It can win you Presidential elections. It can push you to that finishing line when the road seems never-ending.
Hope can be a powerful thing…
Every runner hopes, “perhaps the next hill is the last hill?”
A famous bard once wrote ‘The miserable have no other medicine, but only hope.”
More recently (in his brilliant Atheltico Mince podcast), a famous ‘Boro fan Bob Mortimer said, “it’s the hope that kills you.” Quite.
Newcastle United Football Club is dying. And like most that find themselves ill, it’s often hard to know you’re ill until it’s obvious, until you’re stuck in bed unable to move, until the signs are clear, sometimes, tragically, too late.
In Newcastle United’s case we have the benefit of hindsight, we know exactly when we became sick. On the 23 May 2007, Mike Ashley bought 41% of Newcastle United PLC. This was the day the hope died.
At one of the away matches this season I saw one of the fans turn on those around him. We were losing 2-0 (again) and he was annoyed that the fans around him weren’t singing loudly enough for his liking (he was alone in thinking this).
I understand the temptation; to blame someone other than the players on the field because you want to support them, you will them to do well and getting annoyed at them is often counter-productive. But the fans sung on, they were brilliant to the end, they never showed they had given up hope. Perhaps it was just hidden well, for 90 minutes, because it has to be. How else can you drag yourself around the country if you don’t have some hope today might be different than last time? It wasn’t.
It’s too easy to wallow in self-pity as a football fan and I think in truth, most Newcastle fans are past that now. This season’s terminal decline has been so persistent and unwavering that for months we’ve known it would probably end badly and many have come to a resigned acceptance.
Perhaps we knew that in December, or in September when they took nine games to finally win one.
Perhaps when McClaren – a man who had turned us down three times – finally accepted a position as manager after failing in the Championship.
Perhaps we knew in May last year when John Carver steered us to safety like a chimpanzee driving a double decker bus and was then on the short-list to be manager. Most wouldn’t have trusted him to park the team bus without writing it off .
As I pen this article our record is a win every five games this season. Losing has become the norm, so the conclusion to it is no surprise either. Last season we won 10 of our 38 games, the season before 15 of the 38 games. The decline downhill has been steady and clear for everyone to see. Well, perhaps not quite everyone.
Ashley will now prove to be our least successful owner, overseeing some of our worst losing streaks ever, particularly against our local rivals, and will likely now see us relegated twice during his reign of terror. This season will see him lose hundreds of millions in revenue, perhaps the thing that will hurt him most given his notorious and ruthless focus on the bottom line.
But what cost the club that is Newcastle United beyond the financial?
The balance sheet starts and stops in the boardroom; a balanced book can not put a tackle in on the pitch, it can not yell support from the terraces, it can not reflect the passion of the city of Newcastle and the people therein.
This is seemingly an aspect of the game that those in charge of the club have no understanding of. For every young fan that fell in love with Kevin Keegan’s team of the 90s, there will be a young fan that will be lost watching the teams under Ashley.
And for everyone that reads this and thinks “well I don’t care, they’re not real fans.” Do you really believe that?
How many times have you heard people tell you about their first football game and how amazing it was, the atmosphere, the singing, the moment the goal went in?
Ask a youngster now who has been to the match a few times this season and what will they remember? The tension, the opposition scoring, the opposing fans taunting, the Newcastle fans despondent, again, at a poor team. Lifeless. Hopeless. Supporting Newcastle United is a long-term commitment that takes resilience and inevitably it takes money. I am putting my money in, I can’t give it up and I’d like to think my kids will follow me – but I won’t make them fall in love with Newcastle United, I can’t. The club should do that for me. I’ve no doubt they will love Newcastle, but perhaps not Newcastle United.
So what do I hope for now?
I hope Rafa Benitez stays. I hope he is allowed to build a football team and not just respond to a list of players bought because they meet some business satisfying criteria. There are evidently many holes in the squad that need plugging with appropriately fitting players. The focus on recruiting individuals has been at the cost of constructing a team. They are different things.
A team is more than the sum of its parts, it requires leaders, balance, strength in some areas, pace in others. And it requires a competent manager to guide them. I’m sure every football fan knows this and yet the board at Newcastle United are focused on adding up the sum of those parts and wondering how they can turn them into an even greater sum in a few years time.
Forming Newcastle United the football team is not an accounting exercise, and yet that seems to be the desired qualification for the man currently running the club and put in charge with constructing the team. Stick a pair of boots on him and give him a run out I say. How much does that ten million profit on player sales help you when you’re out there?
Beyond anything else, I hope to see Newcastle United win a few football matches next season because I hope one day to bring my young sons to the match and be proud of what I see on the pitch and not just what I see on the terraces, to see them walk away smiling like all the fans of those other clubs that have something to hope for beyond a Big Mac after the match (no Steve, I’m not talking about you).
I mourn the club today, for I am not proud of it, today feels hopeless. But I am always proud of the fans, always proud to be a Geordie, and that alone gives me some hope for the future.