First, a bit of background. I’m a third generation supporter; my grandfather and father before me have been lifelong fans, and I will follow in their footsteps.
When I have children, I expect they will do the same. My grandfather was born and raised just down the road, before a career in the RAF took him around the globe, along the way bringing my dad and uncles into the world, and they all chose to support their dad’s team.
My own father worked all around the country, before settling down with his wife in Salisbury in the mid-eighties, where I was born in June 1987. I only started taking a serious interest in football in my mid-teens, and the choice of club to support was obvious: it could only be Newcastle United.
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It was a very low-level form of support for the first few years – more symbolic than anything else, I suppose. It wasn’t until around 2007 that I started following the team ‘properly’ – going to the pub to watch a match (if it was being televised), badgering the landlord at my local to switch over to the game if no one else was watching the football that was on, rewatching some of the better moments from the club’s past on the internet, things of that nature.
The real turning point was the 24th May 2009 – a must-win game for Newcastle at Aston Villa. My dad and I went to a bar, met a few friends there, and proceeded to watch a nightmare unfold. I can still remember the final whistle going and both of us sitting absolutely still in what had become a silent room. It was the first time I’d watched a game and felt almost bereaved when it was over.
The only plus side that we could see that afternoon was that there were more Championship clubs close to us than Premiership clubs, so at least we could get to a few more games each year – or in my case, actually start going to games. I started monitoring the internet to see which fixtures had been announced, and to try and get tickets if they hadn’t already been snapped up by the Geordie faithful. By chance, I saw we had a friendly organised against Leyton Orient, so I grabbed a couple of tickets, and went with my Dad to see my first Newcastle game. We got thrashed by a team we should have absolutely annihilated – as many people realised on reflection, that was a wake-up call for the squad, a call that seemed to be taken to heart as Newcastle proceeded to storm the Championship and get promoted straight back into the Premier League.
That Championship campaign saw us at three games – Crystal Palace away, Plymouth away in the FA Cup and a trek up to St. James’ for the Middlesbrough game. The following season we went to West Brom away, the season after that we made another pilgrimage to Newcastle to watch a 3-1 win over Blackburn, and the 2013/13 season saw us make a trip to Fulham at Craven Cottage. We’d started to make a point of attending at least one game a season, preferably at home, but if not we’d quite happily watch them away.
This season has seen us travel to Blackpool for the pre-season game (a match attended by my grandfather, my father and myself – as an interesting aside, Blackpool v Newcastle at Bloomfield Road was one of the first games my grandfather ever went to, some sixtymodd years ago!), and most recently up to St. James’ for the Tyne-Wear derby.
It was supposed to be a Saturday we’d remember for years – as it turns out, we will remember it for years, unfortunately in the same way that people who witness catastrophic accidents remember the event for years. One of my uncles is a member of an informal NUFC supporters club on the south coast and they had arranged to be the match ball sponsors for the game. Two people dropped out after arrangements had been made and my Dad got a phone call saying ‘would we be interested in going?’. Of course, we immediately said yes – Newcastle against Sunderland at St. James’ is one of those games you’d sell a kidney to get tickets for – and I started counting down the days until Saturday 1st February. The feeling of anticipation is one I hadn’t experienced since counting down to Christmas as a kid.
Well, the weekend came round, and we made the 664 mile, 12 hour round trip to Newcastle. Come Saturday morning, we put on our suits and ties (each one with the club crest on in some form), and head up to the ground. After a quick look around the pitch and dugouts, we went upstairs for a few drinks and a bite to eat, everyone sneaking quick glances at their watches as 12.45 crept closer and closer. We took our seats shortly before kick-off, and waited while the last few pre-match minutes ticked away.
I don’t think I need bother trying to recap what happened in the game, one sentence would do it: sub-par team pulled apart with very little effort.
At the full-time whistle, I couldn’t do much. I wasn’t going to clap but didn’t have the energy to boo – just like a kid at the end of Christmas Day, I was absolutely shattered. For the second time watching Newcastle, I’d felt a sense of bereavement – as the Mackems cackled and crowed from the top of the Leazes End, all I could do was look at the players leaving the pitch and think ‘How could you do this to us all?’. As we left the ground an hour or so later, a few lads coming out of Shearer’s spotted us in suits and ties and assumed we must have been part of the hierarchy. It took seconds for various Mike Ashley themed songs and accusations to ring out as we walked off down the road – and who could blame them?
As the reader can probably imagine, a match ball sponsorship package doesn’t come cheap – I’m not going to produce an exact figure (as it still makes me depressed to think of what I paid to see my team get humiliated at home), but when you factor in transport, hotel bill, a few drinks and a meal on the Friday and Saturday nights, you’re looking at around £600 for the weekend (the only positive from spending that amount of money was it deepened my respect for those fans who go to every game, and spend that amount of money every couple of weeks or so). It was, almost literally, a once-in-a-lifetime experience that went so badly wrong. The drive back home on Sunday (another 332 miles, another 6 hours) was quiet, the only conversation themed around ‘What exactly is going on behind the scenes at that club?’. It’s a question every Newcastle fan has asked at some point in the last few years, if not on a weekly basis.
Cabaye’s departure was a big talking point for us. It had seemed pretty clear after his antics with Arsenal last year that he was leaving the club sooner rather than later – so for Joe Kinnear to state “I will not let any player leave Newcastle United in this transfer window,” was puzzling to say the least. But we got twenty million for him, so we can afford a decent replacement – as Cabaye was perhaps the most influential player we had on the pitch, we’re going to need one – and you wouldn’t sell him unless you had something lined up, right?
Then the transfer window closed, with only Luuk De Jong coming in on loan – what exactly was Joe Kinnear being paid to do as Director Of Football? I have enough faith in Alan Pardew to think that he would have told Kinnear what he thought the team needed as a reinforcement(s) – which opened up a few more questions, such as ‘Was Pardew’s opinion ignored?’,..’Was Pardew told about Cabaye leaving in January ahead of time?’… and finally ‘Was Pardew told that an opinion wasn’t required?’ Pure speculation, but the facts that get released to us, coupled with the recent history of the club, always seem to point to the most negative line of questioning in my head.
It was Joe Kinnear’s resignation that prompted me to put my thoughts down as this article – when I saw the news online I felt simultaneously elated and depressed. In my opinion, his departure from the club was inevitable the second the final whistle went on Saturday. Firstly, after selling one of our key players without a replacement and leaving our squad weakened ahead of the most important game of the season, he’d put himself in an untenable position and had to go – that was the elation. The depression came about from the realisation that this is, again in my opinion, just another ploy by Mike Ashley.
As Sunderland poked in their second on Saturday, the first refrains of ‘Get out of our club’ started around St. James’ (unfortunately, not loud enough to carry as far as Dublin), and I wondered how Ashley would deal with it this time. Ignore it? Sack Pardew? Buy another company and rename the stadium after it? Then the news came out about Kinnear resigning, and I think the heart of the matter will turn out to be he jumped as the hands moved in for the push. Ashley will have realised he needed to deflect the heat away from himself, and has told Kinnear to fall on the proverbial sword for him. He will have seen the short-term benefits and hopes that our joy at his departure lasts long enough for him to ride out the storm that followed the Sunderland debacle.
It’s apparent that away from the club, Mike Ashley is a great businessman – and I mean that purely in the sense that ‘Mike Ashley makes his companies generate money consistently, and usually in quantity’, and it has nothing to do with how I view his business practices and ‘tactics’ – so I can only conclude that he has absolutely lost the plot in his running of Newcastle United as a business.
This website did an excellent article on the club’s finances in November 2013, which put the question in my head ‘Where did all the money go?’. Is it possible that a certain portion of the club’s income is set aside as Ashley tries to quietly recoup his initial investment? Or, has he become so incensed with the backlash towards him that he has written off the investment and plans on watching the club spiral into the ground?
I (and several others) think that his major mistake was trying to be a fan whilst being an owner. While it raises your public profile to be seen sitting with the fans, drinking with the fans etc., I don’t think he would ever have gatecrashed the Christmas party of the Sports Direct warehouse staff because he wanted them all to be his mates. That might seem an odd comparison to make (fans compared to employees), but as long as we buy tickets, shirts, programmes, and scarves to name just a few things, we are generating money for him in the same way his other companies’ employees do.
While I share the view that the club would be better off without him, I think Mike Ashley selling the club is a long way off – with a weakened squad, angry supporters, and constant backroom drama, who’d want to buy it?
I would much rather he looked at Newcastle as a football club, rather than as a business, by returning to a traditional club management structure where the people right at the top don’t have a great deal of input, but do have faith in the manager’s decisions and opinions.
It would take several years of patience, and the returns from a business point of view might not be great in that time, but letting the manager build the squad he wants can only lead to higher finishes and better shots at silverware.
For the guys at the top, the higher finishes and longer cup runs would increase the incoming revenue, which would better their investment and surely lead to even better things for the club and the fans.
And if there is any club and any set of supporters that deserves better, surely it’s us?
John Hall (no relation)