This Sunday Newcastle United will play Spurs in a Premier League game. It comes off the back of five defeats (with only one goal to Newcastle’s name and barely looking like scoring more). It comes off the back of a poor season, on the back of a poor season. It comes with despondency and desperation. It comes on the back of heart and soul being slowly withered.
Sick, tired and disillusioned there have been calls to boycott the game; to protest outside instead. This is part of a call for the owner, Mike Ashley, to sell to someone who actually cares. It is a difficult thing to see making a difference and, in the end, also a difficult thing to support.
There is no arguing that Ashley has done some things which needed doing. Stopped the haemorrhaging of money; put finances on an even keel; looked to invest in youth rather than over priced mediocrity. But he has done these because that is how to run a good business rather than how to run a good club (and he has made sure to be in a position where benefits will fill his pockets, directly or not). This might be less galling had he arrived with a pure business proposition but the truth is he didn’t. He came speaking of a love for football, how this wasn’t a business but a rich man’s toy, bought for pleasure, a way to spend that wealth he’d accumulated. And we believed him, as he whispered in our ears standing with fans in the away end. We believed him because that is what the fans’ hearts sing; this isn’t business, this is passion and love. He lied to our souls.
It is difficult to find a place with football for its heart quite like Newcastle. Not London, with its too many teams for any one to matter enough. Manchester and Liverpool may come close but the rivalries there are too intermixed, a striping of red/blue through the place. Newcastle is an entire city devoted, inspired and pained by what the men wearing those stripes can achieve on that hallowed patch of green. Yet we do not ask for much, despite what that southern press (who never think anything they have should be allowed to be wanted by those of the north-east, in any walk of life) would have believe. We don’t scream loudly for league titles or cup wins (dream of them, yes, but not demand). We just want competency, on and off the pitch, good play and above all effort. If we fall short then so be it, so long as every sinew is strained and last bead of sweat left on the pitch. As long as the management are competent enough to have played the best team they could have with the players available. As long as the owner actually cares. Instead what we have is a structure which looks to make profit; where too much footballing success is actually seen as a risk to the business success; cup football is unwanted, a position as high in the league without bringing the burden of extra competitions what’s aimed for. When those things the fans dream of are publicly denounced as forgotten, even dangerous, and certainly unwanted by Ashley and his mouth pieces, it is not difficult to understand why fans want to turn away, to shout, to protest.
And yet; and yet. This is our team. That very bond which makes Newcastle United so special is that for 90 minutes the hearts of thousands are driven to the pulse of that team. The ground doesn’t fill because of habit, or because the fans are sheep. The ground fills because the game is their blood and for as long as it goes on there is no owner, manager, individual player that can be more important than Newcastle the entity, the idea, the form.
I have seen awful Newcastle sides; I have seen glorious sides. But always, always I haven’t turned away, haven’t forgotten that the club is constant above all fleeting moments. There is a famous quote from Sir Bobby Robson (I have a t-shirt with it on), which has probably already been trotted out in support of a boycott to show how little Ashley understands.
What is a club in any case? Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. It’s not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes. It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city.
There is something important buried in there, if one stops and thinks. If one takes away the fans, that noise and passion, then you don’t really have a club any more, more surely than anything Ashley or anyone else can do.
So scream and shout before and after, in the pub or park or ground. Chant during the game. But don’t forget, for 90 minutes the lads are playing.