With John Carver staying on at Newcastle United until the end of the season, Dan Ashmore paints a black and white picture of a grey past and a potentially darker future under the ruling of the iron fist of Mike Ashley
The year that Newcastle United last won a major trophy, a physicist called Albert Einstein passed away, Frank Sinatra was in the charts and the first Guinness Book of World Records was published. America’s minimum wage was raised to the all time high of $1/hour, and a woman by the name of Rosa Parks refused to give up a seat on a bus in Central Alabama.
Since then, the world as a whole has changed, matured and grown. We put a man on the moon. The Berlin Wall fell. The Internet was invented. But one thing hasn’t changed: nothing has been added to Newcastle United’s trophy cabinet.
This year marks the 60th anniversary since their last triumph: the 1955 FA Cup. All the chanting, fervourous support, the pulses racing and the hearts beating – for, ultimately, nothing. Newcastle currently sit in 11th place, 11 points above relegation and 13 points off the Champions league places; they are the poster-boys for mid-table obscurity. Again, they seem condemned to finish in the doldrums – above the horror of relegation but below the promised land of European football. They have been knocked out of both cups. The board hasn’t even bothered to appoint a permanent manager, instead opting to extend former assistant coach John Carver’s interim contract until the summer. Effectively, their season is over. Again, no trophy will be won. Sixty years will become sixty-one.
There are many Premier League clubs who haven’t won trophies in a long time. But Newcastle is different. A relatively isolated club in the North-East, Newcastle is a one-club city, a city that eats, drinks and breathes football. St James’ Park is located right in the middle of the city centre, where most other cities would display a pretty fountain or a towering statue. However, with absolutely nothing to cheer for over the years, the club has steadily been getting average attendances of over 50,000, among the top ten clubs in Europe. Clubs ahead of them include Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona – all global behemoths and financial superpowers, with bulging trophy cabinets to match. Indeed, while thousands of fans watch those clubs challenge for Champions League medals and domestic honours, winning week in week out at their stadiums, Newcastle have been languishing in mid table. Even worse, they got relegated in 2008-09. And still, their fans turn out in their thousands and the support is as demanding and vocal as ever. That one year in the Championship they set a world record for the highest average attendance of any relegated club in history.
The Toon Army
Simply put, there is no other club with such little success and so much support. “The Toon Army”, as Newcastle fans are known, have been tortured and teased, maligned and punished for decades with no reward. There is even an argument by some that this is part of the problem. When Newcastle are playing well, the fans get behind them and St James’ Park can be a notoriously difficult place to play. However, on a bad day the support can be nefarious, like a deadly virus spreading throughout the team. The hissing, the palpable tension and noticeable anxiety can manifest itself in the players and result in a nervous, tentative showing from the team.
Are the fans too demanding? Are they delirious and completely out of touch with reality? Do they need to accept the fact that Newcastle is simply not a big club and to lower their expectations? Criticism comes from all quarters – even Joey Barton lambasted the fans when he played for Newcastle themselves seven years ago – “I’ve not yet seen the famous crowd I was expecting to hear get behind us,” he said, “Instead it has been vicious; I don’t think I’ve heard a crowd that vicious.”
But the real problem is not managers, tactics or fans. The real problem is the owner. Mike Ashley is the big bad wolf in charge of Newcastle, the billionaire with pockets immeasurably deep but no ambition to match it. The fans view him as the leader of the Cockney mafia, a pariah invading the North-East and bleeding “our club” for all it’s worth. He is a savvy businessman, not a fan. He doesn’t look for trophies and sexy football, he looks for bottom lines and profit margins. Newcastle is one of the few clubs who manages to turn a small profit. While Chelsea and Manchester City spend millions upon millions on the Diego Costa’s and Wilfried Bony’s of the world, Newcastle go bargain hunting in France for a cheap alternative who carries little risk. If the player is flop, at least he’s a cheap flop. If he turns out like Yohan Cabaye, he’ll be promptly sold onto a top club at an inflated price. Happy days. Ashley prioritises the league over cups because that is where the money is – the TV rights, mainly. Indeed, when the catastrophic relegation occurred, Ashley immediately put the club up for sale.
You may say there is nothing wrong with this; football is a business and Newcastle is one of the rare clubs who actually make money, right? Well, the problem is the fans. The expectation. The history of the club and the traditions. The iconic black and white stripes. The legendary number 9’s, forever adored by the thousands who descend upon St James’ each week. Newcastle is not an ordinary club. From the outside in, it seems to belong among the upper echelon of English football, fighting for trophies and winning meaningful football games; not drawing with Stoke in a match that is only ever going to decide who comes 10th and who comes 11th.
The most exasperating part is the lack of hope. It doesn’t look like it will change. The cups are always discarded as fringe players are given run outs. The squad is tiny to keep the wage bill low – it is simply not deep enough to go on a cup run, despite the fact Newcastle seem destined to be stuck in the doldrums of mid-table year after year. The cherry on top is the relentless sale of star players. Newcastle is a public carousel of talent, a shop window for anyone to get noticed. If a player shines, Mike Ashley will sell him, simple as that. Think of the players sold in the last few years: Yohan Cabaye to PSG, Demba Ba to Chelsea, Jose Enrique and Andy Carroll to Liverpool, Mathieu Debuchy to Arsenal. Those transfers alone add up to over £85 million, and very little has been ploughed back into the club. That is what matters to Mike Ashley: financial stability and steady profits. As long as Newcastle are getting their portion of Premier League TV Rights, Ashley is happy. Newcastle is a massive club. And the fans deserve better, so much better. You simply can’t progress as a club if you consistently sell your best players every year. Don’t be surprised if Tim Krul or Moussa Sissokho move onto bigger clubs in the next year or so. Any club with ambition would fight to hold onto their key players. The Andy Carroll sale obviously turned out for the best but imagine where Newcastle would be if you added the players they have sold to their current squad.
That is why Newcastle fans should be admired more than they are chastised. Sure, they can be over the top and demanding, but there is no denying the sheer dedication and love that they have for the club. Managers are sacked, players are sold, idols are lost. Even getting a name on your jersey is a gamble because there is a good chance that player will have leave the club if he has a good season. But the Toon Army keep on coming and they keep on trying. You are probably reading this as an Manchester United, Chelsea or Liverpool fan. Can you possibly imagine how demoralising it is to never have any hope of holding onto your best players. Having unknown youth players fill your bench on match day? Your target every year to simply make top ten? Would you consistently support your club then? Or would you give up and lose hope and interest?
Newcastle may be a time bomb, and you would have to be a little crazy to try take the manager’s job. But it is such a big club, such a special club. The iconic black and white stripes, the imperial stadium, the voice of the Toon Army bellowing down from the stands. But if, and it’s a big if, somebody can steer this club to a trophy, it’s going to be really something. Clubs win titles all the time, they have trophy parades and they revel in the moment. But Newcastle would be a different kind of party. It would be a surreal type of pandemonium, the eventual light at the end of the tunnel after all these years. The kind of crazy release that can only come from years and years of wining absolutely nothing. The success-starved city would have its vindication, glory and spot in the sunshine. Just for once, the footballing world would look towards Newcastle and they wouldn’t laugh or snigger. The manager would be worshipped as a messiah, the players would never be forgotten. That chip on the shoulder of every fan would become that much smaller, that burden of expectation that much lighter.
But it is simply not going to happen with Mike Ashley in charge. Until someone else comes in who doesn’t hold the club with the same cold, unbiased grip that a shrewd businessman like Ashley does, that’s all it will be- a business. So Newcastle will wait for a leader to take hold and control it with emotion and pride, as a feared opponent rather than a joke, as a passion rather than a business, as a force rather than a pushover.
As a winner rather than a loser.