Category Archives: Newcastle

The Lengths That I Will Go To

I had the title and the theme of the article all planned out. It was called “Losing My Religion” after the REM song, and it was all about how my love for the club and the game had been gradually sucked out of me through Ashley’s tenure at the club. How once Newcastle had been everything to me and how I lived for the next match, and wherever I was in the world those two hours on a Saturday afternoon would define my whole week, my mood and my view on life. Define me, if I’m honest. I was going to set out step by step how this had happened, how each cynical or ham-fisted manoeuvre had chipped away at my ardour until my relationship with the club was largely loveless and in need of counselling (or at least a good cup run) to get it back on track.

But before I’d even got to the end of the first paragraph the idea began to bore and depress me. Documenting the state of Ashley’s United is not exactly a cheery way to spend a Sunday afternoon. And as I sat in the back bedroom of my flat in Kyiv, instead of looking back at all the damage done, I found myself thinking back about what I love so much about the club in the first place. As the old REM song ran through my head, I got stuck on the line “The lengths that I will go to…”, and thought back to all of the things I had to go through to watch the Toon, or even just get news about them. All the memories made me smile, and I realised while they might be different stories to those of many fans, they didn’t set me apart. Quite the opposite in fact, the lengths that we will go to is one of the things that unites us.

That’s me in the corner. Supporting Newcastle was never a doubt in my family. Although I was brought up in Durham (and occasionally further afield) I am from a Ryton family obsessed with Newcastle for as long back as anyone could remember. Although my Mum’s family were Sunderland fans from Durham, these genes completely passed me by. My parents divorced when I was young, and my Dad moved down south. I think he was worried about my footballing education, so he took me to games whenever he was back up, and whenever he could afford it he’d buy me a season ticket next to my Nanna and my Aunty Margaret, two wonderful women who deserve their own book and who played such a big part in my ongoing love of the club and the city.

When there was no season ticket on offer, I had to find a friend to go with. So for one season I stood with my friend Jeff in the corner paddock next to the Leazes, which I loved. What I hated was that Jeff’s Dad insisted that we leave 10 minutes or more before the end “to beat the traffic”. No matter what the state of the game was we’d be dragged away and made to run through town to where he’d parked his Austin Allegro. The look of satisfaction on his face as we drove out of Newcastle on clear roads has stayed with me. To this day I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone would want to leave a match early. I think it is the Schadenfreude linked to this memory that makes 4-4 Arsenal my favourite game. The second half performance was a joy, but so was the knowledge that all those fair weathers who left at half-time missed a classic. I hope that at final whistle that day Jeff’s Dad was in whatever is the modern day equivalent of an Austin Allegro driving down the A1M and regretting every minute he made me miss.

Like most Newcastle fans, I could never be accused of being a glory hunter. I left the North East in 1984, just after we had signed Keegan. And I left the country in 1994, just after Keegan had taken over as manager. I hope the great man doesn’t take it personally. Living in Birmingham wasn’t too bad for getting to away matches as me and my Dad could drive to a lot of grounds within a couple of hours. The midweek games were a challenge though, and usually involved sloping off work early, meeting my dad in a car park somewhere and finally running the last bit to make it in time for kick off. In those pre-satnav days we navigated by floodlight, which normally worked, but on one occasion left us the wrong side of the Trent with the option of watching a Notts County reserve fixture, rather than seeing us take on Cloughie’s men as we’d planned and sprinted for.

Describing how little technology there was in Slovakia on my arrival there in 1994 makes me feel like a pensioner describing the days of rationing. But there really was nothing, at least not in the small town I was living in (Martin, in the Velka Fatra mountains if you want to Google it). I’m not sure when the internet was actually invented, but like Punk to Durham I’m sure it took a few more years to arrive in Slovakia. In my first six months there I had no radio, a big black and white TV that could only pick up Slovak soaps and MTV. There was a betting shop in town called Nike (pronounced Nick-ay). They used to print up the fixtures of all Europe’s leagues and put this huge sheet up in the window so everyone could choose their bets. At 10am every Monday morning someone would come in and write all of the results up in pen. I’d be there waiting for him. After a couple of weeks he had assured himself I wasn’t a dangerous lunatic and gave me the Newcastle result first, which was a blessing particularly in the winter months when the temperatures went as low as minus 20. Of course the results were just the results. They had very little meaning without knowing what had actually happened, and for this I had to wait for ‘the clippings’ to arrive.

My wonderful Nanna, who had done so much to nurture in me a love for the club, used to faithfully cut out all of the articles and match reports from The Chronicle, The Journal, The Pink and The Sunday Sun. These would arrive a week or so later packed into one of those thin blue Airmail envelopes. These clippings would often be annotated, with the thick blue ink of Nanna’s favourite pen, with words like lacklustre underlined (twice), “I told you he was rubbish!” scribbled in the margin. I would receive those small blue envelopes each and every week of my next 8 years in Slovakia. My Nanna came out for my wedding some years later. I proudly (and stupidly) showed her how I could now get every single article on the internet, quicker than it would take her to to get to the paper shop and buy a paper. I think it may have broken her heart.

In my second year in Slovakia I was given a short wave radio. Now if ever you hear anyone waxing lyrical about the BBC World Service, saying its an institution we must protect, please feel free to shout them down. Or even shoot them down. It’s rubbish. You’d get to the second half of one of the matches on Saturday afternoon (which was rarely Newcastle). Then you’d have to listen to Alan Green whining about what a boring game it was just in the hope that they’d give you an update from St James (they rarely did). Then with 10 minutes of the match remaining they’d cut over to a report on the Angolan election. Yet despite all of this, I’d still end up glued to the radio every Saturday afternoon. It was that or wait until Monday. To allow me to have some kind of active social life, my friends came up with the idea of attaching the radio to the handlebars of my bike with gaffa tape. I got many an odd look as I passed through mountain villages shouting at the radio at some chance missed or danger unfolding, and I had a visit to the hospital once thanks to a late Rob Lee equaliser during a rapid descent.

One of the best goals I’ve ever seen was David Ginola vs Ferencvaros. Except of course I’ve never really seen it. Not properly anyway. By this time I had adorned my big black and white set with local satellite TV, where unfortunately all of the sports channels were scrambled. I didn’t let that put me off though. The chance to watch Newcastle in Europe was not going to be passed up, so I squinted my way through the game trying to cancel out the bars and squiggles that made up the TV coverage. Although there was no commentary and the picture was all ablur, I had no doubt it was Ginola. The body shape, the drop of the shoulder and the sheer audacity could only have been Ginola. My joy at that goal was in no way diminished by the poor quality of the picture. It is entirely vivid in my memory, and to this day I refuse to watch the goal on YouTube in glorious technicolour. It couldn’t get any better than I see it in my mind.

But that was just a dream. It’s these memories that keep Newcastle in my heart, even when the rational part of me wants to stop loving them. Besides, if I’m completely honest I can’t blame Ashley entirely for my current loss of love. It may be my age. It may be that I’ve lived outside the North East for 30 years and outside of the country for 20. It may be that I watch most of my football now on TV or on the internet. And we know that Sky are ruining football anyway. People say us fans are fickle. You bet we are. I know that with the excitement of a decent centre forward, a cup run and a last minute Sammy Ameobi equaliser I’ll be right back to where I was, going to any lengths to watch my team and living and breathing for the Saturday. I’ll stay off the bike this time though.

 

Continental Drift

Sir Alex Ferguson has a lot to answer for. Two of the greatest managerial fallacies trotted out by British pundits and managers cite Ferguson as their main basis. Granted, Ferguson has employed most of these pundits or managers at some stage or other, so we shouldn’t be too surprised. The first and most laughable fallacy is that you need to give managers time in the job, and as evidence they point to his tricky first season or so at Manchester United and the cup run that saved him. The absence of logic is staggering. As if all managers, given sufficient time would go on to win a stack of trophies. And also, he did win a trophy. Which bought him time. Imagine that. Winning a trophy would not buy you time at Newcastle. It would get you a statue built.

The second part of what we can call the Ferguson Delusion, is that the ‘continental’ structure – with Director of Football, Head Coach and Head of Recruitment – will not work in the Premier League. There is apparently something so special about English football clubs that they can only be run by all-powerful individuals responsible for every aspect of management. Part of this comes from the myth around Ferguson. Although he had more control than most, the truth of it is that he delegated very well and where he didn’t have control, he was very good at getting what he wanted. In business, a division of managerial responsibilities is seen as the norm. In fact in the Premier League, if you ignore the media and look at how clubs are actually run, you’ll find that this so-called continental model is already in place at most clubs. Even Mourinho at Chelsea is not all-powerful, but relationships are good and he’s happy with what he’s given, so you don’t spot the cracks.

Of course there have been plenty of examples of where this structure hasn’t worked, and to be fair a lot of them have been at Newcastle. But these were mostly down to appalling decisions. Bringing in the odious Dennis Wise over the head of the old school Keegan, and then handing recruitment over to the Chelsea chancer Tony Jimenez. Then appointing Joe Kinnear over the head of Pardew to teach him a lesson. In fact, employing Kinnear in any capacity is dooming any system to failure. The management model that is now being made clear in the club’s pursuit of a new Head Coach is fine. The head coach runs the team, Graham Carr finds the players, Lee Charnley does the business and Mike Ashley has the final say.

So why didn’t this work with Pardew? Partly because of Ashley’s capriciousness and tendency to do daft things. And partly because Pardew got too big for his boots and started to want more power than had been promised him when Ashley plucked him from obscurity. The ingratitude must have annoyed and Ashley must have felt like that guy from the Human League – “You were working in a waitress in a cocktail bar when I met you…” We’ll see how Pardew gets on at Palace now he has complete control (a chance to reference a Clash song there, but I’d already gone for the Human League – very poor). But bear in mind that one of his first signings at Palace was Shola, so we shouldn’t look on with too much regret.

So the management structure we’ve chosen can work. What about the business model? Buying young players to sell on at a profit? We have become a selling club. Cue resigned shake of the head from the old pros in the media. Yes, a selling club. Just like current La Liga winners and Champion’s League finalists Atletico Madrid. With plans in place, good networking, judicious use of the loan system ,and crucially a top draw coach – the model can work. Look at Southampton too, who lost the guts of their side in the summer and are riding high this year, giving us a spanking in the process. I don’t buy that top players won’t come to a selling club. Of course they will. All players dream of the really big move, and Newcastle can be seen as a stepping stone. We shouldn’t then be too upset when the likes of Cabaye and Sissoko try to engineer such a big onward move, as that’s how they were sold the club in the first place.

So we’ve got a good management structure in place, and a financial structure that keeps us in profit and could take us all the way to the Champion’s League. Sorted. Well no, the bad news is that the way Newcastle is run won’t, and probably can’t work. And this is because the plans are not pursued with honesty or ambition. Honesty is key. The parsimonious approach which has led to decent profits tells only half the story. Not all of the money generated by the club goes to the club. There is the money from merchandising, which goes straight to Sports Direct and then the millions of pounds worth of free advertising around the ground. This is supposedly unsold space, but it seems to cover most of the ground and you don’t hear  about other Premier League unable to sell advertising space in their stadia. Again, to the best of my knowledge, not a penny goes to the club. Just imagine how much better we could build the team if it did.

And most of all, and this is what crushes the spirit, the model as operated by Newcastle United is completely devoid of ambition. If we were buying low, selling high, then buying again at a slightly higher level, then we would be getting better year on. But we don’t. Every season is Groundhog Season. We could also bring in the odd older professional or a high level loanee to help the young players along, but the club see no value in this. And when the club says value, you know they are only talking financially. It must be remembered that the club’s stated ‘ambition’ is to finish top ten. But that’s it. The unstated ambition is that we finish no higher than 8th. This is for the same reason that the cups are not a priority, to avoid the expense of the bigger squad needed for a subsequent European campaign.

Our players are commodities. Ashley buys cheap, adds value and sells on at a profit. Top ten finishes and no cup wins allow us to sustain this at low cost. That is a successful business model, but it won’t build a team, let alone a football club. So instead of building and progressing we simply drift. Not doing too badly, and occasionally able to sit back and enjoy the view, but we’re not going anywhere. This is enough for Ashley, as we are now a reliable revenue stream to Sports Direct, but it will never be enough for us. In many ways, this could be the perfect season in Ashley’s eys. Safe by January, out of the cups, comfortable finish between 8th and 12th, next big sale (Sissoko) lined up, and a great big profit on the way because of transfers and the increased TV money. But will he use this opportunity to take us to the next level? No chance. We will buy in the summer, but this is just buying in stock for the 2016 sales and we watch the whole depressing cycle go round again.