DETACHMENT. It’s a recurring, egregious problem in the relationship between the new age owners of elite premiership clubs and their fervent, archaic supporters. An inevitable one too really. For those willing to bleed their clubs colours up and down the country week after week it’s a social chasm to those who sit in starched suits and heated seats looking for investment opportunities. It’s also the reverse. The terrace stalwarts are rabid about everything but tradition and loyalty and the businessmen are obsessed about anything but profit margins. A middle ground is reached by the fact that it’s a default setting and therefore ingrained into the fabric of most Premier League clubs. As long as new faces and new money trickle slowly through the doors then everyone is appeased.
At Newcastle United however things run dangerously different. Since the arrival of chairman Mike Ashley at the club, controversy and anger has been a weekly recurrence. For a support used to seeing pretty much everything over the last couple of decades at St James Park, his reign has been nothing short of nefarious. In the eyes of the Toon everyman, Ashley is an arrogant, southern businessman who has nothing but disdain for supporters he barely addresses from his lofty throne. He also has an uneasy lack of ambition too. From the clubs management to the playing staff, the constant rotation of yes men and moving on of talent has seen a lack of progression at Newcastle that in any other line of business could be seen as self sabotage. It paints Ashley as a tragi-comic figure. If he had a cinematic equivalent it would be Humphrey Bogart in the Caine mutiny: a man of power making bloated, dangerous decisions as behind him the bitterness and slapstick rises in an angry, enveloping wave.
There has been one decision that Ashley got entirely right however. The appointment of Rafa Benitez in 2016 not only raised spirits amongst Newcastle’s long suffering support but also raised eyebrows amongst the rest of football. Here, after all was a genuine world class manager willing to take a chance on a club not only with a lack of success stretching back over decades but also a club in huge danger of losing its place in the top tier. For Newcastle supporters it had a galvanising effect. Although unable to stave off relegation after his March 2016 unveiling, the instant return to the premiership from a difficult league the following season was a smooth transition, achieved without bombast and big resources but with shrewd signings and tactical nous. The positive effect even seemed to put the prickly relationship between supporters and chairman in the shade. For once everything seemed to be rosy and optimistic in the ever-chaotic Toon.
The house of cards relationship between those who stand on the terraces of St James and those who control the purse strings has always been a recurring interference in the city. Both culturally and socially, Newcastle United stands alone as a football club as the singular, most important influence in its surroundings, bar none. That rabid support creates a huge atmosphere but also a sense of naivety. The unrelenting belief that a smaller club with less financial clout can make inroads into the hallowed lands of premiership glory. Although recent history shows that philosophy actually carries some statistical weight too.
For Ashley the return of Newcastle to the premiership and the lingering shadow of the club that won it in the 2015/2016 season probably didn’t seem at all significant, but crucially in pubs and clubs around the city it would eventually sow a small resentment that would snowball into an avalanche. The romantic brilliance of Leicester’s title win hadn’t been built on spending hundreds of millions but on a talented manager being backed financially by a toward looking board, something Newcastle had always lacked under Ashley’s reign. Surely however, with a return to the premiership and a hugely talented manager at the helm, even the reticent Ashley had to concede momentum was the key to the progression at the long suffering club.
There were strange rumours from the start however about the symbiotic relationship between Rafa and his malevolent chairman. Whispers of them meeting each other less than a handful of times and the Spanish manager being kept in the dark about potential budgets and transfer activities. The 2017/2018 season in fact would end up being played out in a dramatic coda of light versus dark. Man of the people Rafa utilising his managerial skills to successfully guide a poor looking squad to a top ten finish, whilst his grinning chairman looked on passionless from the executive boxes, stubborn to the point of childishness in his refusal to back his own rusting investment.
In a summer of inactivity that attitude hasn’t seemed to thaw either. A lack of transfer activity and Benitez refusing to sign an extended contract until he’s sure of potential transfer funds has led to a festering anger amongst supporters. It’s an anger that has recently broke with the #IfRafaGoesWeGo campaign, a well supported and potentially disastrous campaign for Newcastle United, in which supporters not only in the city but around the country have threatened to withdraw their support for their beloved football club, if their inspirational manager walks away from Newcastle United.
In the hands of any other chairman, this might have invoked an instant response, but this after all is Ashley, stubborn to the point of belligerence and a man who could still inflict a great deal more damage on the club than a fans campaign ever could. It’s a dangerous stand off and his silence has been typically deafening. Only this weekend in fact the looming sale of centre forward Aleksandr Mitrovic to Fulham for £20 million after a successful loan spell has forced manager Benitez to try and force his chairman’s hand, subtly insisting that the transfer money could well be invested back into the players budget as the coming season looms just a few weeks away.
It remains to be seen whether this is also a statement of the Spanish managers commitment to the cause and his way of putting a lid on the simmering discontent between the fans and Ashley. What is certain that any other outcome could force Newcastle United in a unprecedented meltdown. If Rafa does indeed go, then the fallout between the Toon army and their much maligned chairman doesn’t really bear thinking about.