What Is Identity?
In the last week, there appears to have been a recurring theme in the reviewing of Newcastle United’s transfer activity (well unless you read the Independent which is obsessed with the Colocinni story), namely that through the acquisition of so many French, or French-speaking, players we are losing our identity.
“What is a football club in any case? Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. Not the TV contracts, the get out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes. It is the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city. It is a small boy clambering up the stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf and without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.” Sir Bobby Robson
To Sir Bobby’s quotation above, the identity of any football club can’t lie in the transient procession of players, who will, at best, spend 10 years with the club, nor can it be the owners, who although they stick around for longer, still won’t outlast your average fan. So, there’s my first point, our identity is unchanged regardless of who we sign, 25 Geordies or 25 Argentineans.
I have a problem with the fact that the complaint focuses around a pretty xenophobic basis. If a team full of foreigners risks our identity, why not a team full of cockneys or Scots, what’s the fundamental difference? Robert Lee did not come from Newcastle, nor did Les Ferdinand or Gary Speed, but that was fine was it? Nobby Solano wasn’t British, but he played in a fashion that seemed to not disturb our identity as was the case with Laurent Robert or David Ginola, so clearly we can have players from other nations, even ones on the other side of the world without a problem.
Standing against a tide of players of foreign origins is rather like Canute standing against the tide (although he did it to demonstrate its futility). European Law means that any citizen of an EU country has the right to work in another EU country, that applies to you or I as much as to any of our French players. Arguably the current debate about an EU referendum may change that, but for now we just have to accept that it is the reality of the world that we live in.
Beyond law comes common sense; a world in which Jordan Henderson, who so far as I can tell has no discernible talent, costs £18m, but Yohan Cabaye who certainly does, costs £4m. In such a world, who on earth can blame Newcastle, or QPR, or Chelsea, or anyone really looking abroad to acquire players of equal talent at a fraction of the cost?
But moving away from that, what is our identity anyway? We are Newcastle United Football Club Ltd, so our identity lies in a Companies House registration with the real identity being fairly clearly plastered within that. The club represents the city of Newcastle upon Tyne, and to an extent the broader region that surrounds our surprisingly small city. It’s not the origin of the players that has created a distance between normal fan and player, it’s money and whilst we decry the rise in prices etc, we all sit in modern stadia and do not risk our lives by going to football.
Ultimately, I would contend that Newcastle United today is what it was yesterday, what it was in 1998, what it was in 1952. It is the team that represents our city / region through the acquisition of the best players that it can find within its means. The Scots in the 1950s didn’t diminish our Geordieness, the French of 2013 don’t either.
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