Saturday 18 November 2017

Newcastle United is a club robbed of all its dreams

Newcastle fans revolt as cutbacks remove spirit, ambition and joy, says Dion Fanning

Ashley and Pardew's Newcastle is an example of what happens when you remove the spirit from an organisation and replace it with a feeling that the only way of solving every problem is with cutbacks. AFP PHOTO / LINDSEY PARNABY
Ashley and Pardew's Newcastle is an example of what happens when you remove the spirit from an organisation and replace it with a feeling that the only way of solving every problem is with cutbacks. AFP PHOTO / LINDSEY PARNABY

Dion Fanning

'The first thing that struck me about the club was the passion," Kevin Keegan wrote in his autobiography.

"The fans got behind the team, they queued for games two hours before the kick-off and when the players left the ground, two hours later, they were still waiting there for an autograph or just to talk." Later in the book Keegan added: "Such was their enthusiasm and level of expectation that we were nigh on unbeatable in front of them."

Others felt the same about the Newcastle United supporters. "On a big occasion there is nowhere like St James's Park," Bobby Robson recalled, before adding for emphasis, "Wow!"

Last Saturday was a big occasion at St James's Park. Before the game, the Newcastle fans behind the website sackpardew.com had printed 30,000 A4 sheets of paper, made 105 banners and hired a van decorated with the banner 'Sack Pardew.com' to drive laps around the stadium. The group would later claim to have handed out 20,000 of these A4 sheets but said that a 'draconian' approach to stewarding had ensured that the protest that had been mounted outside hadn't looked as emphatic within the ground.

The passion that Keegan recalled was still present and when Hull City went two goals up, Alan Pardew might have bitterly reflected that there was nowhere like St James's Park. "This situation at the moment is almost like mass hysteria, to a degree. It's really gone to a level which makes it really difficult for players to perform in. I am hoping we can turn that around," Pardew had said before the game.

When his side had recovered to score twice in the final 20 minutes and earn a point, Pardew was able to claim that there had been a recovery. "We had tremendous resolve today," the manager insisted, even if his side hadn't improved their record of only five Premier League wins in 2014.

There are some who will still defend Mike Ashley's ownership, at least in comparison to some who now hold power in English football, and there are others who will claim that Pardew's talents were best displayed in 2011-'12, the season when Newcastle United finished fifth.

Keegan and Robson knew that the passion of the Newcastle fans was always an unpredictable thing but the story of Newcastle United under Mike Ashley is the story of a club rooted in the community that no longer seems to have roots at all.

Ashley has put Newcastle United on what is called a 'sound financial footing' but like many programmes of austerity, like most exercises that ultimately become a slave to the need for endless cuts, it has robbed the organisation of joy.

Those things may not matter. Some would point out that Newcastle's wage bill has been reduced from 91 per cent of turnover when Ashley arrived in 2007 to 64 per cent and that the club no longer spends recklessly. Yet relentless cutting is as destructive as endless spending as both end up warping whatever ambition a club possesses.

Ashley and Pardew's Newcastle is an example of what happens when you remove the spirit from an organisation and replace it with a feeling that the only way of solving every problem is with cutbacks. If you remove humanity from a football club, don't be surprised to be treated callously.

Newcastle United are now defined by nothing except the relationship between the authority figures at the club and the supporters who have been told they must sacrifice their dreams for the club at the altar of good accounting practices. Without aspirations, the passion of the supporters has been directed elsewhere. Newcastle are bottom of the Premier League ahead of tomorrow night's game away to Stoke City, and another defeat might make things more difficult for the manager.

Keegan described the ten-year contract he signed at Newcastle as the club was taking off as being like a "jail sentence". Pardew's eight-year deal, signed in 2012, might feel like something similar.

When Pardew head-butted David Meyler last season, it appeared to be the action of a man who no longer understood what it meant to be a manager. Pardew had previously called Manuel Pellegrini an "old cunt" when Newcastle met Manchester City and, if supporters no longer held him in high regard, he still thought fondly of himself.

Newcastle beat Crystal Palace in the Capital One Cup on Wednesday night but still their supporters wait for some meaningful involvement in cup competitions. Since Yohan Cabaye was sold to PSG in January they have looked like a side without inspiration. On deadline day, Hatem Ben Arfa left on loan to Hull City. Ben Arfa remains an heroic figure among Newcastle's fans, which might demonstrate how desperately they are in need of a hero.

Pardew grew tired of Ben Arfa but the player said last week: "I do not want him fired". Ben Arfa had been welcomed back to St James's Park when he sat behind the dug-out during his new club's game at the ground last weekend.

Without Ben Arfa but particularly without Cabaye, Newcastle are a side without magic, a side created on a balance sheet.

Ashley is acknowledged as an innovative businessman whose Sports Direct company is now worth almost £7 billion. Full-time employees of the firm have benefited from a generous profit-sharing scheme but the majority of the part-time workers in Sports Direct are engaged using controversial zero-hours contracts.

Newcastle United have witnessed his single-minded determination to alter the course of an organisation. Ashley has done things his way and the club has been sensitive to dissent, banning journalists, including the local newspapers after they covered a previous fans' protest.

Ashley has been linked with a takeover at Rangers and last week - through Sports Direct - he invested £43 million buying Tesco shares, betting that the share price had dropped too low.

Somebody might look at Newcastle United and think the same but it may be that the gamble is taken by whoever succeeds Ashley.

Ashley could be getting ready to act. Yesterday's London Independent reported a conversation a reporter had with Ashley after a chance encounter outside the Golden Lion pub in London's Soho.

"He's got one more game," Ashley is reported to have said. "If we lose against Stoke on Monday night then he's gone. I have had enough."

Ashley is said to have embellished his words with a throat-cutting gesture and added, "Dead. Finished. Over. One more game then that's it. What would you do? I have spent a lot of money on that club, it's cost me a lot. I won't put up with it any more. Honestly, answer me, what would you do? One more loss and he's gone, he's over, finished."

His lawyer later clarified that Ashley had been 'humouring' the reporter and played the banter defence. Pardew may find it harder to laugh.

Sackpardew.com has a section devoted to quotes from the manager, including a category where he talks about the supporters. "It is a volatile club, it is not easy to manage. I know our fans always expect to win and I know I have to take huge disappointments on the chin a little bit," Pardew said last year.

Newcastle United fans would dispute that they expect to win. A club with the third-highest average attendance in England might hope that they could be something more than an accountant's triumph. A club that knew how to worship would think that they didn't have to witness fans turning on the team as they did when Newcastle lost 4-0 to Southampton a fortnight ago.

The former chairman John Hall had moved to the other extreme when he once declared that Newcastle United represented something deeper. "We're like the Basques," he said. "We are fighting for a nation, the Geordie nation. Football is tribalism and we're the Mohicans."

A club that captured the imagination of Keegan and Robson and led John Hall to such rhetorical heights should stand for something other than the proof that, in football, romance is dead.

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