Old plans for Newcastle United fail to come to fruition
Economic meltdown reflected in club and it’s hosting area of north-east England
A dejected Vurnon Anita leaves the pitch after Newcastle United 4-0 defeat at Manchester City on Monday.
Newcastle United’s renaissance at the inception of the Premier League was rallied by the club’s then owner, John Hall, as a flagship for an economic revival of the north east of England and the restored pride of the “Geordie nation”.
There was a hollowness in the rhetoric from a man whose fortune was made building a shopping mall, the Gateshead Metrocentre, on a former industrial site and Hall made £75 million (€87m) from selling his shares, ultimately to Mike Ashley, in 2007.
So perhaps today’s unhappy club, owned by another retail magnate and advertising Wonga payday loans to an economically depressed city, represents the fruition of Hall’s vision rather than a shortfall.
At a downbeat press conference ahead of today’s home game against West Ham United at St James’ Park, Alan Pardew spoke of Newcastle as financially vulnerable to bigger clubs in the transfer market and said he understood fans’ “despondency”.
This with August sunshine still warming the training pitches outside, and after only one game, albeit Monday’s 4-0 evisceration by Sheikh Mansour’s Manchester City.
Seasoned fans’ despondency goes deeper than a summer of stagnation that, with a week until the transfer window closes, has produced only the striker Loic Remy on loan, while Arsenal’s bid for Yohan Cabaye, rejected at £10m, risks branding Newcastle as a selling club.
This is reinforcing the sense that a club that made substantial all-round progress, particularly the season before last when Pardew led a replenished squad to fifth, has suddenly and bewilderingly lurched backwards.
Fans’ great frustration centres on the owner Ashley’s decision to appoint the former Wimbledon manager, Joe Kinnear, as director of football – a move that Ashley, characteristically, has never explained.
The best explanation appears to be that Ashley likes to work with people he knows and trusts and Kinnear is a long-standing acquaintance.
But Kinnear apparently precipitated Derek Llambias’s resignation as the club’s managing director, a position that has not been filled, his responsibilities instead split between the finance director, John Irving, and the secretary, Lee Charnley.
Llambias is also a long-standing friend of Ashley but he confounded the suspicion that another member of a “Cockney mafia” would further muck up the club by proving himself shrewd and formidable. Working with the chief scout, Graham Carr, Llambias negotiated the signings of Demba Ba, Cabaye, Papiss Cisse and Davide Santon in the summer of 2011, and Hatem Ben Arfa and Cheik Tiote the season before, while reaping £35m from selling Andy Carroll to Liverpool and wresting the club’s finances, and its image, under control.
Last season’s 16th-place finish was disappointing and Pardew, Llambias and Carr faced convincing Ashley that they could re-engineer improvement but instead the fans now fear a Cockney mafia-style mess returning.
“We’re wondering, if Joe Kinnear was the answer, what on earth the question was,” says Michael Martin, editor of the True Faith fanzine. “This feels so erratic. Newcastle United should represent something, aspire to be a great sporting institution, but it’s joyless . . . should not have been so desperate for money they put Wonga on our shirts.”
With their £7m-a-year sponsorship, Wonga restored the name St James’ Park to the Sports Direct Arena but Ashley is tightening his financial hold, reducing the £140m he loaned following his takeover of a club then deep in debt.
In 2011-’12 Newcastle repaid Ashley £11m and a further £18m was due for repayment by June 30th this year, although the club says none has been repaid and Pardew was adamant Newcastle do not have to sell to sign reinforcements.
Such care over spending makes a keen contrast with the club’s promotion of Wonga’s loans at that infamous APR of 5,853%.
Nick Forbes, leader of Newcastle city council, is forthright in condemning the Wonga sponsorship.
He points to the economic facts for Newcastle people in a recession some way from Hall’s revivalist talk: joblessness of 10.5%, youth unemployment close to 25%; 30% of Newcastle children in poverty – and 22,000 people last year seeking advice to cope with debt.
“I am horrified by Wonga cynically trying to buy respectability by linking their name with Newcastle United,” Forbes says. “I hate the damage this deal is going to do to people’s lives, people who can least afford to get into debt.”
Twenty years since John Hall propounded that vision of revival, Mike Ashley’s Newcastle United are today treading nervously into their first home match, while parading payday loans to “the Geordie nation”.