The Summer of Discontent: Newcastle United – Pile ‘Em High, Sell ‘Em Cheap
For Newcastle United supporters, holding onto hope over the last few seasons has been like trying to keep hold of a handful of sand. The club has been up for sale for almost two years, but several serious bids to buy it have floundered. The only thing that all of those negotiations have had in common has been Mike Ashley. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to make the presumption that he is likely the issue when it comes to selling the club. There have been brief flickerings of hope, such as the point at which the interest of the Bin Zayed Group looked possible, at which point it bordered upon a mania, such was the disparity between where the club is and where it might be with oil money. Such is the nature of the modern game.
And with that came the next dread scenario. I dare say that Rafael Benitez arrived in Newcastle-upon-Tyne with the best of intentions but also understood that if Newcastle United is ever going to come close to matching both the the club and the city’s perceptions of themselves, investment in players is going to be required. When the club’s long-standing owner Mike Ashley refused the money that Benitez believed was required, the final, flickering light of optimism that many fans had held onto was extinguished. Ashley arrived at the club with the persona of a “fan” – a beer drinking, ha’way the lads, man of the people – but he’s nothing of the sort, really. A fan wouldn’t let their club come to this. Not to save a bob or two.
This horror film-esque unravelling continued apace when the club decided to overlook the plethora of young coaching talent across the whole of Europe and make Steve Bruce their number one target for the manager’s job. He took the offer , pissing off supporters of both former club Sheffield Wednesday and his new club over the manner in which he left Hillsborough and going to St James Park at all, respectively. So, not only did Newcastle United appoint a manager who precisely no-one else at Newcastle United wanted, but they also appointed a man who stumbled through departing his previous job with a similar amount of grace to that which he’d have managed had he confirmed his resignation to Wednesday through the medium of interpretive dance. It would be unsurprising if he turned up for his first press conference there with his head stuck in a letterbox. His arrival at Newcastle – with £4m to be paid in compensation – was announced this morning. Presumably that’ll be coming off his summer transfer budget.
But what does Steve Bruce bring to the party? His speciality has become getting teams promoted out of the Championship. He’s done it a record four times. That skill shouldn’t be underrated, of course. Bruce’s track record keeps him in work – failure to match his previous record cost his job at Aston Villa last season – and everybody knows just how much it’s worth to clubs who do make it to the top table. As one of a tranche of clubs – see also Leeds United, Nottingham Forest, Coventry City – the length of whose absences from the Premier League surprises anyone who stops to think about it, Steve Bruce fits the bill. A steady, experienced hand on the tiller. Has been there and done it, and has already achieved what Sheffield Wednesday want more than anything else, more than anybody else.
Steve Bruce in the Premier League, however, is a somewhat different matter. He hasn’t managed at this level for four years, and he hasn’t been appointed as a Premier League manager in more than a decade. His record at the clubs that he has taken into the Premier League has been tepid, and when we consider the circumstances surrounding Rafal Benitez’s departure from the club the likelihood of investment seems slim. Indeed, Ashley has pushed himself into a corner a bit, there. Investing financially in Steve Bruce after having completely blown off Rafael Benitez would make no logical sense, and of the many things I might believe Mike Ashley to be, I do not consider him to be stupid.
Season ticket sales are believed to be sluggish and there is talk of a boycott for the first home Premier League match of the season against Arsenal. Some tangible measure of the strength of feeling on Tyneside will become clear at that point. In the meantime, Newcastle United feel like a sagging balloon before a ball has even been kicked to mark the start of the season. The best way out remains a takeover, but with all interest having broken down, Mike Ashley remains stuck with the club and the club remains stuck with Mike Ashley. And Steve Bruce, the doughiest imaginable choice whose employment as a replacement for Rafael Benitez speaks volumes about the lack of ambition at a club that is straining at the leash to leave the torpor of recent years behind.