“They have got two clubs in Manchester, two in Liverpool, five in London, but we only have one here son. We are the mighty Magpies.”
If we had to pick one thing to sum up the passion Newcastle United Football Club generates amongst its supporters, it would be this that Glen Foy says to Santiago Munez in the movie Goal: The Dream Begins. Based in the beautiful town of Newcastle, the football club has been the heartbeat of the community ever since its establishment in 1892. It has a much-decorated history as well, being the ninth –most successful English Club with 14 trophies overall that also includes 4 First Division League titles.
However, all that now seems to be a tale of the past. Ever since billionaire sports retail entrepreneur Mike Ashley took over the Magpies in 2007, the club and its fans have been going through tough times. Currently, the future of the club is at crossroads as ongoing disagreements between the manager, owner and the players, have affected its on-field performances and have posed a major question with regards to its future.
During his chequered reign as the club’s owner, Mike Ashley has overseen two relegations. The latest of them happened in 2016, and the club stormed back into the Premier League after only a season.
The credit for such a speedy recovery would go to Rafael Benitez, the former Liverpool and Real Madrid manager who was appointed towards the end of the 2015-16 season. The Spaniard, who had won the Champions League with Liverpool in 2005, developed a direct and attacking type of football, much along the lines of his time in Napoli. In fact, it reminded many of the outfit’s heydays under Kevin Keegan in the 90s.
In their first season back in the top flight, the St. James’ Park faithful saw their team punch way above their weight and finish in the top half of the table. The club’s home stadium was slowly regaining its aura and it was expected that they would be competing for a European spot this season, and might even upset the hegemony of the established franchises like Spurs.
Mainly because of the owner, however, they have seen a loyal fan-base turn toxic, players leaving, a world-class manager desperate to end his contract and the threat of relegation looming large once again.
Following their extremely impressive run last season, Benitez asked for funds to implement a transfer policy that would help them do one better this season. In the modern game, the influence of the manager on a football club is almost God-like but it seems to be a caveat at St. James’ Park. Needless to say, despite a limited budget, Benitez had taken it upon himself to improve the quality of his players, focused on tactical smartness and painstakingly improved each and every aspect of his team to help them achieve what they did.
However, a manager is only human and they can only achieve up to a certain level with such severe limitations. Having coached the likes of mega-rich clubs Real Madrid and Chelsea previously, Benitez was aware that he had reached a “glass ceiling” and that an injection of cash was desperately needed to help the Magpies stay competitive at the topmost level.
Mike Ashley, however, had different plans. He sanctioned a fire-sale of players that included the likes of Dwight Gayle, Alkesandr Mitrovic, Massimo Haidara and Jack Colback, many of whom were integral to Benitez’s plans. The club received around 80 million, but refused to put recruit the players that his own manager had asked for.
So committed was the Spaniard manager to the Newcastle cause that he had once declared that he would happily stay at the club for the next decade and take them back to the pinnacle of English football, but he feels “betrayed” and confused now.
Ashley’s stubbornness, as well as the early shutting-down of the English transfer window this year, meant that he could not get any of his targets and had to be contended by the arrivals of Fabian Scharr, the Swiss international from Deportiva La Coruna, Salomon Random from West Brom Albion on a season-long loan and Yoshinori Muto from Mainz 05.
The team’s woeful performances in the opening three games have shown just how correct Benitez was with his assessment. They have just one point from three games and face defending champions Manchester City next. The attack has looked toothless, the midfield disjointed and the defence shaky, and the season has only just kicked off.
Despite showing a lot of heart against Chelsea and perhaps being unlucky to lose thanks to a controversial penalty call, it is obvious that the Toons are headed to a long season which could well see them suffer the ignominy of relegation, just like their fierce rivals Sunderland did last season.
The problem is simple: if they do not address these gaping issues in the January window, something that seems extremely unlikely as of now, even the genius of Benitez will not be able to help them from losing face.
In fact, so disappointing has been the Mike Ashley reign that not only the manager, but also the players had come out against the club management for failing to clear their monetary dues during pre-season. The team had completely stopped interacting with the media in the summer as a sign of defiance while the fans, who on hearing that Benitez might be looking to pack his bags, organized a social media campaign to show their vehement opposition against their owner.
Ashley’s recent acquisition of House of Fraser for 90 million did not go down well with the supporters as well, with Newcastle Central’s Labour MP Chi Onwurah labeling Ashley as a “pantomime villain” in a recent House of Commons session. Allegations of exploitation, pocketing cash through sales for individual gains and refusing to upgrade club facilities and youth systems have also been leveled on Ashley.
As sad as it is, it seems likely that much like Leeds United and Portsmouth, this once-great one-city club is all set to become a poster child for mismanagement, barring a major miracle. Rich owners who run clubs like a business and forget all about its most important component, the fans are the bane of modern football and Newcastle United seems to be its latest victim.