Another disaster, another catastrophic decision, another set of protests, another call for boycotts, another campaign to unseat the owners. The older a Newcastle fan gets, the more of these cycles they have seen. You’d think we’d be getting used to it by now, settling down apathetically for the long run as an owner does his very best to make a hash of things again.
There are those who’d say that’s exactly what we’re collectively doing. Sports Direct do a roaring trade in our one-club city, against the hopes and perhaps expectation of supporters. Replica shirts are purchased and worn to games en masse. Pies and pints are wolfed down with gusto inside the ground, just like they always have been. We roll up at the turnstiles in large numbers for game after game after game.
Sunderland fans claim to have boycotted Sugar Puffs after we were associated with them in the Nineties. So why can’t we shut down Ashley’s shop in the city by not buying anything, if we want him out so badly? It’s not so hard to get a pie at Gregg’s on the way up to the ground either. But I’m still refusing to use the kiosks in the stand from the last time. What do I do now we’re protesting about something else? I can’t refuse to buy a pie twice. It’s a fact though that time dulls all protests and only the strongest maintain themselves long enough to change anything. The only things which matter to Ashley that the fans affect are ticket sales and TV money and unless revenue drops from those he is immune to our displeasure. So attempting to act upon these trivialities was never going to persist, and neither was it going to change anything in reality.
Even so, something feels different. Like in the Eighties when many fans lost touch with their clubs because of the sheer desperate nature of the experience we were subjected to, it’s the apathy that could do it this time. Holders of 3-year season tickets face renewals between now and the end of the season, and they haven’t had that opportunity to vote with their feet since Keegan walked out in 2008. Who knows how many of them will choose to walk away by next August? There have to be at least some who have finally had enough, in the same way as single-year ticket holders fell after relegation. A big drop in attendances could be a powerful form of pressure on Mike Ashley, though strangely it would be caused by season-ticket holders giving up on the club rather than by their desire to protest.
But for two easily-defined periods, the club’s recent history has been a parade of strife, failure and disappointment. It’s an indicator of the thin times we’ve had to put up with that neither of these two periods contained a trophy win. Kevin Keegan’s first attempt at the job seems now (and did then to be fair) like an unbelievable, unsustainable golden fantasy of what it is like to support a club. Winning games with attacking flair, buying superb players, the team improving year-on-year. It all seemed too good to last and so it proved. After a few less than exciting years in between, Bobby Robson built a team from nothing, initially without any money to spend. A top-class manager born in the region and a supporter to boot, he used his contacts around the world to construct a team of youngsters who thrilled with their pace, spirit and quality. Surely not keeping that team together to mature properly was one of our great missed opportunities but egos and internal conflict ended up tearing them apart.
Perhaps it is this that is making our current predicament seem so bad. We have tasted relative success more than once in the last ten or fifteen years. We’ve seen it happen, we’ve seen how it’s done. To be subjected to Ashley’s idiotic attempts to regain his money after that makes it doubly frustrating. To suspect that he gains pleasure from upsetting the fans just multiplies the pain even further. But are things any worse than they were under Gordon McKeag or Lord Westwood? Both regimes which we struggled under with hardly any money, neither seemingly with any desire to improve the playing situation beyond survival in the top division, though at times even that would have seemed like an unattainable pipe-dream. Both autocratic, remote and contemptuous of their customers, the fans. Sound familiar? That’s because if you’ve been supporting the club since the Seventies or Eighties or earlier, you’ve seen it all before.
There’s even an argument to be made that some of us might have been happier in the long run if we hadn’t had that success at all. At least we’d have been blissfully unaware of the possibilities. That might just be the most damning charge to lay on Ashley of all – that he could make us wish away our good times to help preserve our sanity by making his bad times seem just that little bit less unpleasant. Hopefully we’re just a swing of the pendulum away from not caring about him any more, not because we’ve given up on the club, but because he’s gone off to annoy someone else. Just remember that pendulum will come swinging back some day, and be ready for it when it does.