The Great Betrayal
Mike Ashley and the cheapening of the Newcastle United dream
Along Stowell Street and up to Gallowgate, hemmed in by the illicit, everything mam would scold you for; men weaving through traffic, a chuffing of tabs, the fucketty-twat, rat-a-tat swearing, pie-flecked gobs crooning mayhem. A half of orange squash at fart height outside the Strawberry and it is ten to three and tears are prickling and panic clenches and you cannot swallow but the rush is on and you bolt it.
Moved and buffeted, onto tiptoes, Dead Sea swimming, but a sea alive, afroth with yanking current, past the walls to the turnstiles though pockets of meat smells, piss and ale. Step-dad on one side and a neighbour on the other – his tickets, his offer, an eight year old’s queasy nod – but nobody had told you it would be this affront to childhood, to responsible parenting. This obscenity, this stench, this first time, this only time, this cesspool.
A struggle up some steps and then a struggle to comprehend, a long field of emerald bordered by grey, fringed with concrete, by black and white. Glorious green in a monochrome landscape, vivid and out of context, too vivid to wrest your eyes from. It is what you remembered stuffed between the adults, packed so tightly that you rose when they did, arse-down when they sat. The rest of your view: the back of someone’s parka.
No teams, no scorers, no specific date, just a pressing of eyes and that flash of green. Nothing else brought you back, nothing else made sense, certainly not the invisible, middle-distance game you did not witness. Nor the shouting or the scuffle for the bogs at half-time, the leaving five minutes early and the dull, distant cloud-burst of two late goals (you would never do that again). Just that big grey city green.
That was how it began and that is how it remains; arrive at a stadium and search out the grass, man-made but natural, defying the stanchions crowding in on it. There would be human heroes – Keegan as a player, Beardsley and Gascoigne, with his chip-fat shine and bagatelle feet – but the tingle of that feeling, eyes wide at the incongruity of an urban savannah, the darkness of encroaching terraces, is what burrowed inside.
It is what Newcastle United meant. That oasis inside St James’ Park. In a city as foreign as Marrakech, manic and polluted, nothing like home, like Durham, with its university skin and pit-village veins, but the green and the football and Keegan’s return and then the promise of energy pulled me to it after college. 22 years later – 35 since the first time – it keeps me there, bound to it by work, relationships, a shadow of love.
The job makes it different. You get closer to the club, but the boundaries extend to Sunderland, Middlesbrough and elsewhere and there is a professional reserve which prevents your embrace. There was no reserve with Keegan, that defiance of a bedraggled history, that have-a-go fluidity, and love is expressed in different ways; players became friends.
Slaughtered at Gretna Green (another green), with one of them your best man, you say a woozy yes.
Now (never more so) there is a yearning to give assent again, to renew vows with a place that has both grown and retreated, but this is a team which does not win – although that, in itself, is not so unfamiliar – a dry, joyless club which operates like the footballing wing of a retail empire. A club where cups are everything, the essence, the futile goal, those decades of waiting, but where cups are now nothing, no longer a “priority”. It’s business, just business.
No coal, no ships, no steel, but a legacy of hapless football, of pygmies with reins around mammoths, urging them towards irrelevance. From ambition burnt out by vanity and pawning the future, to silence from the boardroom, relegation, Joe Kinnear, the Sports Direct Arena, press bans, Wonga, the sieving of emotion, the Premier League tribunal which described Newcastle’s evidence as “profoundly unsatisfactory”. Profoundly unsatisfactory: make that the club motto.
Crap football is one thing. Mediocrity was once a mantra, the selling of players a recurring habit, until Keegan arrived, fumigated the first-team dressing-room and lit a spark beneath a city. There had always been fury and frustration and stumbling backwards to a precipice, but there was always hope, too, no matter how skinny or misplaced. A chance. Newcastle is now a monument to the death of hope, a club which exists with the sole aim of existence.
Stop the clock, turn back and ask, “What was it again? What brought me here? Why?”
Michael Martin, fan, editor of true faith, the fanzine, representative of the Newcastle United Supporters Trust:“It’s a local thing. It’s a community thing. It’s a way of looking at the world from a North-East angle, from a corner of a country often forgotten, it’s the cap badge of our Geordie identity. It’s family, friends, the street, the estate, the village you were brought up in. The club should stand side-by-side with the aspirations we have for the North-East, wanting to be better, to give us pride and recognition.
“The 1974 FA Cup run is the first thing I remember really well, the Leazes End at the end of the Forest quarter-final, Supermac, Jimmy Smith, Moncur. My old man having a bit crack with Jackie Milburn on Grainger Street and Milburn calling my old man ‘son’ and asking me if I played and then walking off into the crowd and no-one taking much notice.
“And it’s Keegan, so much is Keegan, believing and making us believe we can do better and must do better. Massive shows of support all over the country – the San Siro with 12,000 Mags pinching ourselves we were really there. Sir Bobby, with so much of the Milburn way himself but more cunning, unaffected, comfortable in his own skin and tough but not hard (there’s a big difference). It’s the away end at Roker Park during the miners’ strike applauding the NUM lads with the banner from East Durham. It’s us alone, Geordie and fuck the rest of you.”
Chi Onwurah, fan, MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central: “I’ve been an MP for four years now and have met many important and even very important people, but it was only recently when I met Malcolm Macdonald that I had cause to imagine my nine-year-old self arriving at Hillsview Primary School playground and saying that I would one day be arm-in-arm with Supermac and then looking at the faces around me. It would not be jealousy there or even disbelief but absolute awe that I should raise my sights so very high.
“That’s what Newcastle meant to me as a child and although since then I spent many years living away from Newcastle and watched the team play mainly in London grounds I still stand in awe of them, for all I hate the Wonga name emblazoned across their shirts.
“For me, the arrival of Ruud Gullit as manager was very important. He didn’t bring the club much success, but as a child I would avoid Gallowgate and the ground because of the National Front presence, so to see fans honouring him with dreadlock wigs made me realise how much had really changed (thanks in part to the work of Show Racism the Red Card and other groups).
“Then there were FA Cup finals, Sir Bobby, Kevin Keegan managing us up from the bottom of the second division, being in the Premiership race, Shearer scoring …I can’t really talk about silverware but I’m looking forward to that changing.”
Max Roberts, fan, artistic director of Live Theatre, Newcastle: “At the age of 18, when I moved to Newcastle to become a student, I was a stranger in a strange place and a long way from home but I liked the band Lindisfarne, the McEwan’s Best Scotch was cheap and thanks to my lecturers and a couple of inspiring mentors (writers CP Taylor, Tom Hadaway) I quickly grew to love the North-East and its rich social history and radical traditions.
“Unbeknown to me it was a great place to begin shaping a sensibility that would inform my work as a theatre practitioner. The North-East’s identity and culture were distinctive and vibrant. Newcastle United seemed to be etched into the heart of that culture and so it wasn’t long before I became a regular on the Leazes End. They got to the Cup final the year I arrived and while the league form was erratic, I loved the maverick personalities and talents.
“Little did I know that such fluctuating fortunes were to become the norm, but I still enjoyed the bus journey into town, the walk up the hill and a good luck pint in The Trent House. I always travelled in hope rather than expectancy in common with the vast majority of true football supporters.”
Roberts talked of Jimmy Smith, Terry McDermott, John Tudor, Pat Howard, Terry Hibbitt, Tommy Cassidy, Alan Kennedy. Of Supermac, Keegan, Chris Waddle, Beardsley and Peter Haddock (“an average footballer, but I loved the name.”) Of Mark McGhee and Micky Quinn who, “like many players from working-class backgrounds simply ‘got’ Newcastle and entered into the spirit of the region’s identity and culture.”
Keegan as manager, then later Bobby “brought some of the best games it was possible to witness,”and the players –local or otherwise –“seemed to genuinely connect to the club, the city and its supporters …You genuinely believed they wanted to play for the club and shared their managers’ passion. They seemed to recognise the club’s significance to the city, the North-East as a whole and, most importantly, the lives of its supporters. They also won more times than they lost.”
The hearing of it helps, the hearing of it hurts and not simply because the winning has stopped (the winning barely started). It cannot just be generational, cynicism corroded further by time, because although things have been more perilous than this, it has never felt so empty. The Newcastle United of autumn 2014 is no longer leaking money and it is in the Premier League (just about), but bonds have strained and snapped. A club should attract and nurture bind; this one is cold.
Michael Martin: “There isn’t anything I like about it at all. The strip is shit, a great modern stadium is defaced with appalling advertising, the manager is a puppet, shouldn’t be there and the players are all making a move to get somewhere else, somewhere better. Mike Ashley just wants Newcastle to advertise his horrible cheap shops and to keep the TV money rolling in.
“It’s dead-eyed, zombie football, meaningless, the antithesis of what sport should be about – getting better, striving, dreaming, stretching – it’s none of those things. The fans who remain like me are powerless, defeated, apathetic, fucked over, empty.”
Chi Onwurah: “As an MP, I don’t regard myself as a proper fan anymore. I don’t get to go to, or even watch, every home match never mind the away matches and I can’t name every attendance and every squad member, but I am still a supporter and I still stand in awe of the team and United, match days, St James’ Park, the black and white, the sense of unity, that in this city, unlike Liverpool or Manchester or Glasgow or Birmingham, if you are into football then Newcastle is your team. They all mean as much to me as before.
“But I also feel saddened and shamed by the link with Wonga, another sign of the ownership’s total lack of respect for the fans and for the city. I’m often out knocking on doors around Newcastle at the weekend and the sight of five year olds playing in the street with Wonga shirts, innocent placards for 5000 per cent interest rates, breaks my heart.
“Almost equally bad is the sight of some of the richest young men in Newcastle telling some of the poorest that they should go to Wonga. I’ve said I won’t go to St James’ Park for matches while the team is sponsored by a legal loan shark. Some of the club’s actions like renaming St James’ Park and bringing back Joe Kinnear seem explicitly designed to play with the fans’ emotions. I have no idea what the club’s ambition is, but it is certainly not to be at the heart of the city. Sometimes it doesn’t even seem to include footballing success.”
Max Roberts: “For the most part, the club has been owned by idiots; greedy bastards who lacked the wit, wisdom and most tragically of all, the final ambition, to achieve greatness. They were all blinded by avarice and the possibility they could make millions in their fortuitous roles as temporary custodians of the club as the game’s finances rocketed out of control.
“And as for the present ownership? In 2008 and 2009, Live Theatre created a play about the plight of the club and its new ownership. Ashley’s tenure was the biggest story in town and it seemed like a tale that had to be told. The first production was called You Couldn’t Make It Up. It was so successful we had to bring it back in an updated version as the club’s fortunes plunged further downward and we were relegated on that sad afternoon at Villa Park. We called the sequel You Really Couldn’t Make it Up.
“It’s difficult to rationalise or justify why I remain a supporter and season ticket holder – the club I support has been transformed ‘into a glorified advertising hoarding’, as someone wrote, ‘a works team largely bereft of joy’– but as I’m the same fella who watched Chester FC through thin and thinner and have avidly followed my eldest son’s experiences through grass-roots football, I obviously require my live match fix. Like many people I find such simple pleasures a brilliant antidote to my professional occupation.
“I live and work in a great city, in a region of sublime natural beauty with some of the finest landscapes in Europe. It has great universities, restaurants, museums, cinemas, art galleries and theatres. You can see world-class art, some of it created here, with a universality and quality that touches hearts and minds, nationally and internationally.
“So surely it’s not much to ask for a half-decent, attractive-to-watch football team that recruits world-class players and augments them with locally-nurtured talent? Surely we can aspire to follow that team in Europe or to the final of a cup competition? And surely that team should connect directly to its community and its supporters? I don’t think that’s asking too much of a club that’s the third-best supported team in the country.
“The current transfer strategy and youth development programme at Newcastle can never produce the loyalty, commitment and connection to the place where they perform and the fans that come to see them. The club is now completely enveloped by the owner’s indifference and ruthless economic strategy. It’s faceless. I’ll try to be more succinct – it sucks. Am I concerned? Yes, passionately and angrily.”
It is not just to supporters and the media that the club are closed to (for more than a year, three local newspapers, who should be family, have been prevented from attending press conferences and sitting in the press-box); they have locked and barred their doors to other institutions, to politicians. The club’s Foundation is a worthy body, but the dots are not joined and stories are untold, in a place where there is a desperation for pride.
Michael Martin: “The Supporters Trust is banned from a pointless ‘fans forum’ which, on reflection, inflates the profile of the Trust because they fear it and are aware it has the wherewithal to expose the crass manner in which they run the club. As for true faith, I’ve no interest in having any kind of relationship with any of the current mob in the current situation. I have no respect for them, no regard, no faith, no belief, no trust in anyone who works for Ashley. I’ve no interest in being lied to, patronised or misled by Ashley’s saps.”
Chi Onwurah: “I have had no engagement with the club – the club, that is, not the Newcastle United Foundation – beyond a joint appearance at one Wonga event. I wrote to Ashley to invite him for tea in Westminster. It was a very nice letter and I took a long time over it but the only response was a note from Lee Charnley (the managing director) not to bother Ashley again.
“They do not encourage dialogue and instead I have engaged with NUST and with the Sports Minister, the Shadow Sports Minister, the Labour policy team and other MPs –such as Alison McGovern –who are concerned about the state of football today more generally. Labour’s policy on fan engagement is one of the fruits of that engagement. It is said countries get the politicians they deserve, but no-one would argue United fans have the ownership they deserve.”
Max Roberts: “It would be great to think that the club actually cared about where it resided and who came to watch it – but under Ashley it simply does not. It would be fantastic to think that an institution like Newcastle United in the heart of the city might be keen to promote understanding and awareness of issues that, as an arts organisation, we feel we have a responsibility to explore with young people.
“It seems the club is simply not interested. Even if we felt it worth having a crack, I’d be at loss as how to establish a partnership that might develop such projects. Our first port of call might be via the local media, who we enjoy a strong and important relationship with, but as the club has severed its dealings with the local press that would be a non-starter. It feels clear that the club has no desire whatsoever to engage.”
On a recent Saturday, that journey again, shorter now, bereft of uncertainty, each step well-trodden by repetition. Along Stowell Street, inhaling rendered duck fat and soy, a hopscotch exhaling around last night’s kebab puke, spray-painted near the casino. Slower for the hill, through Gallowgate car park to the side of the Strawberry, turn left and skirt the club shop. Too early for seething waves of people, never too late for discounts, reductions, roll up and pay up.
Fingertips on the bottom of Sir Bobby’s statue, staring south to Durham and then parallel to Barrack Road, beneath the Milburn Stand, a sharp right and inside. Kick-off is delayed because a new jumbo screen is untethered in the wind and the ground is empty and the breeze gusts through it and you march towards steps, that sensation of knowing unknowing, like those anticipatory seconds in the car before the sea fills the horizon and the sea will be there, but you haven’t seen it yet and so you cannot quite be sure.
You climb slowly towards the sky, the stands darkening the view, each stride bringing light to the black, not feeling panic, no coughed back tears, but waiting to remember, waiting to feel anything but dread, anything but this stomach-fist of sadness. And then it opens and is there, that same long field of emerald, but the eyes flicker to it and away, tempted by rivals, beckoned by blue and red, by the words and the logo scrawled on a noble space, by the sirens of nylon and acrylic. The moment dissolves. There is a sale on at Sports Direct.