There’s nothing to laugh about at Newcastle United. Even in this age of feverish tribalism, the situation St James’ Park doesn’t offer so much as a hint of schadenfreude. Primarily, that’s because of a collective fear. Newcastle are a brazen example of what happens when an owner recognises the value in participation and seeks to do little more than exist in the Premier League, and that mindset could infect any of our clubs at any time.
Mike Ashley is the poster-child for football’s cynical business culture. He is the Monopoly player who never buys any houses, hotels or utilities, and who is content to go around the board and collect his £200. Maybe that’s smart? Maybe that’s a viable, low-risk strategy?
But maybe it completely defeats the object of playing in the first place?
The fractious relationship between Ashley’s regime and the club’s supporters doesn’t stem from that, though. The descaling of ambition and the deference to financial stability over on-pitch progression aggravates the tension, but really it’s the lack of trust which is at the root of all this acrimony.
Fans are very loyal and, in general, it takes something truly extreme for them to turn their back on their club. Beyond a small minority, most can tolerate short-term difficulties as long as they are part of a progression towards a brighter tomorrow. Even in 2015, football is still the game of the eternal optimist and, unfounded and naive though it can be, ‘this time next year’ culture is as prevalent as it always has been.
But just not at Newcastle.
The unrest in the north-east isn’t a response to losing football matches. Defeats are part of the game and they are the emotional trade-off for the happier moments. No, the acrimony exists because there is no obvious future for this team. There is no hope, no aspiration and no realistic expectation for anything other than what already exists.
It’s easy to sneer at that and appeal for some perspective. Newcastle are a Premier League side and they play in front of a 50,000-strong crowd every other week, so how bad can it really be?
Bad. The very principle of fandom is constructed around the notion of rising and falling and being part of something as it succeeds and fails. If that variation doesn’t exist, what else is there?
There is nothing wrong with running a club within narrow financial parameters and, given how expensive success now is, it’s unreasonable to expect every owner to bankroll a pursuit of the game’s summit. Within reason, though, there should always be a footballing objective - and that’s true at every level of the game.
Whether it’s Southampton, Southend, Leyton Orient, Tottenham, Barnsley or Wycombe Wanderers, every football club can reasonably be expected - at any time - to be at least trying to move between a Point A and a Point B. Sometimes, that objective is simply ‘to avoid relegation’, but if that’s the case, it should always be ‘to avoid relegation, so that next year we can do x, y and z”.
Newcastle don’t think like that - or, at least, the veil of secrecy around the club ensures that people assume that they don’t.
Mike Ashley’s great failing has been not to articulate his intentions at St James’ Park. Because there’s never any clarity over his objectives and because the public are left to judge him on his actions, the rational response is always to assume the worst. Newcastle United is the most opaque football club in the country and that, rather the league table, is what fuels the perpetual unrest.
Derek Llambias and Lee Charnley, the former and current managing director respectively, have preached the virtues of stability in the past. Each of them have tried to quell dissatisfaction by using the ‘not Leeds United or Portsmouth’ rationale and referencing a false-dichotomy in which a club is either ambitious or it goes into administration.
Beyond the obvious, the major problem with that as a line of defence is that it omits any reference to the future.
Stability is great, but stability has to be in aid of something. If, in the real world, a person saves money over a long period of time, is it not reasonable to eventually expect them to do something beyond just the further accumulation of wealth? A holiday? A new car?
A first-rate midfielder?
Newcastle employees have been very self-congratulatory about their ability to strike lucrative commercial deals and have been similarly noisy when publicly discussing incoming transfer revenue. Clubs sell players and market themselves to the hilt - those are realities of professional sport - but, ordinarily, they do so to fund a pursuit of something, be it a championship, a cup, or a better league-placing.
Newcastle will never be Chelsea or Manchester City, but should there not be a point in their future at which the past and current focus on finance translates into something tangible? If such a day exists, would that not be a reasonable way to appease unhappy supporters:
“Look, I know it’s been bloody miserable for the last couple of years, but we have to do ‘this’ so that we can do ‘that’.”
You never hear that from anyone at St James’ Park and that silence implies a deception. It’s as if, insultingly, Mike Ashley and his immediate inferiors believe if they say nothing, nobody will notice just how contrary to the spirit of competition this club has become.