The 200% Premier League Pre-Season: Newcastle United
There are several football clubs at which a sense of conflict has, in recent years, become the normal state of affairs, but at few has the sense of embitterment on the part of the supporters been as keenly as felt as it has at Newcastle United. Mike Ashley took control of the club in 2007, but it took less than a year and a half from the point of his take-over for it be publicly announced that it was up for sale for the first time and, against an atmosphere of increasing acrimony since then, the club has tumbled back into the Football League Championship, wandered back into the Premier League at a canter, and surprised everybody by managing European football at the end of the season before last before something approaching normal service – as if there could ever be such a thing as “normal” when it comes to Newcastle United – resumed last season with a sixteenth placed finish. If there were any consolations to be had from such a dismal season, then at least the club’s supporters could point to having finished three points ahead of rivals Sunderland, but this was little more than a thin gruel of a consolation. Last season was more than a disappointment for Newcastle United. It was an abomination.
Mike Ashley seems to have two aspects to his leadership style which are near-unique, even amongst the blaggers, grabbers and carpet-baggers who make up the current owners of football clubs in this country. On the one hand, he has an astonishing sense of being able to pull stunts that will drive those that support the club that he owns into a state of apoplexy, and this could be seen through decision to reappoint Joe Kinnear as the club’s Director of Football at the start of the summer. Newcastle supporters, who saw Kinnear as being one of the fundamental reasons why their club was dragged from the Premier League several years ago and have been the most vocal in calling out the oddness of this appointment for what it was, have found themselves baffled by his pronouncements in the media since his appointment, but the one thing that we know for certain about Kinnear’s appointment is that if he was brought to the club to bring the best talent to St James Park, then he has so far failed.
So far this summer, the squad that finished last season in sixteenth place in the Premier League has only been strengthened so far by the addition of Oliver Kemen from the French club Metz. This player only turned seventeen a couple of weeks ago so, while it is fair to point out – stop us if you’ve heard this line before – that he is “highly rated” – there is every chance that this talent might yet turn to dust, and it would certainly be absurd to assume that placing the burden of expectation upon the shoulders of such a young player would be anything like a wise idea.
The party line, of course, is that this isn’t the only transfer activity that will take place over the course of the summer, but in some respects it is very much like Newcastle United that the player hinted at being the marquee summer signing for the club might be Loic Remy, whose arrival at Queens Park Rangers in January emphatically did not mean that Rangers managed to avoid relegation and a player who has a degree of baggage that he carries around with him in the form of a bail charge over an alleged rape that took place at the start of May this year. We obviously cannot comment upon the player’s guilt or innocence in this case, but one can certainly only marvel at a club who make their major summer transfer target a player with this sort of matter hanging as yet resolved in his near future.
The other key “skill” that Ashley seems to bring to the boardroom table at St James Park is an ability to create some sort of fuss where absolutely none is necessary, as could be seen from the decision to the decision to pair the club up with a payday loan lender at a time when the groundswell of complaints about that particular form of usury is starting to reach fever pitch levels, but he also managed to manage to irritate one of the club’s genuine talents, Papiss Demba Cisse, to such an extent that a dispute kicked off which could only be eventually resolved with the assistance of the Professional Footballers’ Association and Muslim clerics.
Cisse made his debut wearing a payday-loan-branded shirt in the club’s two-nil win at St Mirren last week – a result into which, like all other pre-season friendly results, we are reading absolutely nothing – and this lent grist to the mill of those that had been claiming that Cisse’s protests may have had as much to do with trying to engineer a move away from St James Park as any religious considerations, but – and it’s important to point out at this juncture that we have no idea what Cisse’s motivation for his protest against these sponsors was – ultimately this unseemly sideshow was yet another example of a club that seems to be considerably better at making the wrong sort of headlines than the right ones.
There are plenty who feel that manager Alan Pardew’s head is already on the chopping block with the arrival of Kinnear at the club at the start of this summer, and there are others who will point to the other players with which the club is being linked as a signifier of the fact that, even after last season’s at best tepid performance, this team is still only two or three players and a handful of good luck away from reaching a mid-table position or better. Still, though, the suspicion remains that there are too many people with too much control at St James Park who are capable of creating a drama or a crisis where none previously existed, people who have got by with something approaching a scatter-gun approach to senior management and have found themselves stumbling over their successes on the way to a more perpetual feeling imminent “CRISIS.”
And perhaps the most frustrating thing about Newcastle United is that the potential is so clearly, obviously there. It’s not a matter of the supporters of this particular club being “the best supporters in the world” (don’t take this too personally, Newcastle supporters, but the viewpoint that there is one fan-base that is somehow “better than” the rest is, simply put, not one that we subscribe to), but merely that there are enough of them and that they will turn out to watch anything approaching a winning team. St James Park holds over 52,000 people and Newcastle United could easily fill that week in and week out, if the club was handled with the care and attention that it deserves. Newcastle United are too good to go down this season, but this small fact hasn’t stopped such a scenario from playing out before, and unless the likes of Mike Ashley and Joe Kinnear can stop acting like bulls in a china shop with regard to their treatment of the club, it’s likely that only a modest improvement on the travails of last season may be the very best that Newcastle United can hope for this time around.
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