The worst bit is the waiting. The sight of a finishing line coming into view promises blessed relief, but also hammers home the length of the race and the tiredness in the legs.
As soon as St. James Holdings Limited announced in October that they intended to sell Newcastle United by Christmas, there was only one festive gift coveted by those on Tyneside. Father Christmas should expect plenty of repetition in letters from this particular part of the world.
The same question is on the lips of every Newcastle United supporter: ‘Any news on the takeover?’ Some persuade themselves that no news is bad news, filling the vacuum with cynicism and doubt. Others choose the opposite; no news means that Mike Ashley hasn’t undermined their chances of happiness once again. Hours turn into days.
Allowing the off-pitch noise to nudge on-pitch events from the forefront of a supporter’s mind is a tragedy, but inevitable. A club’s success is not the catalyst for good morale, but a symptom. Achievement on the field is a reflection of harmony away from it. So Newcastle United is being carried on the shoulders of supporters. But they need help.
The presence of Rafael Benitez on the touchline is the only effective barrier between those supporters and complete negativity, and even that can only be temporary. At some point, Benitez too will be strangled by the smog. No institution can operate indefinitely from the bottom up. Eventually, the actions and behaviour of the leadership will shape performance and mood, for better or worse.
All Newcastle United fans are all clear on one thing: They’ll believe good news when they see it. False dawns have followed dark nights. Supporters are so downtrodden by the cycle of hope and despair that they barely know how to treat either imposter. So instead they sing and sing as they did in the bars of Old Trafford on Saturday: “When Ashley goes, we’re on the pitch.”
Most of the stories regarding Newcastle United’s potential takeover have focused on lavish spending once the deal has been done. The most outrageous, splashed on the back page of the Daily Express, claimed that Benitez would be given as much as £500m to spend on new players in two transfer windows. This club’s record transfer is still the £16m paid for Michael Owen in 2005.
That focus in understandable in the wider context of the game, where nothing continues to sell quite like transfer rumours and eye-watering figures. Some – perhaps the younger generation – Newcastle fans may be captivated by the thought of expensive recruits. After a perceived lack of investment from Ashley in the playing staff, Benitez would surely appreciate the opportunity to mould a squad around ideals rather than budget. Nobody should be dissuaded from day-dreaming.
Yet to focus purely – or even predominantly – on money is to emphatically miss the point. This communal desperation, the urge for good news, is based on emotions that run far deeper than Newcastle’s league position or record transfer fee. This is a story of unrequited love.
Newcastle United are a different club to any other in England; that is a statement of fact rather than opinion and should not cause eyes to roll. They are exceptional as a one-club city in an urban area containing over three-quarters of a million people.
The only equivalent in this country is Leeds, but Leeds boasts the grounds of Leeds Rhinos and Yorkshire Cricket Club as alternative places of sporting worship. Newcastle Falcons, the second sporting club in the area, average attendances of around 7,000. At 51,106, Newcastle United had the 15th highest attendance in European football last season. They were a second-tier club.
If that all makes Newcastle unusual, the deep connection between club and city makes it unique. This community’s week is centred around Saturday 3pm. The many thousands who throng in the pubs of the city and walk up Strawberry Lane and Gallowgate every other Saturday do so with the mood of the next seven days at stake.
Those that journey from the north east on those achingly long away trips down south do so from some of the poorest areas of the country, places that London wilfully ignores and does its best to forget. They demonstrate not just a long-lasting love, love as habit, but an animated lust for their club.
That love is ethereal, but it has practical consequences. “The love I could feel from the fans was a big influence in my decision,” said Benitez when he made the decision to stay with a then-Championship club.
“My hairs stood on the back of my neck and I will never forget it, it was so emotional,” said Joselu of the noise when he was substituted having scored on his home debut in August. Joselu likens Newcastle to Madrid for the obsession that permeates every part of city life. It’s fair to say the two clubs of that city have enjoyed slightly different fortunes to Newcastle United.
There is nothing quite as sad as unreciprocated love. Newcastle fans put themselves at the mercy of Mike Ashley in 2007, and they have had that commitment thrown back at them. Ashley has enjoyed some success, but since the resignation of Kevin Keegan in September 2008 there has been mistrust of his methods and suspicion that the club is in unsafe hands. Almost since then, St. James’ Park has dominated the city’s skyline like a prison, not a palace.
As his ownership now enters its final stages, Ashley perhaps does not realise just how close he came to causing unbreachable rifts between Newcastle United supporters and their club. Plenty I know certainly stopped attending away games in such regularity, and a boycott of the home game against Tottenham in April 2015 prompted as many as 20,000 fans to stay away from the match. Many of those could never previously have envisaged missing a home game, but patience in every marriage has its limits.
Therein lies the conundrum for every supporter of a mismanaged and mistreated club. The appropriate punishment is to hit the owner in the pocket where it hurts most, but in doing so you are allowing your tormentor to win. When going to the football is the highlight of your week, non-attendance punishes you more than them, particularly when ticket revenue is such a small part of the whole.
So why should they win? Why should anyone stop making the same pilgrimage as their ancestors? Whoever’s name is above the door, and whoever holds the key; they’ll never own our football clubs, they belong to you and me.
The best response is not to fall silent, but to sing louder, to declare your love for your club in beery voices with your friends and wait for that love to be returned in kind. One day they’ll appreciate you. One day they’ll return your calls.
Newcastle United supporters now take their joy from individual moments rather than the club’s general direction, like Dwight Gayle’s opening goal at Old Trafford on Saturday. For a few precious seconds, Mike Ashley, PCP Partners and due diligence didn’t matter, and football was a simple game once more. And then reality hits, four unanswered goals by a team with whom Newcastle United once competed.
At its most basic level, a football club should be a social institution. Even if every match is lost, the home ground should be a place of shelter and belonging, where everyone is at least attempting to pull in the same direction. If Newcastle are even being pulled at all, it is down beneath the surface.
More accurately, this is a club standing in stagnant water, left out to rust in the rain like a long-forgotten child’s Christmas present. If good things come to those who wait, Newcastle United supporters will celebrate the change at the top with more glee than one hundred goals combined.
When Ashley goes, they’re on the pitch. Partly because he never quite understood how much it all meant to this city, and partly because he was never willing to find out.
Daniel Storey – Portrait of an Icon would make an excellent Christmas gift, and all the proceeds go to the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation’s work into treating and beating cancer more effectively. I’d hugely appreciate your help.