The waters of the Tyne ought to be flowing smoothly this morning. Newcastle United sit ninth in the Premier League and rivals Sunderland lie second from bottom. Last weekend Newcastle stylishly took apart Chelsea. And captain Fabricio Coloccini, is about to make his comeback after a hamstring layoff. Such is Coloccini’s popularity that the supporters regularly invite him, via a chant, to sleep with their wives.
Newcastle United are also financially strong. They are one of the world’s top 20 revenue-generating clubs. Owner Michael James Wallace Ashley, according to the Sunday Times rich list, is the 31st wealthiest man in the UK, enjoying a personal fortune of £2.3 billion (€2.75bn). He is the founder and major shareholder of Sports Direct, Britain’s biggest sports retailer. Okay, he’s not Roman Abramovich and ninth isn’t top four… but it should surely be enough to quell the restless Geordie natives.
But this is Newcastle, a city where passion and chaos are never far beneath the surface. And this morning the Tyne is as choppy as ever.
In the last three weeks there has been a protest march and the club has banned the city’s newspapers. The pundits are clearly perplexed. Why is a team ninth in the ‘best league in the world’ tussling with its supporters and the local media? To understand it, you need to understand the city. Newcastle is a fiercely proud regional capital where football pervades the workplace and family life. Its working-class and footballing heritage go hand in hand. Unlike Manchester, London or Liverpool, this is a one-club city. The stadium is a shrine, bang in the centre. The city’s mood swings with the team’s fortunes. The people believe the club belongs to them and that so-called owners are mere custodians. It is a city that needs heroes — Jackie Milburn, Kevin Keegan, Bobby Robson, Alan Shearer — who would give their all to the Gallowgate cause.
Now it has no heroes. There are talented players such as Yohan Cabaye and Loic Remy. But they won’t commit to the cause, let alone give their all to it. Cabaye refused to play at the beginning of the season when his head was turned by Arsenal. The word is he will be off to Roma in January. Remy is playing wait and see. Hardly the stuff of heroes.
And the custodians don’t appear to understand that the club belongs to the city. They are a closed cabal. Their biggest sin, in the eyes of the supporters, is lack of respect. Ashley feels no need to talk or to explain his often bizarre decisions. He shows no love to the fans and they in turn routinely sing ‘You fat Cockney bastard get out of our club’.
When Ashley took over in 2007 he drank with the supporters, watched from the terraces and sported a Newcastle shirt. But his fallouts with Keegan and Shearer, changing St James’s Park to the Sports Direct Arena, relegation, selling Andy Carroll, getting into bed with Wonga and failing to buy any players this summer, have led to irreconcilable differences.
The tipping point was the return of Dubliner Joe Kinnear as director of football in the summer. His job was to find players. None were signed. Worse, though, was his buffoonery in an interview in which he got the players’ names wrong, including ‘Yohan Kebab’, and said fans were ‘talking out of their backsides’. The club became a laughing stock and the Looney Toon headlines went viral. In Newcastle, that hurts.
Now some fans have had enough and are gathering under the banner Time4Change.
The coalition organised a protest march before the Liverpool game last month and aims to do something at every home match. Chris McQuillan, a leading member, explains the aims: “We would like an owner who wants to challenge at the top, and wants to win cups. Newcastle recently said they had no interest in the domestic cups, as the financial rewards were not sufficiently lucrative.”
But what about the win against Chelsea? Doesn’t that show ambition?
McQuillan says not: “The grievances transcend the last result. Whether we beat Chelsea or lose to Sunderland, this is a long-term campaign for a long-term problem. When Ashley took over, Newcastle and Spurs were roughly equivalent in league position and finances. Since then, Spurs have doubled their revenue, where Newcastle have increased theirs by less than inflation.
“The fans want an owner who doesn’t just want to make a profit, but wants to reinvest that profit for the good of the team.”
The Evening Chronicle’s front page coverage of the Time4Change march led to the ban of the city’s three newspapers. It isn’t the first time the club has fallen out with journalists. Last season it banned The Daily Telegraph for reporting a dressing room rift.
The Evening Chronicle responded with a robust ‘Banned not Gagged’ headline on its front page with editor Darren Thwaites arguing the paper’s independence and integrity is more important than a cosy relationship. He invited readers to send in thoughts on what Newcastle United meant to them and ran a poignant front page quote from the late Bobby Robson on what makes a football club — and urged Ashley to read it. There is no sign of the ban being lifted.
Lifelong supporter Ged Clarke, who wrote the book Newcastle United: 50 Years of Hurt, watches all of this with dismay. “The problem is Ashley doesn’t talk. He’s run the club for six years now and I can honestly say I don’t know what his voice sounds like.”
But Clarke doesn’t see Ashley’s departure as the answer. “If he walks away what will become of Newcastle United? Like it or not he is the prop holding the whole thing up and Russian oil tycoons have not exactly been beating a path to Gallowgate. One thing we do know about Ashley is that he won’t sell the club cheaply so I think we can put our dreams of a fan-owned club on hold for a while yet.”
Things are equally frustrating on the pitch. Papiss Cisse, holder of the coveted No 9 shirt, who chalked up spectacular goals for fun two seasons ago has not scored in his last 14 Premier League outings. The form of Hatem Ben Arfa, who is equally capable of turning a game or going AWOL on the pitch, sums up the side’s inconsistency.
Who knows which side will turn out against Tottenham at White Hart Lane tomorrow.
The problem on Tyneside is easy to identify… but perhaps impossible to resolve. The fans crave ambition, success and respect. If the club achieved these, the disquiet would ebb away. But is the Ashley regime capable of delivering? Like most supporters, Clarke has grave doubts: “I am working on an update of my book, Newcastle United: 60 Years of Hurt, for release in two years’ time.
As things stand, 70 Years of Hurt seems inevitable.”