New­cas­tle re­main dis­united

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - SOCCER - COLIN YOUNG

WHEN the staff of Sports Di­rect turned up for work at their New­cas­tle city cen­tre store a fort­night ago, they were prob­a­bly not ex­pect­ing to be handed a cou­ple of hun­dred choco­late bars by a chant­ing group of un­happy foot­ball sup­port­ers half­way through their shift. But that’s what they got. And that’s what they can ex­pect again to­day.

Mike Ash­ley’s cor­ner shop in Northum­ber­land Street, New­cas­tle-upon-Tyne, will again be the fo­cus of New­cas­tle United sup­port­ers’ protests against their con­tro­ver­sial owner be­fore they play Chelsea at St James’ Park this af­ter­noon. This is not a mind­less mob but a mind­ful ma­jor­ity who are po­lite and pas­sion­ate and peed off. And get­ting se­ri­ous.

Rafa Ben­itez looks cer­tain to leave at the end of the sea­son un­less Ash­ley changes his re­cruit­ment poli­cies. And if he leaves, what next for th­ese tor­tured sup­port­ers?

Con­scious of the im­pact their sig­nif­i­cant pres­ence might have on Sports Di­rect’s many part-time week­end work­ers, they came armed with ban­ners, flags and choco­late when around 2,000 turned out be­fore the first home game against Tot­ten­ham a fort­night ago. A small group en­tered the store, apol­o­gised for the noise and in­con­ve­nience, promised it was noth­ing per­sonal, handed over the sweets and re­turned to the throng on the street.

The big­gest cheer of the af­ter­noon came when they later un­furled a ban­ner of their man­ager. It was fly­ing for the rous­ing flag walk to the sta­dium for kick-off and a 2-1 de­feat to Spurs. More are ex­pected at the gath­er­ing or­gan­ised by the newly-formed Mag­pie Group

The con­tempt for Ash­ley and his lack of in­vest­ment in the squad, the acad­emy, sta­dium and club in­fra­struc­ture has been sim­mer­ing for years. In fact there were protests about the “di­rec­tion of the club” un­der Ash­ley out­side his shops in 2009 and they have al­ready been rel­e­gated twice since. Ben­itez was the dif­fer­ence be­tween a third re­turn to the Cham­pi­onship and an­other chance to en­joy the Pre­mier League’s riches. New­cas­tle fin­ished 10th last sea­son with 44 points, the low­est tally for that po­si­tion in the Pre­mier League era.

Ash­ley promised Ben­itez funds from sales but kept most of that money back as an­other sum­mer of piti­ful spend­ing has again left New­cas­tle vul­ner­a­ble, com­pared with most of their ri­vals who are evolv­ing and in­vest­ing the mil­lions earned from Pre­mier League par­tic­i­pa­tion. Ben­itez has yet to start any of his five out­field sign­ings who are, re­al­is­ti­cally, squad ad­di­tions rather than the multi-tal­ented game-chang­ers now find­ing their feet else­where.

Through­out Ben­itez’s 106game reign, his sheer pres­ence has quelled the un­rest, par­tic­u­larly at St James’ Park, which has re­tained its dig­nity on match days and added a fer­vent un­der­cur­rent with the new flags sec­tion which sus­tains the back­ing for the man­ager and his team. The ‘Get out of our club’ chants are fre­quent enough but can­not spoil an at­mos­phere which makes it a bucket-list match-day ex­pe­ri­ence for any foot­ball fan.

Ash­ley no longer at­tends matches and although he now has the ben­e­fit of Den­nis Wise, Andy Gray and Richard Keys fight­ing his cor­ner, he ap­pears im­mune to the crit­i­cism and ad­verse pub­lic­ity.

Ben­itez doesn’t need sup­port­ers to fight his bat­tles. He has taken on Ro­man Abramovich at Chelsea, fought and won against Liver­pool’s former own­ers, George Gil­lett and Tom Hicks, and sur­vived his em­ploy­ment by the no­to­ri­ous Napoli pres­i­dent Aure­lio De Lau­ren­tiis. But the bond be­tween the Spa­niard and the Ge­ordies is spe­cial. Kevin Kee­gan and Bobby Rob­son had it too, but they had the tools and the back­ing to build teams and dreams be­fore they de­parted. Ben­itez’s reign looks set for an ugly de­noue­ment un­less he can se­cure some fi­nan­cial sup­port and new faces in Jan­uary.

The be­lief and an­tic­i­pa­tion are slowly ebbing away un­der Ash­ley. They don’t ex­pect that New­cas­tle will end the 63-year wait for a do­mes­tic tro­phy, they just want to pay to watch a team who will com­pete, en­ter­tain and have a chance of beat­ing Brighton, Bournemouth and West Ham, who have all spent more on two play­ers than New­cas­tle’s en­tire out­lay in the last win­dow.

New­cas­tle fans know Ben­itez, with se­ri­ous money and a board who backed him, could com­pete at the higher end of the Pre­mier League. In­stead, New­cas­tle are be­ing left be­hind — Ben­itez knows it and the fans know it. The change in mood and fan tac­tics against Ash­ley re­flect that. Un­less he goes, Ben­itez goes and if he goes . . . The Mag­pie Group’s hash­tag and al­ter­na­tive Twit­ter han­dle say it all #IfRafaGoesWeGo.

Ben­itez’s con­tract was the sub­ject of the first ques­tion at his very re­laxed Fri­day press con­fer­ence and it will dom­i­nate his sea­son, whether he likes it or not. He has yet to even start ne­go­ti­at­ing a new deal.

Ben­itez is look­ing for his 50th win as New­cas­tle man­ager to­day, against his former club, Chelsea.

“As a man­ager I want to win ev­ery game,” he said. “Can I change my squad from now un­til Jan­uary? No. It doesn’t change any­thing in our ap­proach to games. The play­ers and fans have to give ev­ery­thing in ev­ery game so we can com­pete and win. That’s it.

“Now we can talk about that (the con­tract) in April which will have a mas­sive in­flu­ence on ev­ery­thing. Un­til then we have plenty of time to talk about foot­ball. If the team is do­ing well, it will be eas­ier to talk about the fu­ture. If the team is a dis­as­ter, it will be eas­ier to talk about the fu­ture.

“Af­ter Jan­uary 31, when ev­ery­thing is fin­ished and we have the team we can say ‘what is the fu­ture?’. We will have more an­swers to your ques­tions. But now I think is too early.

“Ev­ery­one knows fin­ish­ing tenth was a mir­a­cle be­cause we did re­ally well but the re­al­ity is we have to com­pete with the teams who are nor­mally at the bot­tom of the ta­ble in the trans­fer win­dow. We have to be safe and if we are safe then we can try to achieve some­thing more. If we fin­ished 12th would it be a dis­as­ter? No, but it would be quite pos­si­ble.

“I knew this sea­son would be quite dif­fi­cult but now we have to con­cen­trate on bring­ing in the new play­ers and the un­der­stand­ing has to be good with them so we can com­pete now. When you have play­ers who can’t make a dif­fer­ence, you need team­work and it is im­por­tant they un­der­stand your ideas and fol­low them. We can­not lose the work-rate and to­geth­er­ness which got us to 10th last sea­son.

“The sup­port­ers know we don’t have some­one to go out and score 25 goals. What we have is a team which is stronger with the fans be­hind them. We have to for­get all the things that have hap­pened over the sum­mer and in the mean­time, ev­ery­one has the right to do what they want to do. But think­ing about the club, think­ing about the team, think­ing about the fans, I have to do my best.”

Only Arse­nal and Liver­pool have bet­ter home records against to­day’s vis­i­tors Chelsea who have lost 11 times on Ty­ne­side, in­clud­ing An­to­nio Conte’s last league game in May. This is the 11th time this fix­ture has been a live Sun­day tele­vised game and New­cas­tle have won five and only lost one of them (a 5-0 thrash­ing at Stam­ford Bridge in 2003). Mau­r­izio Sarri, the man who has fol­lowed Ben­itez to Napoli and Chelsea, is ex­pected to win his third Pre­mier League game to­day.

New­cas­tle were FA Cup run­ners-up twice, reg­u­lar Euro­pean qual­i­fiers and se­ri­ous, re­spected com­peti­tors abroad. That Kee­gan side of 1995/’96 which blew the ti­tle was the start of a new era in English foot­ball. Ev­ery­one loved them. And when Rob­son kicked Alan Shearer into life a few years later, they were the peo­ple’s team again.

‘The play­ers and fans have to give ev­ery­thing in ev­ery game so we can com­pete’

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