I realise that some people reading this blog may not find the ups and downs of Newcastle United FC totally fascinating. But just allow yourselves to survey the scene. Here we have a big football (soccer) club, with a proud history and perhaps the most loyal fan base of any club anywhere. But we also have decades-long under-achievement, and in recent years a constant soap opera – usually involving the manager – that keeps far too much attention on matters off the field.
But we also have one or two love affairs between the fans and some key individuals who capture the mood and lift the spirits. Perhaps the most notable of these have been (first) player and (then) manager Kevin Keegan, and the record goalscorer for the club, Alan Shearer. In January of this year Keegan returned, unexpectedly, for his second spell as manager, and for once players and fans were happy. Keegan is one of the game’s romantics, preferring style and flair over defensive tactics, and these are attributes that are loved on Tyneside. In Newcastle city and area, the club is everything to local morale, and Keegan embodies it.
Until he fell out with the club’s current owner, Mike Ashley, and felt that because he did not have proper control over the recruitment of players he had to leave. Fans were outraged, and today’s first game since all this happened was accompanied by major protests and actions by supporters, with the clear message that the owner and his management team were now not wanted any more. And in the midst of all this the team lost today’s game, a home fixture they should have won.
As it happens, today’s lucky winners were Hull City FC, which also has a little bit of my loyalty, as I worked in Hull for 10 years. So if this outcome was perhaps a salutary lesson for the owners, I am glad the the beneficiaries, since there had to one, were Hull.
But apart from the ongoing drama at Newcastle – and just now it seems that a happy ending is only possible with the return of Keegan – there are maybe some issues here for the sporting world. Games such as football/soccer have become hugely expensive, and clubs can realistically only prosper with some very wealthy owners who have the personal resources to put millions into the club each year. Naturally many of these owners will be businesspeople, who will apply their normal practices and expectations to their football ‘business’.
There is no reasonable alternative to this mix of business and sport, the egg can no longer be unscrambled. But it may be time for some reflection on what kind of owner conduct allows a club to thrive on the pitch. One of the lessons the Keegan saga should be that the manager needs to have proper backing, and needs to be fully in charge of the game and all aspects that influence the players and their success or failure.
It will be interesting to see how this saga ends. Actually, as this is Newcastle, it is unlikely to end. But we may find out what the next amazing development will be.