Chelsea beat Crystal Palace to win the Premier League yesterday, but nothing that happened at Stamford Bridge – not Eden Hazard’s penalty, nor John Terry’s barbed comments about Rafael Benítez, nor even José Mourinho’s barbed comments about Pep Guardiola – could dispel the pervasive sense of ‘after the lord mayor’s show’. The real excitement in these days is at the other end of the table. The struggle to avoid relegation from the world’s richest league has become a more revealing test of character than the struggle to actually win the thing.
The managers of the teams who are trailing in behind Chelsea seem quite relaxed about finishing so far off the pace. So it goes, they seem to say; there’s always next year. Meanwhile, the relegation-threatened managers are melting down on an almost daily basis. It’s almost as though the stakes at the bottom at are much, much higher.
Nigel Pearson was the star of last week, as he berated journalists in the tones of a man who once saw a movie in which an understated tough-guy projected an intimidating aura of macho dominance by speaking in a slow soft voice. The problem movie imitators always run into in real life is that the movie guys get their lines from a script. Even Clint Eastwood would have struggled to deliver Pearson's line "I think you are an ostrich" with the appropriate air of menace.
By Saturday afternoon, interest in Pearson had reached white heat, but all the headlines after Leicester's 3-0 victory over Newcastle were provided by Pearson's opposite number, John Carver.
Carver was plainly in no mood to share in his players’ disgrace. He accused his centre-back Mike Williamson of deliberately getting himself sent off. “He will miss two games. Is it an easy way out?” He accused the rest of lacking physical and mental courage.
It was the sort of tirade that invariably shatters trust between players and manager. Carver would presumably claim that this was a last desperate effort to provoke a fighting response from the players, but a cynic would wonder if his motivation really was so selfless. “I just wish some people had as much fight and determination as what I’ve got” sounded more like a manager washing his hands of his players, and pleading with supporters not to judge him along with them.
Out of his depth
There was no need for Carver to do this, because nobody is really blaming him for Newcastle’s current plight. Nobody has anything good to say about Carver beyond that he is “from the area” and seems like a nice man, and equally nobody has anything bad to say about him except that he is clearly out of his depth.
Instead, Newcastle supporters are blaming Mike Ashley, the owner who, needing to hire a replacement for the departing manager Alan Pardew, looked at Carver and thought: "he'll do." There are not many Newcastle supporters who would have agreed, but Ashley does not behave like someone who supports Newcastle. Indeed, with every year that passes it gets harder to fathom the reasons why he bought them eight years ago.
In the beginning, it appeared that the billionaire wanted to be seen as a legendary man of the people. The fantasy was short-lived, as the people, knowing a fake when they saw one, soon cast him out from their midst. He retreated to the director’s box, and some of the fans who rejected him then must wonder now if he’s been trying to punish them ever since.
Transformed Over the last few years, Ashley has transformed one of England’s most emotionally excitable, romantic clubs into a byword for dreary commercial cynicism. He applied the same principles that had made him a fortune in retail – stack ’em high, sell ’em cheap, control costs, monetise. Rename the stadium, plaster every space with advertising.
Sell any player, no matter how important, if a reasonable offer comes in. Newcastle, perennial dream-chasers and loss-makers, now have more than £30 million in the bank. At some point, with Newcastle apparently solid and secure in mid-table, Ashley probably thought: this isn’t rocket science. The appointment of Carver stank of complacency. It may have saved money but it will turn out to have been one of his more expensive decisions if Newcastle go down.
Ashley’s profit-oriented ownership style is becoming more common as Premier League clubs make more money. Figures reported last week show that while the Premier League’s total income grew by 22 per cent in 2013-14, wages increased by just 5 per cent. As revenues grow faster than costs, the dream of stable, profitable mediocrity is tantalisingly close.
Whether pay-TV subscribers will always be willing to pay ever-increasing sums to watch a league full of mediocre football clubs make gigantic profits seems to be a question for another day.
But at Newcastle that question has assumed a disturbing immediacy. Ashley’s no-frills makeover has been too aggressive, his renunciation of the romantic traditions of Newcastle too brazen. It has put people off to the point that if Newcastle do get relegated, even some of their own fans will think they deserve it. Ashley is good at selling merchandise, but Newcastle United have always been in the business of selling dreams. It’s something Ashley seems never to have understood.