If there is one issue on which even the fiercest rivals should have sympathy, even in this age of heightened tribalism and increasingly one-eyed views, it is on matters of club ownership. The past 20 years have shown that every club, from Leyton Orient to Manchester United, is just a takeover away from the grip of a disastrous regime; there but for the grace of God goes your club. Or not.
So you feel especially sorry for Newcastle at the moment. Now in the 11th year of Mike Ashley’s ownership, Newcastle have gone from Champions League contenders to two relegations and the real threat of a third. Fans and local press have been constantly alienated, and the club has twice been put up for sale, first in 2009 and most recently in October of last year.
Now, a promising takeover from Amanda Staveley has collapsed, leaving the club in limbo once again – particularly if it leads to the departure of Rafael Benitez, who was far too good a manager for Newcastle from the moment he was appointed but was enticed by the idea of leading a rejuvenation project. For a man with two La Liga titles and three European trophies on his CV to accept a season-long drop into the Championship is incredible. To lose him now would be yet another blow for a set of fans by now far too used to disappointment.
Takeovers are a necessarily opaque process at the best of times, so it is difficult to discern exactly what happened to cause Staveley’s bid to collapse, as much as a bit of reading between the lines can help elucidate matters. Ultimately, though, it will hardly matter to United fans, who will remain mired in a miserable hinterland.
Until then, the Geordie Army should have sympathy from all of us. When a club is in the control of a disastrous and unpopular owner, the experience for the fans is like having a loved one possessed by a malign alien parasite. They look the same, they might pass as the real deal to those who know them well, and it might take a while even for you to realise something is amiss, but eventually it becomes unmistakable.
With everything you once admired about them all but gone, living with your parasite-stricken former love is a miserable and soul-destroying experience. Yet you can’t leave them – for as long as they maintain the same appearance and the same name, you stay with them, year after year, in the hope that one day, the person you once knew will finally return. It’s only when they finally do something as extreme, inexplicable and inhuman as moving to Milton Keynes that you finally give up on them altogether.
Until then, you amble along, taking the smallest of comforts in the idea that maybe this is just going to be like that one bad season of the TV show you used to love. To use a contemporary example the kids will love, it’s like when the US TV show Bewitched suddenly recast Dick Sargent in the role of Darrin to replace Dick York in 1969. Maybe it’ll get good again! That is the lifeline those hopelessly loyal Hull, Blackpool, Coventry and Charlton fans (and no doubt countless other less high-profile cases) are currently clinging onto.
But like Bewitched, when a club goes bad, it’s usually just one Dick after another, as fans of Portsmouth, Leeds, Nottingham Forest, West Ham and others can attest after spending the better part of the last 10-15 years being passed between increasingly unpopular owners, with each apparent nadir in the club’s fortunes followed by an even deeper trough of despair.
Sorry, Newcastle fans. Let’s at least try to look on the bright side. Liverpool and Manchester City provide the highest-profile examples of a club who were able to shrug off a deeply unpopular regime and go on to better things, albeit in Liverpool’s case only after the current owners had to go through the High Court to take control. Even those examples may provide cold comfort to Newcastle, though, knowing full well that Staveley was a key broker in the deal that brought Sheikh Mansour to City.
And there, with that name, is the rub. In one of the most economically deprived areas of England, thousands of people are desperately begging for the chance to enrich a nicer billionaire than the one they currently have. The past was not the rosy halcyon place we often imagine it to be, and I’m the first to defend many of the much-derided aspects of modern football – but bloody hell, how on earth did we get to this?
The greatest shame is that there is no logical, ethical or responsible reason for things to be this way. If you were starting from scratch, it would be difficult to state a case for why any football club should operate as anything other than a co-operative.
Without oligarchs and plutocrats, there would be no need for clubs to overstretch themselves to compete with multi-billionaires pumping fortunes into clubs. Profits could be spent on player recruitment, ensuring all staff earn a living wage, keeping struggling fellow league clubs afloat (meaning clubs would be able to take more risks with managers and playing styles), reducing ticket prices, and the rest reinvested into community projects. It seems idyllic, but there is enough money in the English game that it could absolutely work.
But now, sadly, it seems much too late to put those genies back in their bottles. And so Newcastle fans, like so many others – like all of us are, or have, or will, one day, sooner or later – must continue on their seemingly endless march through the wilderness, hoping to find a supposed promised land that is nothing more than another billionaire’s pocket.