So, the battle lines are well drawn ahead of the big game on Sunday 9 December it seems. Except the opponents on either side of this fascinating contest are not Newcastle United and Wolverhampton, with that contest firmly down to second fiddle. The real big match that day is the battle of the boycott, and whether the restless hordes championed by the Magpie Group will make enough of a dent in the attendance to win the battle of wills with the “support the team” crowd.
It’s too late for yet another cry of “respect others decisions” or “fan divides are what the enemy wants” because if social media is any kind of yardstick, the concept of peaceful mutual respect for Newcastle fans is long gone out the window. It’s brutal out there and there are still two weeks, three games and 15 rounds of Brexit negotiations until the game.
I’ve noticed something though, that everyone seems to have missed among all the overblown myths that float about NUFC. People seem convinced that the ubiquitous crowd of 50k plus will always stick by Newcastle United, underpinning its shortcomings, funding its expenses and allowing the owner a longer stretch on easy street. No one has pointed out that this is bollocks. Until now.
So, I give you exhibit A: Newcastle United 3-0 Reading, Saturday 15 August 2009.
To set the scene, United had been newly relegated and this game would set the tone for a season of impressive bouncebackability. Chris Hughton would prove himself to be an excellent manager and heroic players would grit their teeth to regain their dignity in a season of joyful redemption that would lead ultimately to Europe within two seasons (in a team bolstered by the bedrock of Hughton’s solid defence).
Shola Ameobi’s fine hat-trick gave a surreal edge to the carnival atmosphere as the visitors were royally dismantled in front of that trademark capacity 50k crowd…
Except it wasn’t that was it? I’ll save you the google, the attendance that day was 36,944. That’s 70% of capacity for the opening home game, on a balmy Saturday in August with no TV coverage.
People had become pi..ed off, you see. The implosion under Keegan the previous year saw some walk away who have never returned, but the lock-down of the season ticket, meant that absence wasn’t seen properly until this day. Ashley had just let the club drift, with no signings and a cheap appointment of a coach who had looked out of his depth as a caretaker. As tends to happen, he got lucky with Hughton, we came straight back and Ashley learned from past mistakes and didn’t let this ever happen again (lol – that’s not what happened).
The crowd was won back by that promotion year, but not as easily as you might think. The amount of midweek fixtures in the Championship affected the overall average, but a winning run before the next few Saturday home games saw the attendance stabilise around a mere 43k for games against Plymouth, Barnsley and Doncaster. This stayed roughly the same until the final few weeks of the season as promotion beckoned and crowds crept up, finally breaking that magic 50k figure for the first time for the last home game v Ipswich where the trophy was lifted.
The boost this success gave carried momentum through that UEFA Cup run until the misery returned with the latter end of the Pardew era, followed by the Carver embarrassment and the McClaren debacle. By this point, the people that had been drawn back in were likely part of a growing movement of unrest that was quelled, then regalvanised by Rafa Benitez.
The difference between that pessimistic 30-odd thousand against Reading and the 52,079 that rocked up to see Huddersfield after our next daft relegation, was Rafa. That’s a 24 carat fact.
Newcastle fans who were at the end of their tether let it our further because a world class manager could see past the bilious negatives and the lazy punditry to believe in our club’s potential. If he was willing to be there, we’d be behind him. Now, having been repeatedly undermined, he is going to leave, with the last chance saloon of a January transfer window (almost certain to be laden with some pathetic attempts at placatory signings) probably just a moot point. He may leave us in the Premier League, in fact I think he will, but it’s a busted flush.
The hope and enthusiasm that Chris Hughton’s team instilled has driven a core of supporters to stick around for this long, but the remaining hardy and wilful souls will, I believe, shatter at the departure of Rafa and the subsequent inevitable relegation.
That 30% reduction which folk have conveniently forgotten, will be heftier, as people refuse to partake in the owner’s wilful neglect and pi..take by proxy. The movement now; the protests, the boycott, the public meetings, are all a desperate last effort to force change before walking away and signalling enough.
And what will remain when the soul goes? A near silent ground; the only atmosphere an eerie one, as those that sought to support their team when those same seats sat temporarily empty for one televised encounter suddenly realise they don’t like being in a half empty ground watching a team with a journeyman manager fail to compete in the second tier, asset bled to its lowest ebb in three decades. Their thirst for vividly declared support will have been slaked on that afternoon v Wolverhampton, and their attention will go to someone else who is more deserving of their exulted spectating.
I feel drained of hope that this will not happen, mainly due to the vampiric attitudes of some fellow supporters who seem blissfully unaware that we were on the way to bleeding out against Reading eight years ago.
Every winter I stick the magnificent film Field of Dreams on to warm my soul up a bit on the cold nights (when Moonlight Graham leaves the field to become Doc Graham again and save the little girl’s life, it always gets me). The film is well known for the line “If you build it, they will come”. Mike Ashley’s Newcastle legacy will surely be the antithesis “if you wreck it, they will leave”.
Don’t wait until it’s too late to stem the bleeding, please. #boycottwolves
Follow Jamie on Twitter @Mr_Dolf