The opinion piece “The Newcastle United Negativity at the Mag Has to Stop” by Ram Kishore has received much comment and some criticism amongst Mag correspondents.
Debate is to the good but as a fellow supporter of some fifty years I think that Ram’s brave post was actually right.
This is not to exonerate Mike Ashley but to say that the pervasive negativism, which now seems to include criticism of transfer targets no one has yet to see play, creates its own momentum, and becomes self-perpetuating. Even before the season began there was, to my mind, unwarranted and often personal attacks in some quarters – I am only talking about a section of the fans here, those that are usually loudest on social media – on players that had stayed loyal to the club and got us promotion, many of whom were now being written off as not good enough without being given the time and chance to prove themselves.
Instead, aided and abetted by sections of the local press and ex-players, there was the usual clamouring for big name signings – at a time when there were few to be had and when the club’s recent record of signing big names and obtaining little in return, might have suggested caution. What seemed to have got lost in this furore was the old art of spotting and developing potential, and achieving team spirit and coherence. It was fair enough to want to some additional strengthening of the squad but not if this meant the repetitive and negative rubbishing of current players. In my opinion, this negativity and what could be argued was a lack of respect, transmitted itself to the players at the beginning of the season and only began to diminish after the transfer deadline passed – after which, for a while, results improved.
The origins of the negativity go a long way back, and, again in my view, are largely but not exclusively connected to the understandable unpopularity of Mike Ashley’s ownership. They also connect to socio-cultural changes in football and its supporters, the reconceptualisation of the sport as a monetised commodity and the supporter as a (frequently disgruntled and also entitled ) consumer of a product. These changes, which are also of course so evident in other aspects of contemporary life, have contributed to a toxic mindset where it is felt to be acceptable to launch highly personalised attacks on people over the social media, often in situations where there is little opportunity to hear the other side of the story.
Newcastle United have some of the greatest, and most tolerant and fair minded, supporters in the world and all of us have every right to be able to express our opinion.
Although it could be argued that Mike Ashley has financially stabilised the club, he himself exemplifies many of the socio-cultural changes in football mentioned above, most of all the assertion of market and business’ values over those of tradition and the sport.
Do we know that a new owner would be different? Only that they would not be Mike Ashley. For most supporters, it seems, that would be enough. They may be right but in the meantime, it seems to me, some supporters, at least as evidenced on social media, are so consumed with a visceral hatred of all things Ashley that they have lost all sense of proportion, and have taken their eye off the football itself. Here I make what some might consider a naive point but still one, I think, worth making.
When I started as a kid watching Newcastle United under great old Sergeant Major Joe Harvey, all I was interested in was the football. It didn’t interest me who the owners or board were. I more or less took it as read that football boards and owners, the world over, with one or two exceptions, were pretty flawed. I got joy from the game, and gallows humour from the crowd. That joy and that gallows humour are in danger of being totally lost today and the reasons for this go far beyond Mike Ashley.
Obviously in the real world these things, football and ownership, are linked. The problem now, though, is not that people want Ashley to sell up and for us to have new ownership and investment, it is that they appear to have become wedded to a position where, for emotional reasons, everything that is happening under Ashley’s ownership, everything that goes wrong on the football pitch, is attributed to what he is perceived as doing, or not doing. There is even, in some of the articles and correspondence, a sense that failure is willed and wished as proof positive of Ashley’s malignant impact.
The best comparison I can make is that those ardent “remainers” who are so opposed to “Brexit” that they appear to welcome, and by their actions and communications make more likely, an economic crisis that confirms their predictions. They may or may not be right to oppose Brexit but this position is a destructive, potentially self-fulfilling, one, and I worry, based on the evidence of the media, including the articles and correspondence of The Mag, that there is a parallel tendency in sections – though I stress not all – of Newcastle United supporters, and that, as Ram says in the end, this is not helping anyone.
Nor does this mindset offer, as Ram also suggests, any insights into what might be going wrong in football terms. Yes we need some new players – who doesn’t? – but what kind of players and why?
Is need for new players the whole story?
Are we getting the best out of the squad we have got?
Are players reaching potential individually and collectively, and are players being given the chance to develop?
I respect Rafa Benitez and his achievements, and I find his interviews, on a range of subjects, highly impressive. At the same time I think that there are questions to be asked and that it as mistaken to get into the mindset that everything Rafa does is right, as it is to get into the mindset that everything Mike Ashley does is ipso facto wrong. To ask these questions isn’t, as some correspondents here seem to suggest, to disrespect Rafa, or to suggest his replacement, but to emphasise rather that support is always in the end for the club rather than for an individual. Everyone, no matter how respected, should be subject to appraisal and question. Unquestioning trust, as sometimes advocated on these pages, is not a healthy position to be in.
I will briefly put forward my own view, which of course is only one punter’s perspective and with which no doubt many will disagree. Debate, though, is a good thing and can lead to clarity. I think that the present squad is a lot better than it is being given credit for, though it also unquestionably needs strengthening in some key positions – as people have noted in attack but also, perhaps even more crucially, in attacking/creative midfield. I don’t think goalkeeper or wide positions is at all a priority, and I think the lack of opportunity given to Aarons, who, before his serious injury, looked a seriously good and exciting prospect is a great shame. People on these forums say he hasn’t moved forwards but if he isn’t given a run of games how would we ever know?
This brings me to my central concern, that whilst reinforcements are needed, the resources of the squad do not always seem to be maximised and some of the better players seem to be either temporarily or permanently frozen out of the picture.
I know it’s much talked about and may hopefully be reaching an end-game but the position of Mitrovic really bothers me. He divides opinion but it seems clear to me that he has potential, has shown he can cut it at international level, and really wants to play for the club. Why has he not been offered any opportunity this season? Perhaps it’s temperament but I don’t understand how a player who considered too poor or risky to start a single game is the same player that will not be sold on any grounds to relegation rivals – presumably because he might score goals/help them stay up. Correct me if I am wrong but is this not a logically inconsistent, mutually exclusive position?
There is a further thing troubling me about all this. What about natural justice? What must it feel like as player if your manager will neither play you nor sell you, all this in a season when you have what might be a once in a lifetime chance to play in the World Cup Finals? Under the circumstances, unless there is something else going on that we don’t know about, it seems to me that the “unsettled” Mitrovic as the sycophantic Chronicle puts it, far from being “temperamental” has been admirably restrained!
As I said, I like what I see of Rafa Benitez, and, like a lot of fans, I don’t like a lot of what I see of Mike Ashley’s regime. However, reality is complex and appearances can be deceptive; the pre-occupation with the faults of the latter in these pages may be serving to get everyone away from questions that also need to be respectfully asked of the former. And the negativity of sections of the fans – and I stress that it is only sections – where justified criticism turns into an apparent embrace of failure (for example of any new signings) and a wish to be proved right, creates the danger of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
For these reasons, and others, too lengthy to be gone into now, I think that Ram was absolutely right to raise the issue of the current “negativity” around Newcastle United.