Newcastle remain disunited
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’