Sitting down to watch one of last season’s League Cup semi-finals, an unexpected dilemma arose; which side to favour? For even though one of the participants was Aston Villa, whose fans a few months previously had revelled in our relegation at Villa Park, I found it difficult to root for their opponents, Blackburn Rovers. The reason? Their manager, Big Fat Sam Allardyce, and his ever-present No.2, the chip on his shoulder. Why is it that we need certain ex-managers and players to fail? Especially when, as in Allardyce’s case, we were glad to see the back of them.
Allardyce is a bad example. So convinced is he of his own claim to manage England in the future, or at the very least succeed Sir Alex in the Old Trafford Recaros, that he feels the need at every opportunity to bad-mouth everything about NUFC, the biggest opportunity of his career so far and the biggest failure on his CV. He’s an “everybody else’s fault” merchant, and he does it with such bad grace that even those of us who might be inclined to agree with some of his assessments of the club tend to close ranks at the sound of his voice. We’d probably dislike him whether he’d been employed here or not, and the natural reaction to anyone so self-regarding is to wish upon them a public comeuppance.
Of other recent instances, Souness married incompetence with a similar later need to airbrush history in his own favour. Gullit committed the cardinal sin of taking on a Tyneside institution head-on and losing. Kinnear had a handy knack of creating chaos within while being the front man and chief apologist for a hated ownership regime.
It’s a while since a manager has been poached from Newcastle to go on to supposedly better things. Virtually all have been either sacked or decide they’re better off out of it and don’t wait for the bullet. The last was Gordon Lee, who left for Everton after barely a season-and-a-half, leading them to top-4 finishes as we were then relegated under Richard Dinnis. Predictably for someone who allegedly forced out our biggest hero, Malcolm Macdonald, then jumped ship, he isn’t remembered fondly. Thankfully his career stalled after Everton sacked him so we weren’t subjected to years of watching from afar as he lifted trophy after trophy. Imagine being a dumped Aberdeen fan, seething as Old Red Nose dominated the English league seemingly for ever.
So it’s safe to say that most of the vitriol felt on Tyneside towards ex-managers is provoked by their failings while in the job or their sniping at the club from TV pundit sofas afterwards, rather than being based on the rage of the spurned lover. Players however, appear to be judged differently once they have gone. Generally speaking, the better the player and the more messy the break-up, the worse the reception they can expect on their return.
Waddle, Beardsley and Gascoigne all left in broadly similar circumstances during the 1980s but they are viewed very differently by fans now. Each left a club content to tread water to further their careers at more ambitious clubs. Waddle’s reputation never recovered from his allegiance to the red and whites. Pedro gained sympathy for carrying the team almost single-handedly after Waddle’s departure until he finally cracked, and of course he returned here successfully towards the end of his career. Gascoigne had to deal with some horrible stick immediately following his departure. On his first return to Gallowgate with Spurs the city’s sweetshops famously ran out of Mars bars, and every single one of them seemed to end up on the pitch. He was baited mercilessly for the first half before his eventual withdrawal. In the intervening years attitudes have softened and fans have apparently warmed again to the man, recognising perhaps a fellow fan. It probably helps that his career path meant he didn’t play against us that often.
David Kelly was an enormously popular goalscorer and 100-percenter in Keegan’s promotion side. Surprisingly at first glance. he maintained that popularity after leaving the club. What mattered was that the move was on the club’s terms, and most recognised that he was surplus to requirements as we moved up a division and attempted to step up in class. It’s also important though, that he maintained his dignity and was complimentary in later public statements about the club, and even turned up in our away end now and then. His popularity was such that some even cheered him when he took the field at St James’ as a sub for Sunderland – not many can claim that. Contrast that with the likes of Hamann, who while one of our better players agitated for a move in shameless fashion and wouldn’t be cheered now if he took the field to distribute free pies.
The exception to this in recent times is Shay Given, who while being far and away our best player requested a transfer as we fought relegation, eventually unsuccessfully. The combination of his importance to the team, the agitation to get the move and the circumstances might suggest he’d get a rough ride on his return. I don’t think that’ll happen should he ever play here in another team’s colours though, as a lot of people recognise the service he gave the club over many years, and the club’s crackpot situation at the time. Even so, it’s a cold-blooded fan who can’t admit to a flicker of a smile on seeing Given as an unused sub on the first weekend of this season after his parting reason of wishing to win trophies, nor to outright belly-laughs at seeing Owen and Bellamy not even make their respective benches.
Unlike managers, a player’s reception on returning usually hinges on whether we were happy for them to leave in the first place unsurprisingly, though there is a path to rehabilition in exceptional circumstances. One thing is guaranteed, even though logic is sometimes tossed aside when it comes to relations with ex-favourites, their misfortune always raises a smile.