The last day of the Premier League season will usually bring a last flurry of activity from the press, and last night they went into meltdown. The Guardian, for example, managed three articles on its Sport Blog page in the subject of Newcastle United’s relegation. By the time this has finished, we’ll have managed two on here. There is a reason for this – the basic rules of supply and demand. Ultimately, there is a voracious appetite for stories about Newcastle’s downfall which transcends even the usual Monday morning bickering that dominates the message boards, forums and blogs.
The reaction to recent events at St James Park seems to have been a mass outbreak of schadenfreude. There is an extent to which this is merely a broader representation of the culture that we inhabit. As I write this, “Britain’s Got Talent” is playing merrily away to itself in the background. Sometimes, it feels as if everything that we do is some sort of talent show. MPs fiddling their expenses are rounded upon by the public, who are clamouring for a general election. We want, apparently, to vote them out. Football, of course, is a slightly different matter. We can’t vote football teams out. However, when providence goes against them, we are more than happy to indulge in a spot of laughing at them and pointing. To the nearest extent that such a thing is possible, Newcastle United were voted out of “The Premier League’s Got Talent” yesterday.
It’s probably worthwhile asking the question, however, of how we arrived at this point. Why were so many people, who otherwise probably wouldn’t give a toss about them, so pleased to see them slide out of the Premier League. Would the reaction have been this shrill had it been, say, Aston Villa or Everton that had been relegated yesterday? The answer to that is probably “no” (though supporters of Birmingham City and Liverpool may choose to disagree), so why is this? Here, again, we have to look back to the media. Amongst the long-term inmates of the Premier League, stereotypes of most clubs have been created that are slavishly adhered to, and the treatment of Newcastle United seems to have got through to the general public, creating a mild form of aggravation that had its outlet yesterday.
There are probably three aspects of the media’s treatment of Newcastle United that drive people to distraction more than anything else. The first is the perception of an easy ride that they have got since Alan Shearer took over as manager, in particular from the BBC. There has been a widely held body of opinion that BBC football punditry has been little more than an Old Boys Club for some years, now. Partly it is because the longest term and most visible parts of their team, Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson, both came from the same Liverpool team. Partly it’s because the BBC has often mistaken a lack of insight for informality, casting off the ties, suit jackets and rigorous analysis in favour of light-heartedness and banter.
When Newcastle appointed Alan Shearer, one of the Old Boys Club walked straight into the biggest jobs in football with no discernible qualifications and, unsurprisingly, very little criticism of the appointment in the media. Yet Shearer has not been successful. This morning’s league tables confirm that. The very best that can be said of him is the opinion that Newcastle were a basket case when he took the job, and that no-one could have saved them. The counter-argument to that, however, would be to say that the very nature of Newcastle’s supine exit from the Premier League indicates that Shearer failed to instil the values (however wrong-headed they may be) that even the most hopeless of optimist would have expected him to. And yet Shearer, one of the central committee of the Old Boys Club, largely escaped criticism himself.
The second thing is the media perception of Newcastle’s support as being “the best fans in the world”. Whether they are or not is largely irrelevant, of course. What matters is that the club and, to an extent, it’s supporters have sometimes given the impression of having taken this soubriquet to heart a little too much. The media’s perpetuation of this lazy stereotype drives the supporters of other clubs to distraction. Every time Gary Lineker (or whoever) calls Newcastle fans “the best in the world”, they are belittling supporters of every other club. It is a comment that has been made so many times that it is hardly surprising that some Newcastle supporters (and how many of them swallow it is obviously not known) have started to believe it, but this only serves to further entrench the faultlines between them and supporters of other clubs.
The third main reason may appear to be a little from column A and a little from column B, but it is actually slightly broader issue. It is the perception that Newcastle United are “too big to go down”. This is, of course, both metaphorically and literally a fallacy. In a literal sense, the three clubs with the least points at the end of the season. Metaphorically, though, there is also no truth in it. If there was, we might as well abandon this outdated concept of “league tables” now and decide it all upon the size of the average home attendance. One of the most fascinating (and frequently the most entertaining) aspects of the game is that it remains – bar a few at the very top – capable of relegating the likes of Newcastle United. As money has become more and more of a factor in the pursuit of success, the phrase “too big to go down” could be replaced with “too rich to go down”, and it is again something that rubs people up the wrong way. “Too big to go down, eh? The league table would seem to indicate otherwise”, seems to be the reaction of many this morning.
All of this is exacerbated by the emerging perception of relegation as some sort of absolute disaster when, of course, it needn’t be. With average home crowds of almost 50,000 and Premier League parachute money yet to come, the superficial thing to say is that they should just promotion straight back. It isn’t, however, as simple as that. Newcastle are currently debt-free, but last night “Match Of The Day”s commentator stated that Newcastle currently have fifteen players earning more than £50,000 per week. If this figure is anything like the truth, Newcastle have big problems. It would mean that their wage budget is something like £1m per week, when taking into account all of their lower earners. This sort of wage budget may be vaguely sustainable in the Premier League, but in the Championship this is obviously a completely unrealistic figure.
What, then, do Newcastle do about this? The good news is that two or three of their highest earners are out of contract. The bad news is that the rest of them aren’t. What manager is going to take on a Newcastle player on £50,000 per week for next season? They may take them if the price is right, but that would most likely mean a fire sale over the coming weeks. It’s no overstatement to say that it could cost them tens of millions of pounds just to jettison the players that they have got. As for next season, they have a dilemma: do they risk it all on an immediate return to the Premier League and risk losing everything in the manner of Leeds United or Southampton, or do they cut their cloth accordingly, which obviously reduces their chances of an immediate return in what will be, as it is every year, a very competitive division?
Who will be managing them next season is also open to debate. Alan Shearer won’t be cheap (regardless of any shortcomings that he may have as manager) and, again, they are unlikely to have the money to spend on an expensive replacement. It would be less than surprising if they started next season with Iain Dowie in charge, which must be a sobering thought for all Newcastle supporters. Ultimately, we have been saying on here since last August that this season, of all seasons, was the one that clubs had to get through without getting relegated. Financially profligate Newcastle are probably the one club of the realistic contenders for the drop that could least afford it. The proposed take-over of the club is now most likely dead in the water. Indeed, another benefactor may be the only solution to their projected woes but, given that Mike Ashley has been unable to sell the club as a Premier League club, what are the chances of him selling to somebody with the required disposable income in the current climate?
For these reasons, I didn’t laugh at Newcastle’s relegation yesterday. For once, the sobbing supporters gleefully picked out by the television cameras might actually, perhaps without even fully realising it, have something genuine to cry about. Whilst the unrestrained excitement of the supporters of other club is, in some ways, understandable, something about the atmosphere at Villa Park yesterday afternoon gave away that this might turn out to be more than a mere relegation. There is very little that we can say about Newcastle’s recent past or current condition that offers a particularly healthy prognosis for the club. It’s too early to give a definitive estimate of how this will pan out, but one thing seems likely – the next couple of months or so might just turn out to be the most important in the history of Newcastle United Football Club.