Newcastle United: There Used To Be A Football Club Over There
On Saturday afternoon at St James Park, the wheels finally gave the impression to the outside world of falling comprehensively off the wagon. Maybe this was the moment at which the scales fell from the eyes of the remaining few who held out much hope for Newcastle United in the overall scheme of things. According to the script, AFC Bournemouth were due to be in the position that Newcastle currently find themselves in, but this has been a season that steadfastly refused to follow any established scripts, so far. Not only did Bournemouth beat Newcastle with a degree of comfort for a match which might, when viewed through a certain light, have been considered a relegation six-pointer prior to kick-off, but the visitors’ comfortable win virtually guaranteed their Premier League survival for next season. With eleven points between the Cherries and the dotted line that represents the demarcation line between failure and survival, Newcastle United’s supporters stood on the sidelines watching – and quite possibly envying – a team that is, in many respects, the antithesis of their own outplaying their own shambles.
Such have been the levels or excitement generated at the top of the Premier League this season that the troubles of some of the clubs near the foot of the table have, perhaps, not quite been reported with the fervour that they might have been in other, more predictable year. Indeed, when Newcastle United last found themselves floundering like this, seven years ago, the closing stages of the season became like a macabre soap opera as Alan Shearer arrived at St James Park on a mission to try and prove that he could reverse gravity. He couldn’t, but Newcastle’s stay amongst the flotsam and jetsam of the Football League Championship proved to be a brief one. A feeling of unhappy detente has lain over the club since then, like a heavy cloud threatening a downpour that has never quite materialised, but there were spots of rain in the air last weekend, and if that develops into something that floods the club over the next few weeks, well, very few people, surely, would colour themselves surprised, now, would they?
The current personae non grata at St James Park comprises lengthy and ignoble list, but for now the majority of attention seems to directed towards manager Steve McClaren. To a point, this is understandable. After all, the role of the manager in modern football, it often seems, is to act as a conduit for the many frustrations that seem to bump against each other within a football club. At this precise moment in time, however, opinion seems to be divided over whether McClaren is a good coach but a terrible manager or whether he is no longer a good coach and a terrible manager. The sense that the situation at the club is spiralling from his control has only been accentuated by his dealings with the press over the course of the last few days or so, though, and familiar vultures are starting to circle over the club as his time in charge of the club appears to enter its death throes stage.
To blame the manager and the manager alone, however, is usually too simplistic a reaction to problems at any club, and this seems to be as much the case at Newcastle United as it would be anywhere else. The club’s players took the somewhat unusual step of issuing a statement on Saturday morning iterating their support for the manager, an action that took on a somewhat ironic air when we consider their listless performance that afternoon. It is reasonable to briefly mention that appalling luck with injuries over the course of the season has meant that McClaren has been unable to deal from a full pack very often this season and it might be argued that the club’s somewhat singular transfer policy of only bringing in players under the age of twenty-six has meant a lack of those older campaigners with previous experience of what is required to successfully circumnavigate the treacherous waters that constitute a scrap against relegation.
Yoan Gouffran, Emmanuel Rivière, Florian Thauvin, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Rémy Cabella, Massadio Haïdara, Sylvain Marveaux and Siem de Jong might all have been costly failures, but the club was happy to give them contracts and it’s in this that we come to see the extent to which the club’s problems are considerably greater than can likely be resolved by changing the manager or even the players. The problems that beset Newcastle United feel like a form of dry rot that is permeating every corner of the club. This week, directors have met with a view to discussing Steve McClaren’s future, but they’ve been unable to keep control of the media message over it all. One minute he’s out, the next he’s staying. One minute it’s Rafael Benitez that they’re courting to replace him, the next it’s David Moyes. Or Brendon Rodgers. The chief scout, Graham Carr, who is the source of these transfer disasters, is believed to be a part of the senior management team that deciding whether to replace McClaren, alongside managing director Lee Charnley, club ambassador Bob Moncur and the rest of the board of the club.
Mike Ashley, however, isn’t there, proof of exactly the rudderlessness that has been one of Newcastle United’s biggest problems in recent years. The club has spent much of the last forty-eight hours or so deep in discussion over the manager’s future, but even after all that time the best it can manage is to say that a decision will be made within the next forty-eight hours. It’s likely that this is because the club hasn’t quite yet managed to secure the signature of McClaren’s successor just yet, and the strong probability remains that McClaren will be gone by the time the Newcastle United teams takes to the pitch at The King Power Stadium against Leicester City next Monday night. This failure to keep control of the story – which may or may not be related to its decision to bar virtually all media from official channels into the club apart from its “preferred media partner” the Daily Mirror – and the accompanying failure to make a decisive decision all add to the sense that nobody is truly in control of Newcastle United at the moment whilst everybody jostles to preserve their own hides in the event that the sort of structural changes that clearly need to be made within the club do finally come to pass.
With all this messing about, one might be persuaded that the situation at Newcastle United isn’t urgent, that there are no constraints of time, and that the club will benefit from playing the waiting game. This, however, is categorically not the case. The club has ten matches in which it can save its Premier League place and the two matches following next week’s trip to Leicester are against two of the other three clubs now cast adrift at the foot of the table. Sunderland and Norwich City. At the time of writing, Newcastle United are one place off the bottom of the Premier League, a desperate position in which to find themselves even though they do have a game in hand on the teams immediately above them. But the stakes are high. The new television deal kicks in this summer and the minimum that anyone in the Premier League next season will make from being there will be £100m, and Newcastle United, a club which has managed in such a way that it was described at the start of this week y the Daily Telegraph’s Paul Hayward as “no longer a football club in the conventional sense but a mutation of Sports Direct,” might well miss out on it all.
It feels peculiar to say it, but if almost feels as if the four clubs at the foot of the Premier League table are sleepwalking towards this expensive trapdoor. But is Newcastle United even a football club any more? As recounted in Hayward’s excellent article, in his book ‘Up There – The North-East Football Boom & Bust’, the writer Michael Walker counts “137 Sports Direct signs and logos from one side of the pitch.” Mike Ashley has never made any great secret of his desire to use Newcastle United as part of the marketing arm for his sportswear company, but that marketing won’t be much use in the Championship, and it seems unlikely that he, Newcastle United or Sports Direct will be better off without the money that spending next year in the Premier League would bring. Even from a pragmatic point of view, the way in which Newcastle United has managed itself this season doesn’t really make any sense.
The supporters don’t even have the luxury of viewing it all from an entirely pragmatic angle, of course. Their emotional attachment to the club only makes seeing it in this state again on Ashley’s watch will only cause some to drift away altogether, whilst the interest of others may continue to diminish over time. This was always a fundamental part of the deal with football clubs, that they retain the heartfelt love of people because they are not merely businesses, with objectives and profit/loss balance sheets. They touch a raw nerve within us that bends our loyalty and often makes us act against our better instincts. Clubs have done – and are still doing – very nicely out of all of this, but at a club like Newcastle United, which is starting to look like just another business, who could blame the supporters if they drifted away, to Gateshead, to a recently resurgent Northern League, or away from the game altogether? Having spent so much time treating supporters like little more than consumers, clubs could hardly complain if those who have been putting ever-increasing amounts of money into the club chose to act like consumers instead and just walked away. There did used to be a football club over there, at St James Park. The question now is whether there ever can be one again, no matter which division it’s playing in, who’s managing it, or who’s playing for it.
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