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 I am like the Ancient Mariner, 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 Collocini 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 enmity with an unknown other,
betrayed, downtrodden, sold-out twin, far-off foreign brother.

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 Belgian nun or missile scare, the details matter not;
McGuffins these, a strained device, to push along the plot.

While diplomats negotiate, leaders will 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.

Binned And Honoured: Jonas & the Contract of Doom.

The outpouring of grief from some sections of Newcastle’s support on hearing the news that Jonas Gutierrez had left the club, on loan til the end of the season at Norwich, was such that a passing Martian might believe they were witnessing the passing of a true great. An overreaction; he’s a good player but not good enough to break back into Alan Pardew’s wildly inconsistent team after suffering an injury in the season opener at Manchester City. This isn’t one of Pardew’s mystifying selection anomalies either, he really isn’t worth his place in the starting eleven. He’s a trier with more talent than he’s generally given credit for and I join with most fans in wishing him well, but I doubt many would argue he should be playing.

The  hardly-shocking-at-all rumour sweeping Tyneside is that a contract clause meant one or in some versions a few more appearances would result in increasing the value of that contract, either by length, by wage, or by both. I have no idea if this is true or not as those who would know aren’t saying, but does it really matter? A player on big wages is no longer a first choice. Most clubs would be looking to move him on in those circumstances, and there can be no surer thing than Mike Ashley’s Newcastle doing so. If more appearances would increase his wages that only becomes more likely. No-one would be looking to increase the wages or lengthen the contract of someone who is usually not required to perform on the pitch anyway. That is the definition of a drain on club finances. Jonas has become Alan Smith with long hair and a superhero mask secreted on his person fruitlessly. Jonas himself has stated he doesn’t know what he did wrong but the move is hardly a surprise. What would be a surprise is if we saw him in the side again next season. It seems he’ll sign a permanent deal with a new club for next season, if not Norwich then elsewhere and I’m sure he’ll have no shortage of suitors. So farewell to a favourite, thanks and let’s move on.

Do we believe someone better and cheaper will be brought in during this window, so that the squad has improved in quality and not been reduced in numbers, all while improving the club’s financial bottom line? It’s a trick they’ve pulled off before. Unfortunately Newcastle’s tactics in the transfer market seem to be based on the seduction techniques of a badly-advised teenage boy; treat ‘em mean and keep ‘em keen. Newcastle feign not to be interested in anyone at all throughout the window, so as not to let either player or selling club get the idea they can inflate their demands. The idea is evidently to pounce as the window closes, the equivalent of shutting time in a nightclub, when desperation has set into the target. When viewed from outside, Newcastle have all the trappings of a big club; the attendances, the stadium, the facilities, a history albeit ever more distant. Again unfortunately, even now when the aim of pushing on and improving into a Champions League club is demonstrably achievable as richer clubs make one mistake after another and show themselves to be very fallible, Newcastle evidently have no intention of doing so. In short, to paraphrase a regular assessment of a friend of mine when on the pull, in the eyes of potential targets Newcastle are good from far but far from good.

What is interesting is that throughout his time at the club Jonas’ status has been a kind of weather vane,  indirectly pointing us to the club’s priorities, to the thinking of those at the top. At times he’s signified change in how the club wish to do business. When he signed, he was the first of the summer transfer window following the difficult season in which Sam Allardyce had been sacked and Kevin Keegan had steadied the ship. A lot of money had been spent the summer before on new players, Ashley’s first as owner, but most if not all had been squandered by Allardyce. Jonas signing on what the club thought was basically a free under the Webster rule when he bought out his contract was not the end of big-money signings altogether, compatriot Fabricio Coloccini costing a large sum later on that summer. It did begin a shift in emphasis however towards more cut-price deals, much to Keegan’s undoubted chagrin.

As an aside, the stories of Yohan Cabaye leaving ‘on a Webster’ this summer  should be viewed remembering Newcastle’s own experience of signing Jonas. They ended up paying a lot more than they thought they’d have to initially. If this was a straightforward process it would be happening a lot more than it is. I can’t remember many people moving on these terms, certainly not at the highest level. Why didn’t Coloccini buy himself out of his contract last year when his personal life supposedly meant he was desperate to move back to South America? Being stranded for years thousands of miles away from his young family would seem more of a driver for Coloccini than Cabaye’s urge to pay 75% tax at PSG.

The second time Jonas’ situation gave us a window into what was going on behind closed doors at the club was when he signed an extension to his contract in 2011. At a time when several high-profile stars had been shipped out in the previous transfer window, it had seemed that there was a policy of slashing costs by transferring those receiving the highest wages at the club. Jonas’ new contract bucked that trend, for make no mistake about it he was already one of the highest paid at the club.  His wages would have been pushed up initially by the circumstances of his move, the reduction in fee Newcastle believed they’d be liable to pay when he first signed. It became apparent then that the requirement to move players on was not just dependent on how high their wages were, but was also a function of how useful they were to the team. High wages were permitted if the player was deemed to be important enough. It was only when the wages either received or demanded by a player outstripped their influence on the pitch that they were to be sacrificed.

Now, Jonas himself has found that his own usefulness has waned and the club no longer wish to pay his wages. Again, he would still have been one of the highest-paid at the club before his loan. This tells us if we needed reminding that there are no favourites, no sentimentality within the club. The squad is constantly being assessed as to their individual usefulness and if the opportunity arises to shift a high-earner off the wage bill without damaging the first team then it will happen. Cutting costs remain a priority rather than building a squad. Jose Mourinho in his first spell at Chelsea stated that he wanted two top players in each position. That’s what you need to be successful. Newcastle’s ‘purples’ policy, still active it has been shown, is in direct contrast to that. A top player who isn’t in the team is a waste rather than an insurance policy to maintain results through all eventualities. Much has been made of talk earlier in the season that Newcastle couldn’t compete financially with Southampton and other similar clubs. They’re certainly not trying to transform the club to compete with Chelsea and others at their level. Talk of the Champions League is nothing more than that, talk.

Pound Stretchers

An article for When Saturday Comes magazine issue 299, on how NUFCs self-sufficiency proves among other things that a fan ownership model could be just as successful

The End is about to Fall

Remember those days long ago when we yearned for a billionaire to take over Newcastle United? I really can’t be bothered to look up how much Mike Ashley is worth but we certainly didn’t get what we were after when he bought the club from the Halls & Shepherds. Don’t get me wrong, freeing the club from that particular axis of if not evil then something very definitely not positive, is something I’ll never criticise him for. But that was where it all started going wrong, from the very first moment he became involved.

 

He thought he was getting something on the cheap because Hall was desperate to get out and a hospitalised Shepherd was temporarily unable to fight his corner. That meant Ashley didn’t do what he was best at. The businessman thing. Checking the deal, making sure there were no hidden catches. He gambled on Newcastle United, and not for the last time he lost. The deeds of the stadium required the mortgage to be paid in full if the club switched hands. Ashley came over like a greenhorn in his field of expertise. Perhaps we should have guessed that when he started on the thing he really was an amateur at, running a football club, his fortunes weren’t about to improve.

 

In the one phase of enthusiasm he ever had for the club, he bankrolled a genuine spending spree. Unfortunately he let Sam Allardyce do the spending. Allardyce has his qualities, positive ones. Those qualities however are not the kind that are useful to a club with ambition, looking to spend money and break through football’s glass ceiling. He was the wrong manager at the wrong club at the wrong time, and the buys he made in his short time in charge saddled the club with players who couldn’t be moved on except at a loss, who cost a fortune in wages, and worst of all were almost to a man a dead loss on the pitch. Time for another rarity, something Ashley did right: sacking Allardyce.

 

Closely followed by yet another mistake unfortunately. Hiring Kevin Keegan. It was a populist appointment, but not wrong for the reasons normally quoted. I watched those games after he took over and Newcastle improved, slowly at first but they got better. Keegan had been out of the game for years. Maybe his fire had gone out. But he was a success on the pitch in that second spell in charge. No, the mistake in making him manager was that the famously emotional and headstrong Keegan was never going to be walked all over by Ashley. The appointment itself contained the meltdown, inevitable as it was.

 

Now the mistakes started coming thick and fast. I can’t think of anything you might want to do involving Dennis Wise that wouldn’t automatically be misjudged purely because of his presence. Surely there couldn’t possibly be a worse appointment as Director of Football? Oh, wait….

 

That whole season following was one long catalogue of errors. Deadline signings of Xisco and Nacho, not appointing a proper manager straight away with the status to grab the squad by the scruff of the neck and turn the season around while there was still time. When finally appointing a full-time manager, choosing Joe Kinnear, a never-was who shouldn’t have been within a million miles of the club, a poor man’s Allardyce. Someone who was medically unable to withstand the stress of the job, sadly for him and his family. After Kinnear’s health waned to the point he couldn’t continue, in a final desperate and of course unsuccessful gamble, Ashley appointed the untried Alan Shearer and 8 games later we were down. If there’s a positive to that at least we’ve lanced that particular boil. Shearer’s no longer a Prince across the water, forever waiting to be called upon.

 

Error after error continued. An interminable buyout saga meant the club was completely unprepared for the season ahead in the Championship. By a streak of luck, after those we could get rid of had gone, the remaining staff and players turned inwards and forged themselves into a team which got the club out of a deep, deep hole. Just as the club seemed to have re-established itself in the top flight, Ashley sold Andy Carroll, on deadline day without replacement. Again, luck saw to it that the team limped through to the summer but another close season of turmoil ended with a younger and cheaper squad in place. No-one, especially not Ashley, could have expected a 5th place finish that year. By not strengthening the squad in the summer following, when there was a real chance of pushing on, Ashley again condemned the club to the inevitable; an overloaded squad struggled and was almost relegated. Ashley’s answer was to reappoint Kinnear and once again to fail to strengthen.

 

Notice all the times Ashley made terrible mistakes and by lucky chance the team pulled through; promotion, the European qualification. We need to remember that even if by chance this season pans out ok, mistakes have once again been made. Whatever happens, things could have been so much better. The title is a quote from a Hawkwind song, “We Took The Wrong Step Years Ago”. Seems appropriate somehow and the hope, surely, has to be that the end will indeed fall soon.

My Homebrew Nightmare

My Homebrew Nightmare at Sabotage Times

When Red Cards Go Wrong

Of all the reasons why TV pundits are criticised, the dispensation of incorrect information comes far down the list, way below acute fence-sitting, infuriating personal habits and inarticulacy as a matter of pride. That may be because we’ve all heard it so often we’ve come to believe it ourselves. For once though, we can’t just blame the usual suspects. When it comes to misunderstanding and misinterpreting football’s Laws we’re all as bad as each other. How long could the never-ending debate on what is offside and what is not continue if we all knew the answer? There is one area of football where the uniformity of error is such as to be almost universal.

The misconceptions on what constitutes a sending-off are so widely held, so ingrained, that they are more like folk memories. All it takes is a glimpse of a raised stud in the distance and the phrases we know so well come flooding out, as naturally as water from a tap. Footballers are as bad as anyone. Go to watch any Sunday League game, and if you thought people personally exposed to the Laws of the Game on a regular basis would have an insight into their inner workings you would be more than likely disappointed. Never mind the “Studs Up!” shouts meant to persuade a ref of malice in mind. Forget that the received wisdom holds that someone with both feet off the ground should in all circumstances be heading for the changing rooms (early baths only applying where they are available). Every single person who has ever played football has responded to a referee’s whistle by explaining not that their tackle was so swift and well-executed that the vision-impaired one must have missed it, but that they went for the ball. Not that they got the ball, they just tried their best to get it before smashing their now-broken opponent into the bushes. In the collective mind of the footballer that somehow makes all the difference in these situations. There’s even an internationally-recognised gesture so no player need be thwarted from explaining this to a referee by the mere barrier of language.

Maybe that has something to do with how easy it is for the same people to explain away high-profile assaults on the pitch by their favourites. Dangerous challenges are routinely excused on the basis of the most tenuous of connections with the ball. That contact, or even the intention to make contact, is taken as proof of a lack of intent to injure. The fact that it’s possible to injure and make contact all at the same time is an inconvenient irrelevance it seems.

 A glance at FIFA’s Law 12 on Fouls and Misconduct and the associated guide to interpretation returns some surprising results for the football family. There’s no mention of a player having two feet off the ground as a discriminating factor for one thing. Someone who lunges with excessive force is guilty of serious foul play and should receive a red card. But it’s the “excessive force or brutality” which is the distinction between a cautionable offence and one requiring dismissal, not the lunging. Indeed, any tackle that endangers the safety of the opponent must result in a sending-off. It takes barely any logical leap at all from there to understand that even someone winning the ball if it is in such a way that endangers their opponent, possibly using excessive force, commits a red card offence. Perhaps the most surprising result of all is that the character of the miscreant bears no relevance to the classification and punishment of the crime in the Laws. No more “he’s not that kind of lad”, please.

 It’s worth pointing out that convention appears to override the laws in practice. Otherwise how could the same offence generally receive different punishment in one country compared to another? So although the Laws are common, referees interpret them differently depending where they are.

 There’s a worry about the plan to push referees in front of TV cameras to explain their decisions immediately following a match in that their authority would be diminished by having to admit fallibility and backtrack when confronted with incontrovertible proof of their mistakes. Anyone can make a mistake, but at least their knowledge of the rules means they wouldn’t attempt to justify themselves using common misconceptions. Though a lack of consistency is often quoted as the major problem with referees, it would be a lack of knowledge of the rules which would really diminish their standing. 

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