcastle’s situation is not clear cut, you could make the argument that the club’s hierarchy are trying their best but just happen to be pretty terrible at whatever it is they’re trying to do. The pessimist/realist in me however, sees a storm brewing. Football and business are now so intertwined there will never be any unravelling of the two but clubs are intrinsically linked to communities and as such should not be regarded as wholly capitalist ventures, especially if that is how they are viewed by those who own them.
Mike Ashley “wedded to Newcastle” via Chronicle Live
Mike Ashley snubs calls to face MPs via The Guardian
‘Preferred Media Partner Strategy’ via The Telegraph
Gary Neville and the Northern decline, via Gonzo Sports Desk.