Wednesday 16 January 2019

Geordies need another messiah to justify immaculate deception

The way things are going, Newcastle United may become the first football club to apply to Dignitas for assistance. At Leyton Orient last Saturday, it looked like only Charlie Chawke could save them.

This column needs a vibrant Newcastle United, a Newcastle United of grandiose ambition and rampaging ego. I consider myself to be a stakeholder in the club. If I'm not quite a believer in their various mission statements over the years, I defend to the death their right to say them and most of the time I welcome them. So to be a witness at what Chris Hughton charitably described as a "large blip in an excellent pre-season" at Brisbane Road last weekend was a little troubling.

In the recent history of Newcastle United, however, it cannot be described as anything other than utterly predictable. Newcastle lost 6-1 and as they began the search for that desperate yet elusive property, "positives" among the wreckage, they could only cling to the notion that, by the end of this month, most of the stars who were playing last weekend will have left the club. At least these days they have a reserve team.

They have tried everything else. People warn that Newcastle United are in danger of "doing a Leeds" but it can be argued that when it comes to hubris, Newcastle United make Leeds look as modest as Dario Gradi's Crewe Alexandra.

A couple of top two finishes in the mid-1990s hardly constitutes a golden age. That was a time when Arsene Wenger was trying to explain the benefits of broccoli to his wayward squad, Roy Evans was managing by committee at Anfield a couple of seasons before Liverpool decided they would officially be managed by committee and Roman Abramovich was just moving out of the rubber duck business in Moscow.

Newcastle were everybody's second team but there was only one other team. On that crumbling rock, a decade of bitterness and conceit was sustained. There were other crumbling rocks and when we considered crumbling rocks, we need look no further than the vaudeville act of Bramble and Boumsong. The only surprise is that they weren't present at Brisbane Road last Saturday.

It was an occasion they would have relished: a Newcastle team in complete disarray concedes an early goal and, despite all the finger-pointing and head-shaking, never gave an indication that this was a process they had any intention of arresting.

In the stands, they seemed to have come to the same conclusion pretty quickly. They hadn't exactly spilled off the trains from the north-east to see this one. My friend, an exiled Geordie, claimed that Barcelona, who were also in London, had a great affinity with Newcastle and their supporters would head east to support their second team. They kept their heads down if they did.

One fan told his mate to turn around pretty quickly if he "didn't want to get punched". Strangely he wanted him to turn towards the action and there was general bile directed at everyone from Jonah Guitterez to Mike Ashley.

Ashley is still there, desperate to get out but still signing cheques every day, still keeping the club going with the help of a massive overdraft. Again, this strikes a chord. Many of us, when we consider the wreckage of our own lives, financial and otherwise, would have to admit that we are the Newcastles of our own world, full of big ideas and promises but with ambition always thwarted. We console ourselves that we are not Hull City.

Hull remain in the Premier League while Newcastle may now only be saved by their own unpredictability: it looks like only going one way, perhaps it will go the other.

By the end of the week, they were insisting they knew what they were doing again. They had played Leeds United in a fin-de-siècle friendly at St James' Park where they piped in some canned applause in case the mood was as ugly as it had been at Brisbane Road but they queued round the block to get in.

There was a time when Newcastle did not have this pressure to succeed and suffer the consequences of failure. There was a time when they did not gather on the streets to hail the return of Kevin Keegan or Alan Shearer who, by departing but leaving open the prospect of another return, is only following the traditional path for messiahs on Tyneside.

But that time is gone and everything seems to matter now. They will not go back to a time when only a few thousand cared and cared in private. There will always be a vox pop to tell us how they feel.

They lost Bobby Robson, a reminder that there was once a man who tried to do things as they should be done at the club, despite the pressures of the systemic dysfunction and his own remarkable and, at times, bewildering enthusiasm.

They let him go for a selection of mountebanks and then the predecessors of Ashley suggest that they knew what they were doing. The man who puts his hand up and says that he has the answers to their problems may be considered the greatest chancer of them all.

Their competitive season begins on Saturday at West Brom. They had a meeting in Brisbane Road after the game. Some players have left although Ashley has tried to keep them together, not to increase the chance of promotion, but to hold onto all his assets. If they are viewed as such, it must be seen as a great piece of creative accounting.

But if they were to deal only in home truths in the dressing room last Saturday, they would never have got out. Only a little bit of self-deception can keep Newcastle going now. It is their path to dignity.

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