Our resident Newcastle fan, Marley, gives his thoughts on the Newcastle situation.
In June 2007, £134m changed hands and Newcastle United had a new owner. Mike Ashley, a high-street tycoon famed for making Sports Direct one of the most recognisable companies in the UK, was the man to promise good times on Tyneside, as he purchased the club’s majority stake from Sir John Hall.
It started relatively well, with Ashley targeting success, pumping a handsome sum of cash into the club while wearing his replica shirt in the crowd, drinking beer with fans and painting himself as “one of the lads”.
Fast forward 14 years, and the billionaire is one of the most hated men in the North East and beyond, having held the club in what seemed like an airtight chokehold for the best part of his reign. Managers came and went, players mostly stayed and stagnated as other areas of the club were not invested in, and it’s only the terrier-like relentlessness of Amanda Staveley and her consortium that finally ended in Newcastle’s miserable spell.
The scenes outside St James’ Park and across Newcastle this week have been special. Fans are finally free of the owner that suffocated the hope out of them, and are ready to throw their hopes and dreams at a club ran by the Saudi Public Investment Fund, PCP Capital Partners and the Reuben Brothers.
We’ll come onto the elephant in the room slightly later, but for now Newcastle fans can’t be blamed for having an injection of hope after over a decade of no such thing.
This was a club that in recent years have handed Alan Pardew an eight-year contract (that would only have expired last summer), allowed Rafa Benitez to slip through their fingers, renamed St James’ Park to the “Sports Direct Arena”, and appointed an endless succession of inept decision makers in important roles.
As regular listeners of the Football Social Daily podcast will know, I’m a Newcastle fan since birth, something that comes from my father being born and raised in Gateshead, even though I was born and grew up in Cumbria, somewhere which has relatively few Newcastle fans. I’m a believer in the thought of you should always follow your dad’s team, even if they stink the place out for decades at a time.
It started well enough, my earliest memories of football were “The Entertainers” period of Newcastle, with Kevin Keegan leading a team of top talent every week with the tactic of “if you score three, we’ll score four”. Alan Shearer was signed for a world record fee and Newcastle should have became one of the top clubs in England, but things ultimately didn’t work out, and the era ended.
After the John Hall period ended and Ashley came in, bleaker times soon arrived. The ridicule came too, none more so than in September 2008, when Joe Kinnear replaced the sacked Keegan and became Newcastle manager. Within a week, he’d used a press conference to call Simon Bird, a newspaper reporter, a “c*nt”, relating to an article he’d penned about him some years previous. Talk about holding a grudge.
That kind of set the tone for things under Kinnear. Dennis Wise was bizarrely appointed as Executive Director, and the “Cockney Mafia” was running things at St James’ Park. This led to a few embarrassing episodes, perhaps none more so than when Newcastle signed a midfielder by the name of Ignacio Gonzalez. It later turned out that Gonzalez, who made just two appearances for the Magpies, was signed after those in charge of scouting had watched a YouTube highlight compilation of the Uruguayan, before deciding that he was the one to boost their midfield. It’s perhaps no surprise that thanks to decisions like that, Newcastle were relegated for the first time in the Premier League era.
Also during that ill-fated season came another slightly more forgotten about episode, as Hull City beat Newcastle at St James’ Park, wearing Newcastle’s very own away shorts. Hull’s home kit featured black shorts, which clashed with Newcastle’s home attire, so the situation ended with the Tigers borrowing Newcastle’s white away shorts, and beating them thanks to two goals from Marlon King. You couldn’t make it up, the banter era had begun.
It gets funnier. Joe Kinnear was settling into his job by scouting a Championship match one night, when a left-sided player by the name of Shane Ferguson caught his eye. Kinnear reported back to his colleagues that Newcastle should look at a move for the Northern Ireland international, only to be informed that Ferguson was on loan at Birmingham from Newcastle.
When Kinnear finally departed the club due to health reasons and Chris Hughton had brought Newcastle back to the top flight, Alan Pardew arrived. Andy Carroll, a local lad who fans saw as a hero was banging goals in left, right and centre, and the likes of Joey Barton, Kevin Nolan and Fabricio Coloccini had Newcastle in a relatively good place.
Then January 2011 came around, and Carroll was sold on transfer deadline day to Liverpool for £35m, giving Newcastle no time to sign a replacement. Shefki Kuqi ended up signing for the club a few days later on a free, and the fact the Fin himself said he was surprised to be a Newcastle player tells you everything you need to know about that one. Six appearances and no goals later, he was let go.
I could be here for days writing about the banter era of Newcastle United, but I feel the point has been made. Any fan that has gone through the days of watching Emmanuel Riviere trying to play football, Rafa Benitez plead with Ashley to give him the cash to sign Salomon Rondon rather than Joelinton, or Facundo Ferreyra deserves the chance to have their dreams reignited by new owners.
Let’s address the elephant in the room; the new owners.
In an ideal world, my dream scenario would be a local businessman buying Newcastle United and running it ambitiously, trying to compete with teams above them and chase an elusive trophy. We’d have club legends in ambassadorial roles, a decent scouting network and local talent hoovered up and put through the academy. In recent years, Newcastle has produced Michael Carrick and further back the likes of Bobby Charlton, both of which were allowed to slip through the net. Even Alan Shearer had to go to Southampton to break through.
But the reality of the situation is now that football has gone way past rich people being able to buy clubs and run them as they see fit. The influx of money into the Premier League, that can be tracked back to 1992 when the competition was formed, has accelerated so quickly in the past decade that only state-backed investors can afford to play the game at the highest level.
Roman Abramovich kicked everything into a new gear in 2003 when he bought Chelsea, and recently Manchester City pulled their seat up to the table when Sheikh Mansour chose them to win the lottery.
My point is this; you’ve missed the boat by about 18 years if you think oil money shouldn’t be allowed to make an impact in football. Players are regularly being paid over £150,000 a week at clubs across the country, and it’s not going to slow down anytime soon.
This doesn’t make me oblivious to the Saudi owners’ track record when it comes to issues like human rights, homophobia and Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. But, as mentioned on Thursday’s podcast, the UK/Saudi relationship has been ongoing for the last 20 years, and wades through similarly murky waters. We might never know the details of everything, but no one in this world is squeaky clean.
It’s possible for Newcastle United fans to acknowledge the alleged crimes of the Saudi state, while at the same time being happy that their club has new owners and good times may be coming. The celebrations outside St James’ Park this week were as much for Mike Ashley finally leaving than anything else.
And that’s where I find myself. In that middle ground of being hopeful for the future, but not ignoring that our new owners have a chequered past to say the least.
At the end of the day, no fan is going to give up a lifetime of supporting their club over a moral issue, and the pressure coming from the media and other fans to do just that is not going to come to fruition. Newcastle United fans want their club to compete on the field and they’re going to get that by the sounds of things.