There are few teams in the top flight more radioactive than Newcastle.
The combination of a seemingly clueless owner, an unreasonable fanbase and an erroneous perception that the barcodes are a big club have left more than a few decent (and other not so decent – Glenn Roeder) managers chewed up and spat out along the way. There is no question of the devotion of the Toon Army fans – they are among the most rabid in all of the Premier League. Few places generate more atmosphere on matchday than St. James Park (naming rights were sold and the ground is officially known as Sports Direct Arena). Its 52,000 plus seats give off the air of it being the home of a truly great club. Truth be told, though, Newcastle has all of the hallmarks of an unsustainable sporting venture whose fans are choking it in a stranglehold of demands for greatness.
There are some reasons for this. Once a thriving industrial town (coal, steel, shipbuilding), Newcastle, with its working class values, once kept the Empire stocked with much of the raw materials needed for it to expand indefinitely. Even with the demise of Imperialist expansionism there was still plenty of need for its goods around the home nations.
The demand began to dry up as early as the 1950’s, with the city’s last coal mine shuttering its doors in 1956. The shipyards went into steep decline in the 70’s, while ancillary businesses packed up and moved elsewhere. To this day, the Northeast benefits from the highest percentage of public sector jobs (roughly 20%) in England, with the bulk of these located in Tyneside. The economic downturn of the late 2000’s hit Newcastle and the Northeast of England especially hard, with many of the service jobs that had set up shop in the area packing up and moving east to India and the like in the constant search for cheaper service-sector labor. To add to these woes, David Cameron made clear that he takes a dim view of the number of public sector jobs in the Northeast, and has every intention to trim those back. There is a big push to help entrepreneurs get going, but economic insecurity plays on the minds of locals constantly, a shadow over day to day life there.
In much the same way that Americans went to the movies in increasing numbers throughout the Great Depression, football viewership is often an outlet for those down on their luck. A once thriving city whose residents prided themselves on their vital role within the great British Empire, the impression and outsider gets is that the people of Newcastle still carry about them an air of injury, of having been forgotten or left behind. There is a sense that Tyneside’s inhabitants still struggle to this day to see their vitality having been cut back so cruelly by the change in the global that has not bothered to see if there is a place at the table for them.
This same air of injury carries over to the average Toon Army militant. It colors all events through the lens of us versus them, the outsiders taking “our jobs, our money, our women” away, an emasculation and sense of helplessness that drives the people to drink and self destruction. The suspicion toward outsiders runs deep, but they are not averse to turning on each other. Honorary President for Life Sir John Hall led a hostile takeover of the club in 1992, with the Magpies teetering on the brink of being relegated out of the Football League altogether. He chaired the clubs rapid rise back into the big time, even so far as to challenge for the Premier League title in 1996. Hall handed control of the club to another local businessman, Freddy Shepherd, who proved who proved enormously unpopular with the fans for his disparaging comments regarding the Toon Army and calling local girls “dogs.”
Eventually, the Geordie businessman was facing a battle on a different front when Mike Ashley tabled a hostile takeover bid of his own. He was ultimately unable to repel the London businessman, and so in 2007 Ashley came into the possession of one of England’s greater albatrosses. In his relatively short time at the club he has seen seven managers come in and out of the revolving doors at the club (Sam Allardyce, Kevin Keegan, Joe Kinnear, Alan Shearer, Chris Hughton, Alan Pardew and John Carver, as interim until the end of the 2014-2015 season). In this time, the club has been relegated to the Championship once, flirted with relegation three other times, and had one European adventure (in 2013).
Welcomed at first, Ashley incurred the fans’ wrath after the departure of Kevin Keegan. Ashley appointed local lad and hero Keegan soon after he took over the club and dismissing the extremely unpopular Sam Allardyce, whose negative style of football did not sit well with the fans. Keegan, the Geordie Messiah himself, came in and restored something of a feel good factor on Tyneside. Nevertheless, the cracks began to show toward the end of his first season there as he chastised the club’s leadership for not providing enough financial support. It was the appointment of Derek Llambias, a long time associate of Ashley’s, as Director of Football (in an attempt to adopt a more continental approach to club management) that drew the most ire from Keegan. He resigned in protest early during his second season in charge, stating that he felt the ability to run the team the way he saw fit was taken from him. Queue the protests from the barcodes, and things have not been peaceable on Tyneside since.
Alan Pardew was the longest-standing manager at Newcastle during the Ashley era, although he was never embraced by the fans. A man of class, he bore their criticism without firing back or taking the bait and hung in there, doing a job at a club full of disgruntled supporters. This lasted until a vacancy appeared at his old club Crystal Palace. To give you some idea, Selhurst Park in southeast London sits a mere 26,000. For a well respected, well paid manager to up stakes and leave a club with a global profile and a stadium twice that size tells you a little something of how unpleasant things were.
It is into this ungodly mix that Mike Ashley must dupe some poor rube into taking this particular poisoned chalice. One wonders what sort of fee, what sort of conditions an intelligent manager would have to lay out in order to be able to build something of substance there. While Ashley has managed to eke a profit out of the club over the last few years, it would be fair to suggest the man has not done enough to hold onto their top talent. Happy to reap the gate receipts and revenue from replica shirts (his company, Sports Direct, is into just that industry), Ashley knows that the Toon Army will pony up the cash every time. So what’s to say he will now open his wallet not just to snag emerging talent and turn around and sell them in a matter of two seasons?
The two names being touted in the press are Patrick Vieira (former Arsenal midfield maestro and current development coach at Manchester City) and Steve McClaren (formerly the manager of Middlesborough, England, FC Twente in Holland, VFB Wolfsburg, Nottingham Forest, and most recently Derby). The two candidates could not be more different.
On the one hand you have Vieira: Arsenal legend, a World Cup winner (France, 1998), and presently coaching the Elite Development Squad (read: the youngsters).
On the other is Steve McClaren, a vastly experienced manager who, while possessing a patchy resume, is unquestionably qualified to lead the Magpies capably if he were appointed to the post. Of the two, he knows the costs of coming into an extremely challenging role for a historically underperforming team, whose fans are the most unreasonable, delusional bunch out there (remember, he coached England). So he has an idea already of what that particular pressure cooker feels like.
McClaren would likely demand assurances that Ashley indeed had a plan to bring in the silverware he recently promised. Geordie fans have seen too many false dawns, and McClaren will be all too aware that jumping into this mess could be enough to irrevocably annihilate the reputation he has so carefully re-constructed following his time with the Three Lions.
That is why I would be very surprised if he took the offer. McClaren is not a stupid man. If he were to accept Ashley’s job offer then you would expect there was a timeline in place for success, a budget laid out and some benchmarks Ashley would need to keep to (as would McClaren) to see the club progress.
I do not think Ashley has any such thing in mind. He took over Newcastle at a time of massive turbulence in the club because he knew he had a captive audience already in place, a baying pack of rabid fans who regardless of how poorly their idols on the pitch performed would queue up at the club shop to shell out the $100-plus it costs to pick up a freshly minted replica jersey. It is why Ashley has upped his stake in another hotbed of fan lunacy, Ibrox’s own Glasgow Rangers. Filthy lucre, people.
The most likely scenario here is Vieira takes the job and is devoured by the angry Geordies. He won’t even last to the end of the season. That is if he is foolish and/or delusional enough to believe he can succeed there. My guess is he might very well be that crazy and we will see the barcodes fighting at the wrong end of the league all season long.