Papering Over the Cracks

This may sound a strange thing to say, but as a Newcastle United fan I can’t find it in myself to be too upset at the injury-time equaliser scored by Crystal Palace today which denied the Magpies their first win of the season. A win would’ve papered over the cracks. This was Newcastle’s worst performance of the season so far, but victory would’ve meant people forgot that. I’d rather they’d held out for the 3 points, but if they had it would’ve been unjustified. Palace were woeful but so were Newcastle. Two sides completely incapable of defending, and both also unable to take advantage of the other team’s weakness. Unable to defend, unable to attack effectively. That is a damning judgement as it’s a recipe for disaster for a football team, but it’s one I’m closer to making with each passing game.

We’re still only four games into the season now but I’ve seen nothing that makes me think things are improving. We provide no kind of service at all to an isolated target man, the identity of whom doesn’t matter as Pele at his peak wouldn’t have notched for us yet. We have players in the side who seem to be there as placeholders to provide some kind of structure. I’m all for having a good shape to the side but Sissoko and Gouffran offer precisely nothing when we have the ball. While Gouffran just seems to have given up on the concept of attacking, Sissoko isn’t technically good enough. He can’t pass, can’t control it, and if there’s anyone between him and the goal he can’t run with the ball either. I speak on this with some authority, I’ve seen both Wayne Fereday and Franz Carr play for Newcastle so I know a player who can run at a speed faster than he’s able to keep control of the ball when I see one. Gouffran of course is in the team because he helps his full back and it seems nothing else is required. The thought occurs to me, and many of you may curse me for uttering words that will sound like a 24-gun salute to the most perfect of visions in Pardew’s ears, but why not play two full backs on each flank in that case?  I had hoped that the introduction of Siem de Jong would provide a bit more of a link with Riviere. Incidentally, every time the ball goes somewhere near Riviere the Neil Young song “Oh Lonesome Me” plays in my head. There’s a plaintive harmonica line in the song which is a fitting soundtrack to his evident need of a friend. Disappointingly, de Jong looked just as isolated. He too struggled to get in the game. Maybe he was short of fitness but that is clutching at straws in terms of hope for the coming weeks. The two of them on the same pitch but unable to connect with the rest of the team or each other can perhaps be best summed up by this Matthew Arnold poem:

YES! in the sea of life enisl’d,
With echoing straits between us thrown,
Dotting the shoreless watery wild,
We mortal millions live alone.

That’s not to say there weren’t bright spots. Janmaat was once again excellent, and Anita was impressive at right-back too when he replaced his fellow Dutchman there. Rolando Aarons made a huge difference to the team when he came on. I’m wary of relying on him too much over the coming months but it’d seem a no-brainer to pick him in a starting 11 soon.

As flat as we were today, we played in exactly the same way from first minute to 97th so far as I could make out. That’s the same way we’ve approached every game this season. I’d accepted we’d struggle to get a toehold in the game against Man City , and so it proved. You can also understand going into away games with a view to not throwing too much forward. Newcastle did that last weekend at Villa. But today, against a side who with all due respect will be aiming to survive the season, we looked to have no more cutting edge or ideas in the final third despite scoring the 3 goals.

So winning today would have been papering over the cracks alright. Maybe that third Palace goal will persuade Newcastle to sign a striker between now and Monday, not that another striker will solve all our problems. Up til now we’ve created chances without being able to put them away. Today there just weren’t the chances and that is a sign of a side going backwards, metaphorically and literally. But the cracks being papered over weren’t just with the team, they were with the manager. Alan Pardew decides how the team plays and whatever he’s telling them it isn’t working. He didn’t change formation or the strength of attacking outlook today despite that. He either thinks that the plan actually is working, that this is what he wants the team to be like, to scrape draws and the odd win and limp to his shining vision of 48 points, or he’s run out of ideas on how to change it. Either way, he is a busted flush as Newcastle manager. His West Ham career ended the same way, unable to score and refusing to play his most talented players seemingly to spite himself. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? He survived last season purely because we were safe from relegation very early on. The moment Mike Ashley gets a sniff that Newcastle are in danger of relegation Pardew will be gone and on this form that could be sooner than people think.

Here We Go Again

Yesterday’s game v Man City ended up as many had suspected; with the visitors proving just a touch too good for Alan Pardew’s new-look side. Newcastle competed well and had their fair share of good passages of play but the champions had a cutting edge when it mattered and Newcastle did not. That’s why they’re the champions and we’re nowhere near it. It was encouraging that Newcastle created at least as many chances as City did but their forwards were of a higher calibre than ours. That should be tempered also with a little realism. While Newcastle looked to have a fairly well-balanced look to their side and performed probably as well as could have been hoped, City looked to be playing well within themselves. They seemed very comfortable, especially after taking the lead, and gave the impression they could have stepped up a gear if Newcastle had managed to get a goal.

Newcastle seemed to spring to life with the introduction of Ayoze Perez for the last ten minutes, and Rolando Aarons a little prior to that. Both showed a lot of promise but it also coincided with Newcastle finally slipping off their leash of caution and getting more men forward generally. No doubt the comfortable nature of City’s afternoon was also heavily influenced by Newcastle always being worried about conceding a second and never really chasing the game until quite late on. When Newcastle did push on of course City did eventually wrap up the result with a late goal by Aguero, so you might say that caution was warranted. However an equaliser was never coming until that late flurry, which would have meant defeat anyway, so it could equally be said that Newcastle didn’t really have much to lose and may as well have risked a more attacking outlook a little earlier. Emmanuel Riviere in particular had a thankless task trying to hold the ball up while being hopelessly isolated and outnumbered for most of the afternoon. I’d like to see him again with a bit more support from his team-mates, or even (whisper it) a second striker alongside him.

On the subject of the new signings, I think it’s worth saying that Lee Charnley has proved a few people wrong over the summer, myself included. I still think he got the job on the basis of there being no-one else left standing at the club but if his job was to sign some players from a list provided by the football staff within the given budget then no-one can justifiably say he’s been a failure. This is especially true in comparison to those who’ve gone before him in his role, with United having failed to sign a first-teamer for some time before his appointment.

Of course, it still hasn’t been the perfect summer for all that. Not bad by the measure of most close seasons, but as already mentioned Newcastle will need more of a goal threat than they displayed at the weekend. It’ll be a while before Newcastle come up against such a solid, well-organised defence again though, so it’s hard to tell how desperate they should be at this stage. Facundo Ferreyra has yet to come in and I’ve read encouraging reports on him so maybe he’ll make a difference if that’s needed. Potential and promise are all very well however, but at some stage soon that has to translate into goals. Without an experienced reliable goalscorer Newcastle simply cannot afford to wait two years or however long it takes for flashes of potential to turn into end product. If after a few more games against what will be lesser opposition compared to Man City Newcastle are still failing to score, failing even to have shots on target, then fans will have real cause for concern. I’ve seen it written that a lack of desire on the club’s part to secure a headline striker will be the difference between pushing on for the top 6 or rattling around in mid-table, but I don’t agree with that assessment. An ongoing lack of goals will begin to heap pressure on not just inexperienced but very young strikers which is liable to make a tough situation worse as it affects their confidence and form. A team that doesn’t score doesn’t win and that is a recipe for a bottom-half struggle. It’s imperative that Newcastle get some goals quickly, whether from their young strikers or through the midfield chipping in their share, and some points on the board too, before any lingering doubts turn into a crisis.

WSC match preview NUFC v Man City 17/08/14

Only at kickoff on Sunday afternoon will we discover which Newcastle team turns up for their first game of the season. One is the side which was 6th and only 3 points behind eventual runners-up Liverpool following the Boxing Day fixtures last season. The other is the one which failed to score in 13 of the remaining 20 games and lost 14 of them. Alan Pardew seems unsure on what to expect too. Only two weeks ago he’d expressed hope Newcastle could challenge as closely as possible for the top 4. Then in the week leading up to the opening Premier League fixtures he stated achieving a final tally of 48 points, 1 less than last year’s, would be a good season. Hopefully if they reach that target early they won’t lock up the ground and head for the beach like they did last season after hitting 46 points in late March, after which their post-xmas form staggeringly dipped even further in suffering 7 defeats from the last 8 games….

Read more at the When Saturday Comes website

Access All Areas

In the minutes to February’s Fans Forum meeting a reference is made to the issue of media access packages being raised. The issue referred to is that of the club wanting media organizations to pay for different levels of access to club staff; the more you pay, the more extensive and more exclusive the access. The answer as listed in the minutes was an unequivocal denial:

“The Club stated that the newspaper story claiming it had written to media with a suite of packages was not true. Written media are still permitted access in line with PL rules; however the Club’s primary focus is on enhancing the mutually beneficial relationships it has with those who contribute to the Club commercially, including BBC Radio Newcastle and rights-holder broadcasters such as Sky Sports.”

That would seem to be the end of the story, wouldn’t it? The original newspaper story was not true. It’s there in black and white. But look at the denial again. The club have actually only denied the physical act of writing to media companies suggesting such a plan. I don’t of course suggest that denial is false, just that there are other possibilities not covered by it.

Let’s look at what has happened this season in the club’s relationship with the press. As stated in the Forum minutes already mentioned they are still allowed access in line with Premier League rules. This means they can go to the manager’s pre- and post-match press conferences and get an interview with a player after a game. The press used to get a lot more access, especially as regards player interviews. So access for the written media has been scaled back considerably, even if you’re not on the ever-lengthening list of those subject to bans from the stadium. ( On the subject of stadium bans it’s amusing to note that for 3 games in March a sizeable section of the press pack and Alan Pardew himself were all unable to enter the stadium, while Mike Ashley and some seriously disillusioned players felt the need to turn up. Pretty much everyone ended up somewhere they didn’t want to be. ) Also as stated in the quoted part of the Forum minutes, the club freely admit to concentrating on the needs of financial contributors to the club in the media. Local radio and Sky Sports fall in this category as they say but it’s certainly still possible that the club were seeking those in the written media to contribute, despite the incomplete denial in the Forum. It could still be that the bans and the general scaling back of access for the written press were part of a strategy to persuade someone in that sector to pay to be a media partner of the club, either official or unofficial, in order to gain enhanced interview access.

The Forum denial could be a genuine attempt to give out information. The club could be trying to make the fans aware that no attempt has been made to sell media access to players. But the evidence of the press bans and the scaling back of print media access in conjunction with the club’s own admission of wishing to concentrate on those paying for access points towards something else. The denial appears to have been another instance of the increasing levels of obfuscation employed by the club, in actual fact a cleverly phrased attempt to throw people off the scent. It’s a statement which at first seems to deny something outright but upon closer inspection only denies a very specific aspect of the issue, and a relatively unimportant one at that.

Making it more difficult for the press to gain information about the club is the main method of drawing a veil over what is going on internally. Mike Ashley is famously reluctant to relinquish his own personal privacy and perhaps the corporate attitude is an extension of that. Of course, for any company there’s a trade-off between limiting what they want the public to know about their operations and gaining positive publicity for themselves. The Fans Forum is the main response of Newcastle United to accusations that their communications haven’t been good enough, their attempt at achieving the trade-off they desire. Despite their desire to control the information supply though, they are so poor at it that every single Fans Forum meeting has provided either genuine revelation or confirmation of previously only suspected uncomfortable truths.

If Mike Ashley doesn’t see what the club gains from providing stories to the papers, that the dependency so far as he’s concerned is one way, then he may of course have a point. Their business model relies on football stories direct from Newcastle United, particularly the local papers, in a way that’s not true in reverse or not at the moment anyway. When you are close to selling out the stadium every game anyway then the benefits of drumming up interest in the team are hard to quantify. It’s a short-sighted attitude at best though. Some day the club may need the exposure and they won’t be able to buy it. Fans like to read about their team too. There’s a mutually beneficial relationship between club and press, but to value it you’ve got to accept that the needs of fans have some importance, and that’s not something Ashley will ever agree with.

Marches & Media

In case you’re unaware, the People’s Assembly held a March against Austerity through London at the weekend. An estimated 50000 people participated and high profile speakers such as Owen Jones, Caroline Lucas MP and Russell Brand addressed the crowd.

Soon after it had begun however, complaints arose from activists and supporters that the march was being ignored by news media, specifically the BBC. There were stories in newspapers and on websites about the march, but they were mostly explaining why the ‘news blackout’ was taking place rather than reporting the event itself. Two in nominally left-leaning titles particularly stood out.

The first, in the New Statesman, claimed marches just aren’t that interesting. People on the street, even in fairly large numbers, do not make for a newsworthy event. You can almost feel the ennui of the author as he states that marches like this happen

..three or four times a year in London alone, usually with the same people carrying the same banners.

Strangely, the reasoning becomes muddled when it’s claimed that actually, there was coverage on the BBC (on the radio mostly apparently). Surely either something’s not newsworthy, or it’s on the news, not both. The piece completely misses the point in other ways too. This wasn’t just another march. It was partially about the perceived lack of coverage of anti-austerity arguments. The march itself started at the BBC’s New Broadcasting House, as if to say “here we are! you have to notice us now…” Of course it might be said that by making the march about the BBC nothing could have been more certain than that the state broadcaster would fail to adequately report criticism of itself. Maybe that’s unwise for a campaign struggling for whatever publicity and recognition it can get. Then again, it’s not like the activities of the People’s Assembly against Austerity troubled the scorers at the BBC much before so why not, when they have nothing to lose? Enshrined in the very premise of the article is that BBC editors just didn’t find the protest interesting, as if there’s nothing wrong with that. Contained within that explanation is also the complaint. It’s not that there is some kind of conspiracy in the newsroom against this campaign. The fact is that most of the people employed by the BBC – and most other news media – tend not to find this sort of thing interesting. They don’t agree politically, they don’t know anyone who thinks the protesters have a point, and just like Willard Foxton who wrote the New Statesman’s piece they are tired of people moaning about an entirely understandable and justified government economic policy. You only get a job by demonstrating you think the right way. So journalists are free to print (or say) what they like, because the people in charge already like what they think. That’s where the bias comes from, where the blackout originates, in the colonisation of the news media by the middle and upper classes, and the concomitant narrow range of political views they are prepared to represent.

The other piece, on the political website Left Foot Forward at least openly states

Media bias is one factor … less because of a deliberate decision to exclude anti-austerity protests, and more because of the class backgrounds of many journalists. …having little invested in the services this government is cutting means that many journalists slip effortlessly into narratives of the cuts being “inevitable” and austerity coming as a consequence of “runaway government spending”

It goes on to explain the other supposed factors. “Protest marches rarely achieve anything”, which is true but that’s no reason not to report on it. England rarely win the World Cup but there’s no lack of column inches on that. There’s more:

This specific argument has been lost… There is no longer a mainstream anti-austerity narrative… The Tories and the Lib Dems are making cuts, Labour are going to make cuts and no one who isn’t is going to get anywhere near power anytime soon. As far as the media is concerned the debate is over.

Again, in a way all true. There isn’t a mainstream anti-austerity narrative if by that you mean none of the three traditional main parties are against it, and the media see those who are as discredited flat-earthers. Undoubtedly this is a factor in the behaviour of the news media, but once again that doesn’t mean this state of affairs is right. The piece mentions polls quoting 42% regarding cuts as good for the economy, with 37% disagreeing. That’s very close to an even split, 37% of people disagreeing with austerity without there being any coverage at all of the arguments against it in the news media, the nation’s main opinion formers. Imagine what those figures would be if there were actually balanced coverage of the arguments.

Where the Left Foot Forward piece discredits itself is in saying the protesters answer to austerity, of taxing the rich, would result in the rich leaving

…the country, taking their businesses, tax revenue and jobs with them. You may profess not to care about such things, but whether you like it or not you still need money to pay for services and the like.

The assumption here being of course that all economic activity is reliant on the rich.

Worse still, it then lets itself down by referencing the Laffer Curve. This theory states that increasing tax rates above a particular level results in lower tax revenue, and is most often used as a justification to reduce higher-rate taxes. Laffer was a member of Ronald Reagan’s administration in the 1980s which cut higher rate income tax to a third of its previous level, ending in US budget deficit quadrupling and government debt tripling. His theory is counter-intuitive and discredited.

It’s indisputable that what our media find interesting doesn’t necessarily result in the coverage we’d wish for. Last week BBC News aired a lengthy segment including several minutes interviewing a political correspondent about a joke – possibly hacked – tweet from Labour HQ offering free owls for everyone. Yet I’m still waiting to see any coverage at all of Labour’s pledge to repeal the Health and Social Care Act for instance, surely of interest to the large numbers worried about the future of the NHS.

The failure of our political parties to provide a choice for voters on austerity and any number of other potentially divisive issues make it easy for the media to claim there is no dissension on these subjects. For the BBC, so desperate to safeguard the licence fee it rebuts criticism of the government rather than risk being accused of bias against it, this is probably something approaching a godsend. Even so, I think it is safe to say that a very large section of the country are opposed to austerity. We should hear their arguments.

The Bluffers Guide to Newcastle United, 2013-14.

What a time it is to be devoid of an opinion on Newcastle United! While press, tv and social media is awash with it, of both the well-considered and hysterical kinds, to be without is to be becalmed on Twitter’s salt uncaring sea. Who’ll pay attention unless you insist Alan Pardew is Newcastle’s worst ever manager? If you can specify the only acceptable team formation you are well on the way to finding some fellow travellers if not an audience. So if you can’t tell your Askew from your Emre and are looking for an easily digestible possibly unfounded heads-up, you’ve come to the right place because like the Ancient Mariner, I’m compelled to tell my tale of woe.

Starting from the top, though some men buy motorcycles in their forties, Mike Ashley chose to buy a football club. It was as if, in a twist on the premise of classic Roy of the Rovers strip ‘Millionaire Villa’, instead of buying a club to play in the first team like the story’s protagonist David Bradley, he bought one to become a member of the away support. His bid for love, to join the gang and have a bit of fun, was short-lived. Soured by crackpot decisions, his relationship with supporters is now one of mutual distrust, unable to escape each other and pulling in opposite directions like two convicts shackled together and on the run.

Alan Pardew is a charlatan. Like the Wizard of Oz, the paucity of his talents as a football manager are only concealed by the thin curtain of his many and increasingly implausible excuses. Booming out self-aggrandisement is no longer fogging people’s view of the increasing impotence of his actions. By his own admission unable to motivate his team, he is also evidently unable to find a system of play which suits his personnel, every selection seeing 3 or 4 playing out of position. An inability to either attack or defend has resulted, showing itself in a long series of heavy defeats without reply. Since the turn of the year his record is comparable to that at Norwich City of the man he replaced at Newcastle, Chris Hughton, who has already been sacked by the Canaries for that lack of achievement. Can’t compete, won’t compete.

Club captain Fabricio Coloccini is the Tin Man. Unable to love, but in Colo’s case it’s not through lacking a heart. Newcastle United is not the object of his affection and without a move back to San Lorenzo he can’t. Combine that with a loss of form almost to 08/09 levels and there doesn’t seem much point in forcing him to stay.

I have no information on whether he likes to wear red heels and a gingham dress in his spare time but nevertheless Yohan Cabaye is Dorothy. “There’s no place like home” is the mantra of the girl from Kansas, and so it proved for Wor Yohan. Best mucker Mathieu Debuchy will be trotting along in his wake soon, which I suppose makes him Toto.

I’ll finish off this increasingly tortured Yellow Brick road scenario by comparing Moussa Sissoko to the Cowardly Lion and Stephen Taylor to the Scarecrow. The Frenchman has the physique and athleticism to dominate opponents but backs away from using his advantages. Whether it’s a crisis of inner belief, some other character flaw or just unwillingness to engage in the rough stuff I have no idea but allied to his atrocious touch it makes him into a dead loss when he’s under pressure. Like the straw bird scarer of the tale Taylor lacks wisdom, in both his general play and his ridiculous on-pitch bravado and theatricals. That manifests itself in trying to scare Sergio Aguero by flapping his arms instead of trying to get closer to him milliseconds before he lashes it into the net, just as much as the fist pumping, dancing in front of goalkeepers and risible diving.

Hatem Ben Arfa is the Prince Across the Water for Newcastle fans, like Bonnie Prince Charlie the great hope, the saviour waiting in the wings for supporters of his cause. Also like Charles Stuart unfortunately, the legitimacy of his claim is undone by his spoiled nature, tactical inadequacy and inability to maintain a working relationship with those he needs to help achieve his goals. For all his undoubted talent, I’m unaware of any club HBA has played for which he hasn’t ended up falling out with before heading for pastures new. His failure to maintain basic levels of fitness when he’s been out of the team is unforgivable for someone paid to be athletic. Maybe a new broom can inspire him again. Maybe we’ll find out sooner rather than later.

Lee Charnley’s story reminds me of Charlie Bucket from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He turned up for a day’s tour around the factory and was running the place by the time he went home. In Charnley’s case it took longer than a few hours, but he did join in a relatively lowly position and end up in the top job in no small part because he’s last man standing in an organisation which has been steadily shedding staff for some years now. Short of making one of the Oompa Loompas MD, Mike Ashley was running out of options. Come to think of it, maybe they’re how he’s kept the club running while getting rid of most of the employees. Charnley might of course end up as the right man for the job. Just like an 8 year old boy might turn out to be the right person to run a multinational manufacturing empire.

This then is Newcastle United in 2014 in microcosm. People are appointed not because they are the best person for the job, but because it is easier to appoint them than to find that person. Players fail to fulfil even basic requirements of their profession, the manager is unable to persuade them to act otherwise, and the owner doesn’t seem to mind. What a time it is.

Where do we go from here?

An astonishing tale emerged from an Alan Pardew press conference in the week just gone. “Senior players” had complained about Hatem Ben Arfa’s workrate and discipline, and expressed the view that he didn’t currently merit a place in the starting line-up at Newcastle. Astonishing, that Pardew felt going public with this would help the situation. Some things are best kept within the squad and coaching staff and this is undoubtedly one of them. There appears to be no reason for it, other than to prepare the ground for a summer sale of someone who is one of Newcastle’s most popular performers, for all his problems. Any possibly necessary kick up the behind could have been administered in private, and probably would have been more effective for having been applied in that way. Publicly shaming a player is unlikely to make him want to work harder for the group.

Putting aside the wisdom or otherwise of the public discussion, there’s a more pressing issue to think about. Who are these senior players, and who do they think they are to pronounce on the performance of others and the worthiness of others to be selected alongside them? Cheick Tiote went over a year between good performances very recently. Moussa Sissoko might spend his time more profitably practising trapping the ball and passing it. Fabricio Coloccini was another who went years without performing well, and by definition has lacked commitment to the club’s cause while spending over a year attempting to arrange his exit from it. Mathieu Debuchy, who joined in large part to play with a friend who has now departed, is another who would seem likely to be looking for a way out. Papiss Cisse is a striker who doesn’t score goals any more. Neither Shola Ameobi nor Steven Taylor have been able to force their own way into the side because of very visible shortcomings. Newcastle’s senior players are the last people who should have a say in who merits a place in the first team. Without many exceptions they would be better trying to improve their own performances. More generally, player power isn’t usually a good influence on selection or disciplinary issues. It’s why player-managers are so rarely successful, there needs to be a certain separation of concerns for someone to see clearly what needs to happen.

That’s not to say Ben Arfa is blameless. It seems to be acknowledged by all that his physical condition isn’t good enough and that is a shameful state of affairs for a professional sportsman. He is being paid to be ready for selection when he is out of the team and we are told he is not. Notwithstanding that, it is noticeable that it has taken the introduction of a supposedly unfit Ben Arfa from the bench to inject some quality, urgency and penetration into the team in the last two home games against Palace and Everton. Williamson, Mbiwa and Sissoko make up one whole side of the team who look uncomfortable on the ball and for all that Newcastle have tried to pass it more this year, those kinds of failings in the personnel make it very difficult to have an incisive passing game. The changes that have been made part way through those recent games have each time made an improvement. Anita, unable to pick a forward pass from the middle, is a tidy enough player and looks more suited at right back than Mbiwa. Ben Arfa wide in place of Sissoko has provided some trickery and the possibility of getting behind the opposition back line. Marveaux in the centre of midfield was more successful than Anita in driving the side forward. Unfortunately the management and coaching staff just don’t trust these players and their inconsistencies so we appear to be fated to continue in similar vein until the end of the season.

All this provokes questions on what may happen this summer, which looks like being a very difficult period for both club and fans. Newcastle have a recent history of dispensing with the services of high earners unable to justify their wage. Senior players unable to hold down a place in the team seem particularly at risk. Jonas, already out on loan, seems likely to leave permanently. If the outlay on Vurnon Anita can be recouped it will be remembered that there has been little sign of any reason to wish to keep him. Ben Arfa and Sylvain Marveaux are victims of their own inability to fit into the team but just as much of the management’s failure to find a way to use them. Both will be in demand should they become available. We need to determine if Papiss Cisse can return to something like his previous form and to that end he needs to play every minute of every game between now and May, even if that means playing the inevitably departing Loic Remy, currently our best player, wide or even not at all. It’d be a surprise if Debuchy didn’t leave for a sizeable fee. Why would he want to stay? Gosling and Shola are out of contract this summer and though I think there’s a player to be discovered within Gosling, he has to make more of an impact on the team and soon. If Coloccini gets his way he’ll be off though I’m not convinced that will happen as he won’t command a large enough fee because of his age to make us want to sell. Sissoko and Mbiwa have both disappointed, but maybe they need to be played in their correct positions for us to see the best of them. Suffice to say it appears that the squad will be broken up to some extent.

Problems will also exist on the recruitment front, in addition to any basic unwillingness to spend. The initial successes of Graham Carr were in identifying talent available at a rock-bottom price, but just as important a part of the success was in persuading those players to sign. A wage hike for players arriving from lower-paid leagues would have helped make a few minds up, but prospective buys were also swayed by the idea that Newcastle were building towards something, hopefully the Champions League, the end which Carr’s means were aiming towards. Now it has become clear to all, both current players and possible future ones, that this is not the case. Newcastle are going nowhere and the only reason to sign is to play on a stage where bigger clubs might notice. That isn’t going to tempt players of the same calibre as before, and that’s worrying when you’re depending on selling your best players at the highest possible price and replacing with cheaper ones who are just as capable as those who depart.

The inescapable conclusion is that a side who look like struggling next season even if they stay as they are will most likely get worse due to summer transfers. Whether that means a relegation struggle in a league with few teams of quality in it is anyone’s guess, but 10 points fewer at this stage would see Newcastle looking below them rather than up, and it wouldn’t take much of a deterioration to result in that. The challenge to avoid this then, is to pull a few rabbits from the hat on the transfer front as to be fair the club has repeatedly done in recent years. The sad and worrying difference this summer is that the target is to stay clear of the bottom rather than pushing on.

One Hundred Years On

Will quiet folk be sent to war, a hundred years from now?
Enslaved and duped by profit’s men to take a sordid vow:
Detailing their new animus against unknown others,
betrayed, downtrodden, sold-out twins, far-off foreign brothers.

Which powers will lock horns to gain a bigger slice of pie?
Their subjects sent to wreak revenge before they’ve lost the eye.
A threatened nun or missile scare, the details matter not;
McGuffins these, a strained device, to push along the plot.

While diplomats negotiate, the leaders state instead
They’ll fight to the last drop of blood which other men can shed.
And when the flow of bodies stems they’ll send the young and old
to fill the pit which can’t be filled until the world’s bled cold.

A hundred years since we were told a war would end them all
But ever since the drums did beat a never-ending call.
Slaughter in perpetuity, conveyor belt of death,
the power games of empire, relieving us of breath.

Utopia

Let’s get something straight from the off. Newcastle United does not belong to Mike Ashley, to his business or to some combination of holding companies. It is our club, contrary to what it says in the ledgers of Companies House. They only keep track of who has legal title to the stock. In the eyes of the law, this information is all that matters, we are merely paying customers whose only right in relation to the company is to be able to take our custom elsewhere. We all know the real story is somewhat different. This is a club where those with its best interests at heart, those who are truly there for the long haul, whose interest in it is selfless and not motivated by personal gain, are not members in any meaningful sense. Nor do they have any tangible financial stake in it. It’s ours because however far ahead you look into the future we’ll still be here, just as our fathers were, the long-dead unknowns who lived in our streets were, and as our children will be if we have anything to do with it. Whether activist or apathetic, each has an equal share.

There are many whose attraction to a campaign against the current speculator will have evaporated as the great run of November extended into December. Even if that run of 5 wins from 6 at the time of writing is still going as you read this it doesn’t invalidate the aim of such a campaign, whether Time4Change or another. Success or failure has nothing to do with it. Look at one of our recently vanquished opponents, Manchester United. They have been the dominant club in England for many years. That doesn’t mean they have good owners, far from it in fact. Their success has been in spite of the owners not because of them, and the money drained from the club finances to pay for the privilege of ownership by the Glazers is probably the major reason why they have fallen behind global giants Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, possibly for ever. Just as it is there, so it is also true for us. No matter how positive our current form is, it only masks the fact that we could be doing better without breaking the bank, without the overriding priorities of someone who isn’t interested in making the side as good as he can dragging us down like an albatross around the neck.

So if you thought ahead 5 years, or 10, or even 20, how would you want our club to be run then? Assume Ashley has gone. Think about what would be the ideal. Again, there are many who hope only for someone even richer than the sugar daddies bankrolling success elsewhere to buy out our current shareholder. That would show a lack of ambition in a way. Though the desire is for someone else’s money to win us trophies, it would put us back in the same position we always have been, subject to the whims of owners. It might not even have the desired effect, the currently financially dominant having done their best to ossify their advantage through UEFAs Financial Fair Play (FFP) system. If the idea is just to swap one owner for another then whatever’s going wrong now, or has done in the past, is bound to happen again eventually.

The first hope therefore has to be fan ownership, preferably total but if not then whatever can be achieved. The worry is that it’s never likely to happen, the chances of fans being able to fund a buyout of any kind of significant stake looking thinner with every passing week of austerity. The thing is though, none of us know what the future holds for sure. Football governance and fan engagement seems to become higher in profile with politicians all the time. With an increasingly bitter election to be fought in 2015, those from all sides looking for votes may well come up with something tangible to attract crosses in boxes on ballot papers. Supporters Direct and their supporters in Parliament are currently pushing the idea of Community Shares as a vehicle to aid fans groups gaining a stake in their clubs. Who knows what imperatives may be introduced upon club owners to ensure this happens?

Even if owners were compelled to sell a proportion of their stake to a fans trust, it wouldn’t necessarily make it an easy process. People still have to come up with money. Someone needs to organise it and gain buy-in from the rank and file. For that reason, it would be imperative that the club provide some benefit to inspire and justify all the trouble that people would go to. Not victory, or success, because they cannot be guaranteed. Of course, the intention would be to have as much success as possible. If the club were truly self-sufficient, reinvesting the profits to improve the club and the team, FFP would work in the favour of Newcastle United compared to most other mid-table Premier League teams, and we’d be left poised to go even higher. The benefit would be the pride we could have in our club, in the way it was run, knowing we were reliant on no-one to make it happen. If it’s all about pride of course, then how we did things would be all-important. Think ethics, and how much more pride would be involved if we didn’t have sponsors whose business was impoverishing or making ill our friends and neighbours. Think how proud we could be of a club which reached out into the community, supporting grassroots football and programmes of help for the disadvantaged, or those who otherwise need it. Think how proud we could be of a club which wasn’t contemptuous of fans, no longer valuing them only as a source of funds. A club which promoted a positive image for the region. Think how proud we could be of our club.

What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding?

Does anybody enjoy derby day? There’s never been one I wouldn’t have taken a draw an hour beforehand and just forgotten about the football and the possible heartache. It’s stressful, nerve-wracking, terrifying, dangerous, all those and more. And that’s just watching it on the telly. Multiply everything by a hundred if you’re there in the flesh. Probably the safest part of the occasion is the bit in the ground. Once you’re outside you’re taking your life in your hands, though not usually from battle-hardened hooligans of the other persuasion. More likely it’s by the drunken and confused with not enough interest in the occasion to actually go to the match but who are so affronted by the very presence of people from a city a small number of miles away, people they no doubt spend at least their working lives in close proximity to, they will happily batter anyone they encounter.

Why is that? Membership of a crowd can mean that the loss of personal identity felt, the sense of unity with the group, and heightened excitement in the crowd’s activity leads to a loss of control by the individual, and a consequent increase in the likelihood of antisocial behaviour. That being said, crowds don’t necessarily turn bad, otherwise every single football match would end in the town of the venue getting smashed up. People can be led, but there has to be anger and hostility there in the first place for it to spread.

The increasing trend to portray fans of the other side as being somehow lesser human beings has a lot to answer for, and it is of course nonsense. Minor quirks in accent apart, the two areas of Newcastle and Sunderland and their respective hinterlands have more in common than in contrast. Both predominantly working class, devastated by unemployment and poverty periodically over the last century and similarly ignored and sidelined by the nation’s elite for even longer, you would think a certain sympathy if not solidarity might exist between the two cities with regard to their respective plights. Any Newcastle United or Sunderland fan portraying the other as some kind of blighted wasteland must be talking from their second pad in Bali or Belgravia because otherwise you can guarantee their home is very close to somewhere just as bad as wherever they’re referring to. Both cities have nice parts, and not-so-nice ones. It seems obvious to say it, but nevertheless it’s necessary to do so.  The people of both sides, none of us will be surprised to hear, are generally personable and pleasant. We rub along with each other day to day quite nicely for all but 2 days a year, in workplaces, shops, and homes. These are the same people some will be trying to do violence to through a police cordon on February 1st. You might as well punch a random workmate at the water cooler tomorrow.

The successful campaign to rescind the decision to make the derby on Feb 1st a bubble match was based on a loose alliance of fans’ groups from both sides. It’s a demonstration of the common ground that exists even if you don’t particularly want to be best pals with the other lot. I for one, as a Newcastle fan, couldn’t care less about how Sunderland are doing, aside from feeling sympathy towards certain of my family members when they feel a little sad. It has been known for me to go to the odd game at the Stadium of Light, very much as a neutral. I don’t particularly want them to lose while I’m there, it’s just another game of football as far as I’m concerned. I would rather Newcastle were more successful than Sunderland, but only in the same sense that I want this in relation to all other clubs worldwide as well. It’s often mentioned that the tradition of people going to both clubs’ home games on alternate weekends has all but disappeared but surely the silent majority still don’t allow allegiance for one to develop into hatred for the other?

For those blinded by some kind of criminal tough-guy glamour on the part of hooligans, who quite like the idea of ‘our’ firm ( though in referring to them as that I feel bound to point out that they certainly don’t represent me) breaking some heads on the other side, let me say this: Hooligan behaviour makes it easy for the authorities to treat fans as criminals, as a homogeneous mass all as bad as each other. It’s what gave them the excuse to make this derby a bubble match in the first place, where away fans can only attend if they make use of the club’s travel arrangements. To celebrate the success of rolling back that unwelcome development then encourage those who would make it happen all over again isn’t just brainless and contradictory, it’s self-defeating.

When people talk about the other side being inbred, subhuman, or scum of some other unspecified nature, it is a very slippery slope to get onto. On a wider social scale, it is these kind of attitudes that allow the Divide and Rule strategy to succeed and keep the rich in power by persuading poor people to vote against their own personal interest, in the misguided hope that some other mythical poorer group will be kept in check. Without such attitudes the violence would be impossible. Why would anyone attack someone for being similar to themselves? So it’s not just the halfwits and horse-punchers out on the streets without really knowing why who are to blame when violence erupts. It’s everyone who’s painted the opposition as underclass or bogeyman, as nemesis or numpty.

Let’s get some perspective. It’s a football match, not civil war. The opposition are local sporting rivals not sworn blood enemies. The sky will not crack open upon defeat for either side. I hope my team win but whatever happens, let’s not embarrass ourselves again.

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