Monday 23 April 2018

Only naked truth remains now the joys of summer have gone

Dion Fanning

The summer was always a special time at Newcastle United. They have a race memory of those golden evenings when they could march in happy unison to St James' Park. They knew that their children were safe to wander the streets and would come to no greater harm than an encounter with a Sky Sports News crew who would broadcast their views to millions.

Hope and expectation were unsullied by the mundane necessity of winning football matches. Summer was when you won hearts and minds. Newcastle United still have the people's hearts. Their minds are now elsewhere.

When the series of outrageous trespasses on the dignity of Newcastle United over the years are considered, Mike Ashley's achievement is all the more remarkable. He has succeeded where all others failed: he has robbed Newcastle United's supporters of all hope; he has robbed them of summer hope.

A reminder of how things were came with the appearance of Freddy Shepherd at the Sir Bobby Robson Classic in the Algarve on tv last week. Freddy, like everyone, spoke fondly of Sir Bobby and confessed that the hardest thing he had done in the game was sack one of his managers. That manager was Sir Bobby Robson.

Implicit in his sadness was an understanding that sometimes sentiment has to be put to one side in pursuit of the greater good. You could imagine Peter Hill-Wood saying the hardest thing he ever had to do at Arsenal was sack Bruce Rioch, but he did it because it brought in Arsene Wenger.

Nobody is doubting that Freddy found it hard to sack Sir Bobby but perhaps he could have been more honest and said it was the stupidest thing he'd ever done.

Even then, they never gave up on Newcastle. Even when Freddy had sacked Sir Bobby and replaced him with Graeme Souness, the people found hope from somewhere. They marched up the hill to welcome Michael Owen on one of the finest of all their fine summer days.

Now they no longer even have summer. It is hard to feel hopeful when Alan Pardew is delivering his technocratic mantras and Joey Barton is telling the truth.

Many of these truths are self-evident. Newcastle have sold Kevin Nolan, a leader, and alienated others who watched as they sacked Chris Hughton last season and sold Andy Carroll.

Barton appears to have recovered his feelings which is good news and bad news. He has committed some horrific acts of violence in the past but Twitter has allowed him to demonstrate a capacity for change. Last April, I wrote in defence of Barton and received emails telling me that he was a thug and should never be considered anything but a thug. Some who think that way might at least now consider him a thug with a thirst for knowledge and good taste in music.

Barton's Twitter musings have revealed some complexity. Mostfootball clubs don't like complexity because it suggests something that can't be controlled, yet it is more valuable than they understand (Sunderland's Twitter guidelines for their players were surprisingly refreshing).

It certainly is more important than the breach of a few club protocols. Apparatchiks like Pardew exist to observe protocols or, in their ideal world, create a few new ones.

Barton was once seen as all that was wrong with the modern game and there are many who would still view him as the sum of his violent acts. That's fine but if he has portrayed himself as a more complex figure then that is for the good. Nobody benefits from the urge to pare human beings down to a headline. One-dimensional figures don't exist. It has taken a site that limits expression to 140 characters to challenge convention.

Newcastle believe their problems have been caused by Twitter. There may be supporters who are angry with Barton for speaking out but Twitter didn't cause the problems, the continued mismanagement of the club did.

To deal with the trouble caused by Twitter or at least the trouble caused by having an articulate and intelligent player use it, Pardew consulted with Alex Ferguson. It could be said that consulting with Alex Ferguson about a matter which broadly relates to freedom of speech tells you all you need to know about the wider consultancy business. In fact, you don't need to make the call to imagine his response:

"I'm very glad you asked me this, Pards," Sir Alex might have said. "Only the other day I was talking to Mike Phelan about Twitter and I said to him, 'Mike, there's been a paradigm shift in the methods players use for communicating and it ill behoves us to stand in the way of these new methods which bring the players in touch with the fans in a way we thought had disappeared.' He agreed with me.

"Ultimately Pards, this is a freedom of speech issue. You can allow the players to speak intelligently to people and realise that ultimately this is more rewarding and beneficial for the players, who are seen as three-dimensional figures, and the clubs who can be seen as still having some connection with the community.

"It will counter the image that has been created through the mechanical harvesting of bland quotes. Or you can censor them and let them become vapid promoters of their own dubious brand and associated merchandise like Rio Ferdinand. Pards, I recommend embracing this. Don't be heavy-handed, use a lightness of touch with this revolutionary social medium. The world we knew has changed forever and we're just going to have to change with it."

Or did he just suggest a clampdown?

Manchester United aren't successful because they have established a prudent code of conduct for their players in the use of new social media. Newcastle United won't be successful by cracking down on Twitter. Pardew sounded helpless last week, pleading for some guidelines from the Premier League. He was a middle manager looking for help from above.

Newcastle panicked last week because Barton was revealing a truth. Their clampdown told the same story. Newcastle have been robbed of hope by Mike Ashley because they have lost their flawed spirit of adventure.

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