Imagine a club with a 50,000+ capacity stadium, one of the most hard-core fan bases in the country, with annual revenues putting them consistently among the world’s top 25 clubs. Clubs like Roma, Napoli and Atletico Madrid fall into this bracket, and joining them should be Newcastle United. Of the three aforementioned continental clubs, two were in this season’s Champions League, one is second place behind a dominant Juventus in Serie A with one defeat all season and one now leads Real Madrid and Barcelona in La Liga. Newcastle lost 3-0 at home to Sunderland at the weekend and now sit 8th in the Premier League table, an insurmountable ten points off the Champions League spots.
While not a Newcastle fan myself, it’s difficult not to hold the club and their supporters in very high regard. Even during their recent spell in the second tier in 2009/10, they were still drawing the fourth highest attendances in the whole country. This is a stark contrast to other Championship grounds in recent seasons, local rivals Middlesbrough for one, whose stands often resemble desolate wastelands, devoid of fans now that the club is no longer in the top flight.
They’ve had recent periods of optimism since their last foray into the Champions League in 2003 under the late Sir Bobby Robson. In 2012 they finished 5th on 65 points, narrowly missing out on Champions League football on the final day but still finishing ahead of the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool and Everton in the league table. The following season, with the unwelcome distraction of the Europa League midweek they slumped to a position of 16th and flirted with relegation for most of the later part of the year.
On the face of it, the team isn’t doing all that bad this season. They’re in the top 10 of the Premier League, 7 places and 13 points better off than they were at this stage last season with no real threat of relegation so it can be viewed as progress on last year in one sense. The negative mood around the club right now however, means that it won’t be. This summer Mike Ashley brought about the fury of the fans when he appointed the bungling Joe Kinnear as Director of Football at the club. Kinnear promised signings, didn’t deliver, supposedly enquired about signing his own player in Shane Ferguson, has now sold their best player Yohan Cabaye (kebab as Joe Kinnear referred to him) to PSG and brought no replacement in, which has left a gaping hole in their team for the remainder of the season at least.
Kinnear was appointed as Director of Football in June 2013, replacing Derek Llambais who despite coming in for a lot of abuse from supporters, had actually done quite a good job at Newcastle. Kinnear give a famous radio interview which aptly summed up the man in comedic fashion. He made countless mistakes and untrue boasts about his abilities and accomplishments as a manager, especially in the transfer market, citing a number of blatantly un-true facts about players he had supposedly signed, mispronouncing the names of Yohan Cabaye and Hatem Ben Arfa as well as mixing up the Ameobi brothers. His trusty recruitment strategy in the summer window amounted to only Loic Remy on loan from QPR which drew criticism from the fans.
Kinnear resigned on Monday evening, three days after the end of yet another shambolic transfer window in which they failed to bring in a single permanent signing, the only arrival being Luuk de Jong, a little known Dutch striker who was struggling in the Bundesliga. Kinnear’s mantra upon his appointment was “judge me on my signings”, aimed at appeasing the many disgruntled fans voicing their concerns over his appointment. Now he has been judged and found to be horribly incompetent.
Joe Kinnear however is just the tip of the iceberg, the beginning of the problems at Newcastle. Mike Ashley and his cronies, known less-than-affectionately by the Toon as the ‘Cockney Mafia’ are the real problem, one that has plagued Newcastle and their fans now for almost seven years.
Under Mike Ashley, Newcastle United have turned from a very likeable club and a favourite of many neutrals into a disaster show with once embarrassing crisis following another. His appointment of Dennis Wise as Director of Football in 2008 led to an acrimonious falling out with manager Kevin Keegan and the beginning of civil war at the club. Fans unanimously took Keegan’s side and have not forgiven Ashley since. You simply don’t mess with a club legend. Ashley admitted defeat early on amid vast protests and put the club up for sale. But no buyer would meet his asking price and he has remained at large.
Ashley’s first civil war with the fans produced no winners. When the dust settled over the next twelve months, he remained in charge, the fans remained unhappy and the club, most importantly, was relegated to the Championship with a squad boasting big names such as Michael Owen, Obafemi Martins, Kevin Nolan, Mark Viduka, Joey Barton and Damien Duff and the huge wages these names drew. Wages which the Championship simply would not pay for and many had to be offloaded and there was a genuine danger that Newcastle could follow that path of Leeds United a few years earlier. This didn’t happen and the club survived under the stewardship of Chris Hughton and returned to the Premier League the following year.
Between then, 2010, and the hiring of Joe Kinnear in summer 2013, the unrest remained but had died down significantly due to the team thriving on the pitch. Ashley did however make a couple of serious mistakes during this period of (relative) peace. One major transgression on his part was his decision to sell the naming rights to the stadium which was seen as a move borne out of greed as the same week as the profits in his Sports Direct company fell by a massive 91%. The result of this was that the stadium was named The Sports Direct Arena followed by the ‘sportsdirect.com@StJamesPark’ Stadium which just rolls off the tongue. It was not until sponsorship with Wonga was announced in 2012 that the stadium was restored to its original name.
Sacking the popular Chris Hughton in 2010 did nothing to appease the fans. Under Hughton’s guidance, the team had breezed through the Championship and were off to a decent start on their return to the Premier League. This harsh sacking is often forgotten, as many are, due to the achievements of his successor Alan Pardew, who turned the club into a major force the following season.
On the pitch at least, Ashley, Llambis and the rest of the ‘Cockney Mafia’ have produced the goods since Newcastle returned to the top flight in 2010. There have been some very astute signings, Tiote, Cabaye, Cisse, Ben Arfa, Ba, Santon and many more all came relatively cheap and have paid the club back in kind. The fact remains however that the Newcastle fans just plain don’t like Mike Ashley and see his many crimes as unforgiveable. He’d probably have to bring the club a Premier League title before they forget his many misgivings.
Hiring Kinnear was the final straw for the fans and the mass protests at St.James’ Park began again sparking the outbreak of the club’s second civil war under Ashley. Kinnear had two transfer windows to deliver on his promises to bring players to club and failed both times. On the pitch, results had been good up until about Christmas time. With wins over Chelsea, Spurs and Man United to their name, Newcastle were flying high and looking like an outside bet for a Champions League spot. Form has since dipped and with Cabaye gone and un-replaced, it’s difficult to see Newcastle again reaching the heights they reached in the first few months of the season and the next few months will really test the resolve of the fans.
Their misery was epitomised on Saturday with a second consecutive 3-0 home defeat to Sunderland, during which one fan stormed the pitch attempting to throw his season ticket at manager Alan Pardew. I can only assume if Ashley was in the dugout he’d have been the target but Pardew is held just as accountable in many eyes, merely by his association and the fact that he, like Ashley, is a Londoner.
One can only hope that for the sake of what is a great club, that the conflict between fans and owner is resolved for good, sooner rather than later. Newcastle have enjoyed some good spells under Ashley’s ownership but these past seven years have, for the most part, been filled with unrest and anger for the club’s legions of fans and in the wake of recent events it’s likely that the tension will continue to grow over the coming months. The abuse levelled at Ashley can’t be easy for any man to take. The Geordie fans will never warm to having a Londoner in charge of their club and it would be in the best interest of both parties to end this bitter marriage as soon as possible before the club slides back down into the abyss.