“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. The phrase could have been written for NUFC. Third in the league, playing football the likes of which I haven’t seen for many a year (dare I invoke that ubiquitous spectre Keegan so early on?). An on-field camaraderie I don’t think I’ve ever seen from a Newcastle team. An owner and board who have shown a contempt for the fanbase and an almost morbid fixation with neoliberal profiteering, which if it weren’t so depressing would be awe-inspiring.
I never really got behind the ‘fat cockney bastard’ vitriol, which has undergone its own apologetic transformation– again, as depressingly as inevitably – morphing into the more pragmatic chant “we don’t care about Ashley, ‘cause he don’t care about me, all we care about is NUFC” and now into benign silence. How long before “there’s only one Mike Ashley” chants start being heard in pockets of the ground? If we’re still third by Christmas? After 30 games? If we get into Europe?
I was wary of the man from the beginning, knowing how many false dawns this club has had even in my short lifespan. It all seemed too good to be true. Shepherd had sold up, if not to a “Geordie Abramovich”, then at least to an English one. But the cavalcade of duplicitous, back-handed compliments to fans, the wilful misinformation, the disregard of key staff, the disbanding of the Toon Ultras corner, and the staggering u-turns in policy have put Ashley and his team in an irredeemable position. I rather contentiously suggested a couple of weeks ago, before this latest stadium (sorry…. arena) naming debacle hit, that I would prefer NUFC to get relegated without Ashley than us to win the FA Cup with him. It may sound masochistic, but I stand by it. Of course I want NUFC to win…. well, anything would do. But there are certain things that cannot be sacrificed for either profit (which the Ashley regime seems exclusively concerned with) or for short-term success (Birmingham City won the League Cup under their spurious owners… would NUFC fans accept the price they have paid for a gaudy bit of tinsel?)
I don’t go in for the dewy-eyed sentimentalism around the club either (well, alright, I do – Keegan is still king, and I’d welcome him back in a heartbeat). I saw on the BBC website a ‘fan’ outside the ground suggesting “they should rename it the Sir Bobby Robson Stadium”. I don’t think so. I recognise that money and a prudent business approach are necessary evils in modern football. I recognise that spunking money on ‘marquee signings’ is daft and unsustainable. But what must always be taken into account is the entirely unsentimental fact that football clubs are not simply businesses.
I don’t want to assert that the club is a symbol of regional identity, or that people’s personal histories and memories are entwined in the place more than could ever happen with any other type of business – it’s true, but not the point. The point is that, unlike any other business in the neoliberal market, the ‘customers’ (i.e. fans) are bound into supporting the same brand (i.e. club) irrespective of policy. If I disagree with the way Tesco sell their oranges, I can go to Asda. If I disagree with how Mike Ashley is running NUFC, I can’t go and support another club. I can’t. Therefore, I don’t think it is truculent or petulant to insist that the club is run with at least a modicum of respect for the fans interests, and with at least some recourse for fans to assert their feelings upon how their club is managed.
Now what is the ‘voice of the fans’? Could a workable consensus of NUFC fans ever realistically be found, let alone consulted, let alone relied upon to make sensible decisions about the running of the club? Obviously there is no absolute consensus among the 40,000 plus people who regularly attend matches at St. James’ Park. Indeed part of the fun of match day is disagreeing over all aspects of how the club is run. But because it would be difficult to implement, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible to implement. And just because we are doing well now, doesn’t mean we have to put up with all the concessions and impingements upon the history and identity of the club. Just because protesting over these decisions may rock the boat, and may ultimately be fruitless, it does not mean that they are not worth doing.
The most saddening thing about the proposed stadium name change (which, Llambias ensured would always, under his reign, contain within it the words St. James’ Park – even that scant concession to the fans has now disappeared) is the ever-growing numbers of toon fans claiming that it doesn’t matter, as long as we keep doing well in the league. But where is the end of this egregious line of thinking line? If the meagre (and it is meagre, in light of the astronomical amounts of money swilling around football now) £8 -10 million extra is worth the re-naming of an already contentiously renamed stadium, then what might Ashley sacrifice from the identity of this club for £20million? Could we be encouraged to play in blue and red stripes? Conceivably, yes, if everything has a price. If financial viability is the chief concern of Ashley, then having the club based in the economic hinterland of the North-East doesn’t make very much economic sense (particularly under this Conservative regime). What if Ashley decides to take up Tory councillor David Shakespeare’s recent suggestion, and get on his bike and relocate the club in the South East? Don’t think there is no precedent for such a move – it happens all the time in American franchise sports (which the Premier League seems to be aping), and it wasn’t all that long ago that Wimbledon moved to Milton Keynes. If the money is right, and it makes financial sense for the club, would Ashley do it? What about changing the name of the club. What if a sponsor insisted that as well as stadium (sorry… arena) naming rights, they wanted club naming rights? What then? Newcastle Red Bulls? Virgin Media United? Again, there are precedents.
The above may be unfounded ravings, but the pursuit of financial security at the cost of anything else – which Ashley seems to have made his modus operandi – would inevitably lead to all sorts of unthinkable concessions.
The other position some fans seem to have taken is that ‘it doesn’t matter what they call the stadium, it’ll always be called St. James’ Park’. But this is only superficially defiant, and only superficially true. Llambias’ frighteningly Orweillian discourse the last time they changed the stadium name suggests that history is up for grabs:
Success, really, will heal the wounds, and time, a combination of both. We are patient people and I think the fans will come around eventually.
I have no idea what length of time that will be – I may be a very old man before it’s done – but I think the fans will see in the future that we do care.
Combine that with his most recent statement that “we need to become part of the history” and there is no reason in the world that the stadium ‘will always’ be known as St. James’ Park. There have been numerous examples of short term rebranding that have usurped the original name. So if success and time can heal all wounds, how long before we forget there was ever a wound there in the first place?
Another execrable line of argument that seems to be creeping into view is the “everybody else is doing it” approach. Stoke. Bolton. Manchester City. Even Chelsea, who have been in the same stadium as long as the toon, are doing it. But come on. Without wishing to be disrespectful, the renaming of stadia is the preserve of the out-of-town-off-the-motorway-meccano-kit-stadiums (and clubs), or reserved for the sort of club (Chelsea and Man City) who we should be studiously avoiding trying to be like. Or Arsenal, whose purpose build new stadium had no such history connected to it. St. James’ Park takes pride of place in the Newcastle skyline; as important and iconic as the Tyne Bridge, the Cathedral or the Keep. It is more than a stadium, it is a monument, and that should be respected.
“So what do you want? It’s Ashley’s club, he can do what he wants. Do you want the fans to run the club, or have some kind of fan-based democracy? Should we beatify Sir Bobby, and put Keegan back on the throne? Should we permanently re-live the 95-96 season, though this time conflate it with the season after, when we beat Man United 5-0?”
Of course football is a business, of course we have to live in pragmatic times, but like the riots (at their best) in London and Manchester show, like the occupation of St. Paul’s Cathedral (at its best) shows (p.s. – do you know it cost about 14 quid to go into St. Paul’s?!), the rampant and unabashed pursuit of financial stability is not a justification for riding roughshod over history, identity and community. Sentimental, intangible – even anachronistic – as they may appear to be in football today, these things do still mean something; they mean a hell of a lot more than profit and trophies.
I don’t want to run the club, but I think it’s not too unrealistic to demand that a stream of forthright and honest information about the club and its ambitions and motivation should be given to the fans by the club, and that we should not have to put up with the back-handed, duplicitous and often totally fabricated, nonsensical doublespeak that the Ashley regime has made its stock in trade just to ensure that the players play well. Finally, I think that certain aspects of the club should remain off limits to profiteering. By all means sell players; they truly are the businesses stock. I have no real problem with the sale of Carroll, Barton et al (though the communication from the club surrounding each of the big name transfers was, as ever, misleading and contemptuous towards fans). But when the name of the stadium (sorry… arena) is flogged off, we start down a very dangerous road, the end of which is a worrying prospect for a club like NUFC.
 As above.