Monday 25 March 2019

Loony Toon affairs still ruining shot at success

Newcastle United manager Rafael Benitez. Photo: Lee Smith/Action Images via Reuters
Newcastle United manager Rafael Benitez. Photo: Lee Smith/Action Images via Reuters

Daniel Taylor

When Kevin Keegan took over as manager at Newcastle United in 1992, the first thing he wanted to do was restore some pride in the place. Keegan had been at St James' Park as a player eight years earlier and nothing seemed to have been touched since he left. He was shocked by how filthy everything was and sure they were still the same stains on the communal baths at the club's training ground that had been there in his day.

The water had scum floating on the surface and Keegan's first request to the board for money was not for a new player but for the kind of secret makeover, on his first weekend back, that has become fashionable on daytime television. The walls got a lick of paint, the baths were jetted down and the first the players knew about it was the following Monday morning when they turned up to find the place gleaming. Newcastle, Keegan told them, needed to have standards. The club was too important, with too much going for it, not to be treated with care.

A quarter-of-a-century later, at least the modern-day Newcastle does not have to count that kind of neglect among their current problems. St James' Park, the place Bobby Robson used to call "the cathedral on the hill", has never looked better, if you can stomach the fact that, at the last count, 137 Sports Direct signs and logos could be counted from one side of the ground. The Leazes End, in particular, has dominated the city's skyline since the ground started being expanded and fans would take picnics to the nearby park to watch the stand going up.

The club have a different training ground and, sure, that is starting to look a little tired around the edges, too. The academy isn't too productive, either. Yet there is still, after all these nothing years, something about the club that makes you think there are great adventures to come.

With Newcastle, however, you quickly come to learn they will always find a way to make life difficult for themselves. As far as I'm aware, this is the only club in history who have waved goodbye to two players on free transfers and then watched them win the European Cup: Ronnie Simpson with Celtic in 1967 and Frank Clark with Nottingham Forest in 1979. Newcastle have not won a major trophy since 1969 - the year that man first set foot on the moon - and even that should come with an asterisk, bearing in mind teams were not invited to participate in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup simply because of their league positions in those days.

Newcastle finished 10th in 1968 but a one-club-per-city rule meant Everton, Tottenham and Arsenal were excluded by the presence of Liverpool and Chelsea. In terms of domestic honours, Newcastle do not have any since the FA Cup wins in 1951, 1952 and 1955. The last time Newcastle won the championship was 1926-'27.

All of which made it feel wearily familiar when the news started to filter through that the proposed deal for Amanda Staveley's PCP Capital Partners group to take control of the club, meaning Newcastle's supporters could finally start referring to Mike Ashley in the past tense, has ground to a halt since that period before Christmas when the current owner and the prospective one were breaking naan bread and amicably discussing the deal over a curry.

That was certainly an intriguing tactic for "sources close to Ashley" to go on the offensive and reveal the current regime have now given up on Staveley, slinging a fair bit of mud in the process by describing their dealings with her as "exhausting, frustrating and a complete waste of time".

It certainly doesn't strike me as encouraging, now Staveley has had her say as well, that both sides are using the media to position themselves and score a few points. Staveley has come back to make it clear she still wants to conclude a deal and says she has found the leaks from Newcastle "hurtful and absurd".

Both camps are employing PR aides to sprinkle on their magic dust and create a story that is more to their own liking. It is a staring contest. Perhaps Ashley wants to jolt Staveley into action. Staveley doesn't want to be backed into a corner. Nobody wants to blink first. And, nearly four months since the first explosion of takeover stories, there are glaciers that have moved quicker.

The upshot is that it leaves Newcastle in a state of limbo, with no obvious direction, a willing but limited team and a manager, Rafael Benítez, who will use every ploy necessary to make it known that people of his calibre deserve better.

The manager's future has inevitably been the subject of speculation - but that is just what Benítez does. He's clever. Jamie Carragher once described him as "the most political figure I've ever come across in football" and, though the stories will inevitably persist about whether or not Benítez wants to hang around, it feels suspiciously as if he is positioning himself in other ways.

Benítez has made absolutely certain that if Newcastle are sucked into the relegation quicksands all the blame should be apportioned to the people above him. He rarely misses an opportunity to point out he needs more money to sign new and better players - never mind the sapping effects this must have on the players who keep hearing they are not good enough - and he has skilfully taken advantage of the fact the Geordie public dislike Ashley to beef up his own position in the popularity polls.

Will he quit? I sincerely doubt it given the money he would lose. But he will happily leave everyone asking the question.

Nor is this one necessarily Ashley's fault, if the default setting when it comes to Newcastle is usually to think the worst of the club's owner. Yes, it has been clear for some time that Ashley has that rare knack of making an absolute fortune through business while also coming across as a bit of a plank. Yet the bottom line here is that he has an asking price of £350m (€397m) and the last of Staveley's bids, submitted on November 17, was for £250m with the promise that another £200m would be spent on new players and improving the club's infrastructure - as if that was ever going to appeal to Ashley once it was somebody else's name above the door.

If she was not trying to resurrect the deal, Staveley might have reasonably pointed out that "exhausting, frustrating and a complete waste of time" would be the perfect way of summing up the Ashley years at Newcastle and she is certainly entitled to wonder why there appears to be a campaign to undermine her as a publicity-seeker (admittedly, not a point best made after she has just set up a cosy two-page newspaper spread from her sitting room).

Staveley, we learn, has Theresa May on speed-dial and considers the prime minister a friend. Hopefully, for Newcastle's sake, if this takeover can be rescued she will have a better understanding of what "strong and stable" really means.

Yet she has tried, and failed, already to take control of Liverpool and seems to do a fair bit of talking about wanting to buy a football club, without actually buying a football club. Nobody has got to the bottom of where PCP's money is coming from, if indeed it is there.

Instead, all that can really be said for certain is that it is almost 50 years since a major trophy was paraded at St James' Park and something eventually needs to give because Newcastle, under Ashley, will never be the club it should be. It is still one of England's great football institutions but just imagine what could happen in that part of the world if all the politics and silliness could be replaced by something better. That, more than anything, is the real shame here.


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