Pre-season friendlies are meaningless. Take the results as an indicator that you’re going to have a banging season and you can fully expect to be out of contention for Europe by Christmas. A tour of south east Asia where the only notable event is your left back making a racial slur on Instagram and you can prepare for silverware.
Unless you’re a fan of Newcastle United, of course. You could have beaten Preston North End 10-1 on Saturday and the mood around the Sports Direct Arena would have remained chilly with a chance of frostbite. The fact that the game ended in a 2-1 defeat simply confirmed what fans have long suspected. The club is firmly in a state of regression and pretence otherwise is unsustainable.
I thought as much but in an effort to gauge the mood, I asked fans for their views. Disappointment and anger were palpable, but it was the lack of optimism from a usually irrepressible group that gave me pause for thought.
“This stinks of the McClaren season last time we were relegated,” one told me resignedly. Steve McClaren, should you have erased the 15/16 season from your mind for health reasons, was hired to replace John Carver, a club stalwart who had previously served as an assistant to Bobby Robson. Carver’s tenure was a predictable horror show with a win percentage of 15%, which is rubbish even if you don’t believe in win percentages.
McClaren was in charge for twenty-eight games, of which he won six. He was sacked before the club’s relegation was confirmed, but is widely seen as the architect of their downfall.
Then, when it seemed like Mike Ashley’s had finally managed to steer the once great club over a cliff, a miracle. Or in the words of club legend Alan Shearer, ‘a good coup’. Reports began to circulate that former Real Madrid, Chelsea, Inter and Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez might be taking over.
Football balked. Managers like Benitez, who months earlier was managing Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos, don’t risk their reputation on clubs like Newcastle, languishing in the bottom half of the table at risk of relegation. But risk it he did and while he was unable to keep them up, his decision to stay another season reinvigorated the fans. To say they started to dream again might be an exaggeration, but the appointment hinted that a good night’s sleep might be on the horizon and they embraced it.
For so long Newcastle had been a club rattling around in their reputation, but now someone else saw them as the great club they remembered themselves to be. Newcastle United, a club built on theatre, dynamism, great leaders and dreams, had for so long been weighed down by a disinterested owner, budget management teams, ridiculous contracts (Alan Pardew’s 2012 contract has another year to run) and Sports Direct branding.
Newcastle were promoted as champions in the 2016/17 season and finished a respectable tenth in 2017/18. Benitez had done his job and done it well. Further, he had done it with limited resources. It was obvious to everyone that the club needed heavy investment if they were to continue improving under Benitez, but as time passed it became evident that Ashley, despite assertions to the contrary, was reluctant to spend while seeking a buyer for the club.
The sleepless nights began again. Last season was like watching lava move slowly and inexorably towards a village as fans realised neither man was likely to give in and talks to sell the club to a new owner stalled. Benitez’ departure was inevitable and finally, he left. Ashley has since blamed Benitez’ obsession with money, which is somewhat ironic but perfectly in keeping with his attitude towards the club’s failings.
This is football. Everyone involved is prone to hysterical overreaction and embarrassing meltdowns. The fans I spoke to acknowledged competency in certain areas of the pitch during the Preston defeat but were desolate over the fact that Jonjo Shelvey was their best player in the season they were promoted and remains so today. That while Newcastle were reasonable in the first half, players deemed surplus to requirements by Benitez have been given a ‘clean slate’ by Steve Bruce, which they promptly soiled themselves on.
Hope is what football fans sustain themselves with during lean times. Something has to keep you in that plastic seat during the winter months, as the wind rifles through your coat looking for an entry point and the setting sun half blinds you from the woeful scenes unfolding on the pitch. When you’ve just been turned over by a team in the bottom three and you’ve got second degree burns on your thighs because some idiot spilled their Bovril, the only reason you go back is because ‘it might be better’ next week.
For Newcastle fans, it’s not going to be better. What can be better than promotion to the Premier League with Rafael Benitez in charge? Mike Ashley’s relationship with the fans has never been harmonious but at least the latter could hold out the hope that the former’s interest might reignite if the team started performing on the pitch.
With Benitez gone and the more compliant Bruce in position, that hope has been extinguished. Fans cling to the possibility of a takeover by Saudi billionaire in the same way that we cling to the hope of being discovered by Simon Cowell in our local branch of Lidl, but is Ashley likely to enter negotiations while his Sports Direct empire crumbles around his ears? One fan was hoping a £600m bill received from the Belgian tax authorities after a recent audit might force Ashley to sell, but who knows? It might force him to consolidate his existing interests and stay put.
Today, Justin Urquhart Stewart, a fund manager at Seven Investment Management, described Sports Direct’s initial failure to post their financial results on Friday “frankly a
pathetic way to run a business”.
One thing Newcastle fans will agree with is that Ashley is at least consistent.