Graeme Souness’ belief that West Ham players should not be concerning themselves with the short-sighted decision to sell prospect Grady Diangana might only be superseded in absurdity by his claim that Steve Bruce has now won over the Newcastle fanbase entirely.
“He fought that fight and won it,” he said on Saturday. “He’s come out the other side now and everybody loves him, and quite correctly so.”
Same old, then. The staggering allegiance of pundits to the regimes of these poorly-led clubs, saying supporters just need to get behind the team – as if that has any bearing during a period where fans cannot attend games – is nothing if not a clear mark that a new season has started. Ah, we’ve missed you, Premier League. Would we even have it any other way?
Saturday’s game on Sky Sports was a tale of two clubs presided over by rancid owners battling it out to see which hierarchy had laid the shiniest turd. By way of consolation, fans of the losing team could have bragging rights to claim that, indeed, theirs is the worst. Watch it, drink it in.
Yes, fans will fight between them as to whose owner is the most wretched but, as seasons go by, the inevitable seesaw of small elation followed by despair between the clubs will average out and the eventual summary will read:
‘Both run by dispassionate, shortsighted venture capitalists whose metric of success is measured purely by purely profit margins.’
But while West Ham spin further into the abyss of crisis, Newcastle fans face another battle: enduring the irritating flak of being overly critical towards their owner, who, by some accounts, is doing his very best.
If you push the same agenda for long enough, people start to believe it themselves. Someone recently used the analogy that supporting Newcastle was similar to a rollercoaster ride. Avoiding the fact that such a parallel can be applied to pretty much any club relative to their size, it also seems to suggest that Newcastle are presently at some sort of zenith, that these years under Ashley represent a capricious period.
Perhaps the rollercoaster metaphor would work if the theme park ride was structured to the lowly standards in which their owner sets out. A high was winning the second tier. A high was waiting over a decade to break their transfer record with a £20m purchase two seasons ago. A high was reaching the quarter-finals of the FA Cup for the first time in 13 years. Reach for the stars, Newcastle.
If as a supporter you believe this is the pinnacle of a club that has been in Europe 11 times since the Premier League’s inception, making it only once during the Ashley era, you know you’re in the midst of a serious case of Stockholm Syndrome. And this is especially true when you celebrate a £35m spend in the transfer market – yet this has been labelled as a brilliant window by Newcastle from some corners.
Using this window as a metric, no-one can deny Newcastle have been shrewd. Perhaps the injury of Dwight Gayle opened the way for Callum Wilson to be brought in, but we aren’t to know.
He scored the second ugliest goal for the opening day (Alexandre Lacazette) but the manner in which he scored, the instinct of being in the right place, poking his foot out at the time, is something Newcastle have needed for almost ten years. Last season their highest scorer in the league was Jonjo Shelvey (6). They sold the player who topped their chart in the season before that (Ayoze Perez, 12). The last time a striker scored over 15 goals for them in the Premier League was Demba Ba in 2011/12. They had to sell him for £7m soon after to Chelsea owing to a clause in his contract.
Fortunately, they’ve had Steve Bruce’s pragmatism this window, showing there is an active thought process behind these recent incomings. The four new additions – Wilson (£20m), Jamal Lewis (£15m), Ryan Fraser (free) and Jeff Hendrick (free) – have signed long-term contracts, meaning they were all sold some sort of vision of the club that goes beyond a relegation scrap.
Bruce is not a particularly tactically astute manager. He overvalues his opponents (think Newcastle’s 0-0 draw with Brighton when the latter had 70% possession) and pulls players back deep too prematurely when taking a lead. But despite his strategical inadequacies, he’s an affable manager, someone who can get a player performing for him, even if they’re doing so under his misguided direction. It could be argued that his passion for the club might’ve even got those moves over the line.
But where he fails is his attempt to bridge a gap between Ashley and the supporters that will forever stretch miles.
“He’s been open and transparent,” Bruce said of his boss. “With what’s happened to the world with this COVID thing then to go and do what we’ve done in the transfer market has been terrific. It’s lifted everybody. We’ve given everybody a bit of excitement.
“I get on with Mike fine and that’s vitally important. I value that he takes us out to dinner.”
A trip to the local steakhouse is hardly the cornerstone of every decent owner but it at least shows Bruce has an understanding of what’s needed to ensure unity at the club, even if it is miscalculated.
Indeed, Bruce has recognised the damage done from the fallout of the takeover. He knows it must be met with swift action for the club not to capitulate entirely, attempting to get the fans on side in such a way where they don’t detest Ashley at full throttle. Likewise, the owner has made an equally redundant move by promising to Bruce that he will attend more games, almost as if his presence has any bearing other than for Sky cameras to point at him once a half and attempt to mention how despised he is by the supporters in the nicest, most TV-friendly way possible.
But this shows that even Ashley has recognised the need to keep fans somewhat happy during this torrid time. He never engages with the Newcastle supporters unless it serves his own interest. Recently, he made malicious use of the club’s website to get them alongside, attacking the Premier League for their rejecting the takeover – something which they vehemently deny.
Newcastle have had it rough this year with regard to the pending Saudi takeover. Many clung onto media reports in the hope that finally, the Premier League would give the nod. But what happened instead was frankly abhorrent: the pornification of the club by cowboy conglomerates looking for advertisement. You would imagine most North East journalists would have sat around the table and made a pact that from now on they will make a point-blank refusal to publish any information pertaining to a potential takeover until the whole ordeal is completed. Their editors may have other ideas, though.
But even in all the cynicism and failed possibilities, Newcastle should be looking to the season with at least a spectre of hope. The supporters will surely be enjoying the current period. It’s always nice to see your team win so convincingly. But at the back of their minds most will see the bigger picture: Newcastle must be cut loose from the clutches of Ashley if they’re to stand any chance of proper growth.
Jacque Talbot is on Twitter