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Opinion

It’s not our game anymore

2 years ago
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Newcastle United and football is a business – it’s not our game anymore…

Vague memories of a Panini sticker book, loads of swaps in the bottom of my school bag. This was primary school and the year was 1986. My eldest brother had started me off on the ritual of trying to complete the entire book and was seemingly trying a new tactic of sending his younger brother into the playground in search of a Diego Maradona. If my memory is correct, I can also remember double stickers for the lesser teams such as Iraq and Canada. Football had not yet taken over my life but this was just the beginning.

By 1989, our entire primary school pretty much owned a Liverpool shirt with one or two exceptions. Two tops dominated the PE sessions – a red Candy home shirt with white specks all over it and a grey Candy away shirt. Football was played in the playground and players wages were never mentioned.

We could name the usual starting 11 for Liverpool and in all honesty the usual starting 11 for Arsenal as well.

Managers would stay at clubs for a long time and be given time to build a team.

Most teams had a chance of winning the league.

Newcastle United finished bottom of the 1st Division and were relegated.

Sunday afternoons were spent as a family watching the live game.

Mondays were spent talking about the live game at school. Football had soul and was played with a passion.

On the 13th April 1991, I was taken to my first real football game. Newcastle United v Oldham Athletic at St James Park. Decked out with a bobble hat and scarf I was taken up the steps to the top of the old Milburn Stand. We were right in the middle of the stand, the best seats in the ground (roughly where the corporates sit now) and I was told not to expect good football. Oldham were flying in the league and Newcastle were struggling.

It was magical. I cannot describe the excitement and to this day I was hooked on Newcastle United. “We” won 3-2 and I was swept away. We could have lost and I would have felt the same. I knew we were a poor second division side but this was now the team I supported. I was soon to stand out in PE sessions at school as the only Newcastle supporter in the school. Sporting a Greenalls black and white shirt I was the black sheep amongst the red sea of Liverpool shirts.

An early birthday/Christmas present combination arrived in the form of a booklet with lots of bits of paper in the August of that year. I was over the moon. Football and in particular Newcastle United with Ossie Ardiles at the helm had a ten year old season ticket holder to deal with.

Looking back, football was different. Something raw and real and expectations were low, really low. We finished 11th in the old division two, there were no superstars. St James Park had three main stands, the Leazes end was really just a combination of portakabins. The programme would list the 11 players and 2 substitutes on the back and rarely would there be any changes to the line up. Football was still the people’s game. The corporate world did not yet own it. It was ours.

Later, one man was to replace Ossie at Newcastle United and along with substantial investment woke up a sleeping giant of the football world. Kevin Keegan was to grab Newcastle by the scruff of its neck and drag it kicking and screaming on a rollercoaster journey that no one would ever forget. A slumbering club was awoken.

After finishing 20th in Division Two in May 1992 with a home crowd of just over 9,000 watching a game against Crewe in the league cup. By May 1993, we had won the league and memories of the last game at home against Leicester City was the stuff of dreams. 7-1 winners, 6-0 up at half time, a new stadium being developed around us and Premier League status was achieved.

By May 1994, we had finished 3rd in the Premier League. In two years we had gone from almost getting relegated into the old Third Division, now known as League 1, to European qualification. In 1994, with the right mentality and some investment, clubs could compete and fans could still dream. The corporate world was arriving but the balance was still there.

Slowly, season by season my club was changing. Ambitions were shown. Alan Shearer arrived in 1996, and in 2000 the club developed the stadium further to hold over 52,000 people. The football club was allowed to compete. Allowed to compete as the fans still ruled the game. The fans were still the lifeblood of Newcastle United. The club was as strong as its fan base. We were still allowed to dream, as was every other football fan at every other club.

I cannot pinpoint an exact date when the dream died but somewhere between 2005 and now it did. I have a feeling that a lot of fans are just slowly coming to terms with it now. A lot of fans are now in the bracket of going to games out of blind loyalty, in the hope that in the 90 minutes there may be some sparks of days gone by that can rekindle some memories.

So here I am in 2019, I still have the season ticket. It was in the Milburn stand before we got moved for the corporates, then it was at the top of the Leazes before we got moved for the corporates again. Now, I sit in the North East corner.

The excitement, the magic, the feeling of belonging is there from time to time but not very often if truth be told. We now have an owner who has slowly asset stripped the club and used it as a platform to peddle his sporting wares. The players have little in common with the fans and dare I say it, the club. Hell, we aren’t even allowing players to enter the field without official Premier League music being played and the ludicrous erections of premier league plinths to walk underneath.

Looking around at the Premier League we see players leaving for China for a so-called big pay day. Perhaps moving from a £70,000 a week pay packet to a £300,000 a week pay packet may seem a smart move? To me, this wasn’t your dream as a young lad kicking a ball around the playground. Yes, this is a result of football being turned into a business but to choose moving simply because of the money says something else.

The Premier League has been filled with investors, tv money and corporate deals that have transformed the game into an expensive imitation of what went beforehand. Players are no longer allowed to tackle, loyalty to clubs is a thing of the past, agents earn as much money as players and ultimately real fans are now priced out of games.

The FA Cup was something that you went to bed dreaming about, it had magic and you looked forward to the draw every year. Now the FA Cup is something that gets in the way of the tv revenue from staying in the Premier League. Sod the dreams, fans are now secondary.

As a tour guide at St James Park told me a few years ago, the club does not need gate receipts to survive as they make more out of the corporate side and TV. A sad reflection of the state of affairs. The fact that we could fill the ground in the Championship means nothing. The fans are no longer the lifeblood of Newcastle United.

So what can we expect and what do we want. Put simply, a team that tries. A team that works its socks off week in and week out.

We don’t expect trophies. We expect the club holistically to show some ambition. We know we cannot compete with the top teams, this is now a financial game, but to be kings of the next batch wouldn’t be such a bad thing to hope for? To compete in a cup should not be beyond our expectations. Without this then what’s the point exactly?

Will investing shed loads of cash improve the situation? We would all like to think it would help, but the game has lost its soul, its losing the mavericks and the dream makers.

Vast swathes of players are now simply mercenaries happy to move onto the next pay day, happy to sit on the corporate wave and show faux loyalty to any club that happens to be paying them at that given moment in time. Bringing in the right type of player is difficult to do for any club nowadays…but for Newcastle we appear to find it difficult to bring in any player.

Players are looking for moves to big cities so perhaps the answer is to go fully corporate, move the training ground to London, Paris, Rome or Barcelona and simply fly them up on a match day? That last suggestion was tongue in cheek but with little regard for what the club means to the region and the fans is something that is not beyond the realms of possibility.

I want Ashley to sell the club. I want someone to come in and invest something, show ambition, realise what it all means. However, football is a business now, sadly it’s not our game anymore.

You can follow the author on Twitter @siblood
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