Football Cities: Newcastle upon Tyne
Perched on a hill, visible from all directions as you head into Newcastle, towering into the air in the centre of town — St James’ Park couldn’t really be much more symbolic. Its location befits its status as an iconic focal point, right at the heart of the city metaphorically and spiritually as well as literally. A compact, soulless, identikit new-build stadium on the outskirts, encircled by acres of car park, big-box retail units and McDonald’s drive-thrus just wouldn’t be right.
Writing about football and so-called “failing” towns (as labelled by the Economist) on this site two years ago, I discussed an article that appeared in local paper the Chronicle in which fans expressed what Newcastle United mean to them, and to the city as a whole. To summarise, four broad themes emerged:
1. Supporting Newcastle engenders a feeling of community, camaraderie, “solidarity” — something that has, perhaps, been largely lost in modern life but that people consciously or subconsciously yearn for. As a one-club city — the second largest such city in the UK, after Leeds — there’s a feeling that we’re all in this together
2. Fandom is for many a cornerstone of personal identity as well as of collective identity, a fundamental part of who we are. For those of us who are in exile, it’s an umbilical cord keeping us connected to the city and the region, and to family and friends we’ve left behind
3. As the location of St James’ Park implies, the club is “the heartbeat of an amazingly proud city”. Its fortunes are a barometer for the city’s collective mood; as one respondent noted, “When Newcastle Utd does well, the whole city has a feelgood factor.” Of course, the reverse is also true
4. Being a supporter means daring to dream but also having a source of succour, comfort and distraction when times are tough. In the memorable phrase of another fan, the club can be “a beacon of absolution from the daily mire”
As I acknowledged in the “failing” towns article, this much is probably true to a certain extent of most if not all football clubs. As Tony Collins observes in his short social history Sport in Capitalist Society, for instance, the fact that clubs were conceived and grew up in the rapidly expanding towns and cities of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and boasted first teams stuffed with local lads made it inevitable that they would come to be seen “as representatives of their city, town, suburb or even street”, and as “a way for working-class communities to express a sense of belonging, or identity”.
So is it then misguided (at best) or arrogant (at worst) to claim that Newcastle United’s meaning for the city and the fans is especially significant? To contend that football somehow “matters more” to people in Newcastle than it does in most other places? From personal experience, at least, having lived in various other major cities in the UK (Nottingham, Birmingham, Cardiff and Oxford), I’d venture not. Newcastle bleeds black and white. As relationships go, the one that exists between the club and the city is most definitely deep and meaningful, rather than merely a casual fling.
That much has been argued for the relationship between the region and football more generally, at least, by both Harry Pearson and Michael Walker. The Far Corner, Pearson’s hilariously digressive memoir of the 1993-4 season, was inspired by the return of the native to the north-east and renewed exposure to the extraordinary passion for football that had faded from memory while he was exiled in London. More recently, Walker’s Up There presents the perspective of an outsider (albeit one who has been embedded within the area as a regional football correspondent for nearly 20 years) on the remarkable “fervour in the face of failure”, and gives consideration to the underlying historical, social and economic factors that might explain it.
So what are the consequences of the immense significance with which the club is invested by supporters, as underlined by the Chronicle article?
1. The highs are high, and the lows are low. For the players, there’s nowhere better to be when everything is going swimmingly, but conversely there’s nowhere to hide in times of trouble. The club and its staff are subjected to continual close scrutiny and the weight of expectation, and for some the pressure is simply too much to bear. Appearing on Sky’s Goals on Sunday in January 2012, Jermaine Jenas denied having ever described life as a Newcastle player as being like “living in a goldfish bowl”, as he was widely reported to have done after leaving for Spurs in 2005 — but his fellow guest, former Toon teammate Kieron Dyer, was happy to step in and make the comparison. As a result of the fervour for football, Dyer implied, the atmosphere in the city can feel stifling and oppressive: “At Newcastle it’s just football constantly, in the morning, in the afternoon, in the night. After the game you go to a restaurant and they just want to talk about football.
2. There is a sense of ownership among supporters, a feeling that those nominally in charge will come and go but that Newcastle United will ultimately remain public property: “our club”. (Tony Collins would no doubt contend that this is merely a mass delusion, that football clubs have never truly “belonged” to fans — but that fact doesn’t change perceptions, and perceptions are as important as reality in the context.) This in turn means that the supporters consider themselves to be stakeholders, expecting to be involved in decision-making processes or at least to have their voices heard and taken into account.
3. For their part, those in charge are expected to respect the rich history, traditions and local folk heroes. Furthermore, the club is perceived to have, in essence, a duty of care to those who routinely make significant personal sacrifices to invest in it, both financially and emotionally, not least by listening to their views, as well as having responsibilities to the city and region that help to sustain it.
The need for the club to acknowledge this duty of care and these wider responsibilities is most acute in times of adversity. When I wrote about Newcastle in relation to “failing” towns, it was merely by way of an introduction to the issues of geography, economics and football fandom, and the way they intersect. However, two years on, it could be argued that Newcastle is now itself a “failing” town.
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“John Hall tapped into something latent, the pride and the apartness of the north-east. Newcastle was depressed; industries like mining and shipbuilding had been destroyed. We bought into the idea of the club as the flagship of revival.” So reflected Michael Martin, editor of well-respected Toon fanzine True Faith, in conversation with David Conn in 2006, exemplifying the “beacon of absolution from the daily mire” view of the club. After much bitter wrangling with Gordon McKeag, property developer Sir John Hall seized control of Newcastle United in 1991. Under his stewardship, the club experienced a remarkable renaissance, going from narrowly avoiding demotion to the third tier of English football for the first time in its history to winning promotion, Champions League football and the hearts of the nation (if not the Premier League title) within six years. In this, the club did indeed prove to be a “flagship of revival”, with the city itself undergoing a dramatic transformation and upturn in fortunes through the 1990s and into the first decade of the new millennium. Today, even after the global financial crash of 2008, Newcastle would appear to be the epitome of a bright, attractive, vibrant, prosperous, modern city — not least to Guardian and Observer readers, who voted it the UK’s best in 2014, prompting smitten Teessider Harry Pearson to pen an ode to its charms.
Scratch beneath the surface, though, and the story looks rather different — and depressingly familiar. Adopting the OECD definition of “urban”, Newcastle was the fifth most populous city in the UK in 2012, with more than a million inhabitants; only London, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds were bigger. However, it only had the eighth largest GDP (behind Glasgow, Edinburgh and Bristol as well as the aforementioned four), and a relatively low GDP per capita as a result. For the period between January and December 2014, unemployment in Newcastle stood at 9.7 per cent, compared to 8.5 per cent for the north-east region and 6.2 per cent nationally. The disparity was even starker with respect to male unemployment: 11.7 per cent, compared to 8.7 per cent and 6.5 per cent respectively. In his forthcoming book The UK Regional (and National) Economic Problem, Philip McCann notes that, of all the large Western economies, only Italy and Germany have more severe interregional inequity than the UK — and, while the gap is narrowing there, it’s widening here, exacerbated by excessively centralised top-down governance and the forces of globalisation.
Just two days after Pearson’s glowing tribute to the city, the Guardian published another article that painted a very different picture. John Harris looked beyond the flashy gleaming architecture of the Quayside (“the embodiment of the post-industrial dreams”), beyond the city centre’s proliferation of smart new craft ale bars, beyond the bohemian and creative hub of Ouseburn, and found desperation, deprivation and uncollected bins overflowing with rubbish — a testament to the failure of trickle-down economics on a local as well as a national scale.
This is a Newcastle that many no doubt mistakenly believe exists only in the past, in the stunning black-and-white photographs of the Amber collective recently on display in the city’s Laing Art Gallery. It’s a Newcastle that was the obvious location for a Vice documentary on the grim reality of life at a food bank. It’s a Newcastle teetering precariously on the brink of financial collapse, brought to its knees by disproportionately severe cuts in public spending. It’s a Newcastle that is the victim of what beleaguered council leader Nick Forbes refers to as a “Westminster-centric mentality”, and of a discredited and ideologically motivated austerity narrative.
In short, it’s a Newcastle in desperate need of the sense of community and belonging, the civic pride and identity, the feelgood factor and escapist pleasure, the solace and succour that the city’s football club can potentially provide.
But, just as it’s being failed by the government, it’s also being failed by Newcastle United.
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To be absolutely clear, this isn’t merely about what is currently happening on the pitch — though that is of course a contributing factor. There’s nothing remotely feelgood about supporting a side that, since achieving an unexpected though richly deserved fifth-placed finish in 2011-12, has turned in some of the most dismal displays in living memory, clinging onto its Premier League status each season with ever less conviction. A team stuffed with overpaid, underperforming players who all too often can’t even seem to muster the bare minimum of effort; a side now languishing at the bottom of the table after achieving the impressive feat of turning a one-goal advantage into a 6—1 defeat; managerial incompetence, cluelessness and gross misconduct; and, worst of all, five consecutive defeats to our bitterest rivals — it’s not hard to see why Newcastle United are currently a source of acute embarrassment rather than pride.
But the problems run much deeper than merely results and (non-)performances. In a nutshell, the club appears to have forgotten quite what it means to those who sustain it. In its neglect of responsibilities and ignorance of any duty of care, it seems to have renegotiated its relationship with supporters and the city on its own terms, without having bothered to invite either to the table.
While it’s naturally tempting to point the finger of blame for the situation solely in the direction of current owner Mike Ashley, it’s worth noting that when David Conn wrote about the transformation of the “Geordie Nation” into “a cash cow”, he did so in February 2006, more than a year before Ashley first darkened the St James’ Park doorstep. It’s also worth pointing out that, while the city may be characterised by a sense of “apartness” (to use Michael Martin’s term), it isn’t sufficiently remote and detached for its football club to have been sheltered from the impact of the significant changes that have taken place within the sport and society more generally over the last two decades. The post-Hillsborough, post-Fever Pitch gentrification of the beautiful game — or “bourgeoisification”, to borrow the term preferred by Marxist sociologist Ian Taylor — that has seen pies supplanted by prawn sandwiches, the young and the working class increasingly priced out of attending matches and supporters rebranded as consumers is something that would in all likelihood have affected Newcastle United regardless of who was in charge.
Nevertheless, the various club hierarchies have undoubtedly been accessories to this transformation. Indeed, in his chapter on consumerism in forthcoming book Studying Football, which he co-edited with Ellis Cashmore, Kevin Dixon takes Newcastle United as a case study and points out that — somewhat ironically, given Martin’s comments — the current problems stem from decisions taken by the architect of the 1990s revival, Sir John Hall. A proud and passionate native with a strong sense of the critical importance of the club to the city, and vice versa, Hall harboured a dream of winning the league with a team of Geordies which, while arguably laughably romantic, nevertheless underlined his belief that the club should be very much rooted in the local community. However, the issuing of shares offering supporters the opportunity to literally buy into the St James’ Park revolution was a watershed moment, as it commodified the relationship; the implication was that only by having a financial stake in the club (rather than merely an emotional stake) would fans be entitled to have their opinions heard. As Dixon notes, though, before long even those who had invested “found themselves not as inclusive policy drivers for the club (as they had hoped), but as reactive to the impulses of the neo-liberal leadership agenda”, valued less as individuals than as consumers.
Tony Collins argues that “[t]he idea that sport has been hijacked by team owners or commodified by corporate interests fails to understand that modern sport is itself a creation of capitalism”, pointing out that there have always been unscrupulous and profit-driven owners. However, the degree to which personal financial gain and corporate interests have come to assume increasing (and indeed overwhelming) prominence at Newcastle Utd is alarming. Hall and his successor, business associate and fellow Geordie Freddy Shepherd, were hardly selfless — Dixon observes that they helped themselves to £145 million over the course of their stewardship — but Mike Ashley has accelerated the process of overt commercialisation for his own enrichment. Under his regime, supporters are viewed as nothing more than a revenue stream, their opinions swatted away, with major decisions typically made unilaterally — none of which should come as a surprise, given the way that employees within his Sports Direct empire are routinely treated. The popular chant “You fat Cockney bastard, get out of our club” speaks volumes — about the fans’ sense of rightful ownership, and about their anger at the fact that the club is being run (or screwed over) from London in the same way as the city and its council. To illustrate how Ashley’s Newcastle United at best fails to comprehend and at worst wilfully disregards its roles and responsibilities with respect to supporters and the city, while somehow continuing to expect loyal support, let’s look more closely at two key issues: tradition and communication.
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If tradition and history are sources of pride for most football fans, then this is arguably especially so for those whose clubs have been starved of recent success — clubs such as Newcastle, who last won major honours in 1969 (needless to say, we don’t count the second-tier title wins in 1993 and 2010, or the Intertoto Cup success in 2006). Yet the Ashley regime has repeatedly shown a staggering ignorance in this regard. This was, of course, most obviously manifested in the 2009 decision to rebrand St James’ Park, the club’s home since formation in 1892, as sportsdirect.com@StJames’Park, a truly ludicrous moniker that sounded like an email address and was later downgraded to the marginally more sane but equally unpalatable Sports Direct Arena two years later. The inevitable outcry was immediate, loud and furious, but the name only officially reverted back to St James’ Park in October 2012, when new sponsor Wonga bought the naming rights and “listened to what [the fans] wanted” before making the announcement. Even now, though, the stadium remains plastered in Sports Direct logos, essentially the largest and most visible billboard in the city.
Ashley’s flagrant disrespect for sentiment and tradition extends far beyond physical structures, though, as exemplified by the events of 2008 that set in motion our relegation from the Premier League the following May. At times, his decisions have been so perverse as to make it seem like he’s deliberately and mockingly trolling us, and never did this feel more the case than with regard to Kevin Keegan. When the man popularly dubbed the Geordie messiah arrived back on Tyneside to fill the vacancy left by Sam Allardyce’s sacking, the supporters were understandably jubilant; after all, Keegan — first as a player and then as a manager — was the catalyst for the two most joyous periods in the club’s recent history. But, having delighted us with that move, Ashley then proceeded to undermine and bully his manager, appointing Dennis Wise as Executive Director of Football over his head, selling James Milner against his wishes and (the final straw) foisting upon him Ignacio Gonzalez, an unwanted player who was signed purely to appease a pair of South American agents. Feeling his position was untenable, Keegan walked out and the hierarchy had no compunction about swiftly attempting to blacken the name of a genuine club legend through the press. A year later, a Premier League Arbitration Tribunal entirely vindicated Keegan’s position, finding the club guilty of constructive dismissal and subsequently making “entirely unfounded allegations”.
There was a sense of dà©jà vu in the appointment of Alan Shearer in April 2009 — another cult hero largely hung out to dry, as his hometown club were relegated. Ashley and his cronies didn’t even pay him the common courtesy of a phone call to say they weren’t giving him the job on a permanent basis that summer, and when, four years later, Shearer’s Bar was rebranded as Nine, our record goalscorer wasn’t consulted, merely informed by email. Similarly, it came as little surprise that it took a fan-led campaign five years to get a plaque in memory of Joe Harvey, the 1969 Fairs Cup-winning manager, erected at St James’ Park — or that the cost was covered by donations and fundraising rather than by the club.
Even on the rare occasions when the current hierarchy chooses to pay lip service to tradition and heritage, it somehow contrives to get everything horribly, farcically wrong. Take the Gategate affair, for instance. In June 2013, the club proudly trumpeted that “the historic St James’ Park gates”, removed during the expansion of the stadium during the 1998/9 season, would be reinstalled, “back where they belong” thanks to discussions between club officials and fan groups and financial support from Wonga. There was just one problem: the supposedly “historic” gates in question were only first installed in 1989. Not that the Ashley regime was alone in being embarrassingly ignorant of the history of the ground; numerous media outlets merrily reproduced the story without bothering to corroborate the facts, including local papers the Chronicle, the Journal and the Northern Echo, all of which should have known better. This apparent willingness to broadcast baseless PR guff on behalf of the club is of course richly ironic given that journalists from the Chronicle and the Journal, together with sister publication the Sunday Sun, were banned from the St James’ Park press box and all press conferences four months later. Which brings us neatly onto the second key issue, communication.
Joe Kinnear’s first official press conference as manager in October 2008, which he began by calling the Mirror’s north-east football correspondent Simon Bird a “cunt” before continuing in similarly combative vein, is merely the most extreme and notorious manifestation of the prevailing attitude to the press of the Ashley regime — an attitude described by Michael Martin as “unnecessarily antagonistic”. While reporters from Channel 4 and the Telegraph have been among those barred from the ground in the last few years, the ban handed to the Chronicle, the Journal and the Sunday Sun (for the crime of giving what was deemed “disproportionate” coverage to an anti-Ashley protest march) was particularly significant as it severed a crucial communication link between the club and its supporters (and the city), and was only lifted 14 months later. Ashley has repeatedly revealed himself to be a petty dictator determined to crush dissent. Such ruthlessness might be viewed as shrewd in the business community — indeed, it’s no doubt in large part how he’s been able to construct such a sizeable empire — but it’s frankly idiotic to imagine that press bans are a sensible way of preventing negative media coverage; on the contrary, they actually generate it.
Take this commentary by Luke Edwards, the Telegraph’s north-east football correspondent and a Journal alumnus barred from St James’ Park on three separate occasions for writing articles that displeased the regime. Edwards quite rightly takes issue with the club’s decision to work with and grant exclusive access to what are termed “preferred media partners” — in this case, Sky Sports and (ironically, given Joe Kinnear’s rant) Simon Bird’s Mirror — which meant that the local press were unable to report on the official unveiling of new manager Steve McClaren in the summer. While the media have a duty to report responsibly, an objective and independent press is vital because the club, their in-house “journalists” (read: PR wonks) and their “preferred media partners” simply can’t be trusted — as is evident from managing director Lee Charnley’s admission that the establishment of a formal relationship with Sky Sports and the Mirror was to “control and reinforce the positive messages the club wished to deliver”. That’s the sort of vaguely sinister statement that wouldn’t sound unusual coming out of Pyongyang.
As Kevin Rawlinson notes, “technological advances [have made] it easier for organisations and individuals to become publishers”, and football clubs like Newcastle are now less reluctant to issue press bans because they have greater opportunities to be content producers themselves. One recent initiative has seen emails sent to members in which Charnley and McClaren have sought to outline and clarify their visions for progress — a not unwelcome development, admittedly, given how confused and on-the-hoof club strategy often seems to be, though of course a development necessitated by the rupture of the relationship with the local press. The creation of a Fans’ Forum, another form of direct communication with supporters (or at least their representatives), is also a welcome move — in principle only, however, rather than in reality. The fundamental problem is that, like the emails, it appears to be perceived by the regime as little more than an alternative means of disseminating messages from on high; the official monologue takes precedence and attempts at genuine dialogue are suppressed with platitudinous and unsatisfactorily vague answers. As Kevin Dixon observes in Studying Football, the development of social media and attendant technologies has empowered fans as well as clubs. The current situation at Newcastle United is a textbook example of the awkward tension between, on the one hand, supporters who crave a proliferation of sources of information and a more participatory and active form of fandom (one in keeping with the significance and meaning that the club has in their lives) and, on the other, a hierarchy apparently determined to challenge this democratisation, control channels of communication and restrict fans to the status of passive, unquestioning consumers.
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So, how have the fans responded? If disunity currently characterises the relations between the club and the city, and between the club and its supporters, then the same is sadly true of the relations between supporters themselves. There seems to be no clear consensus on what to do. Retain blind faith in the team and roar them on, in the hope that success on the pitch will make the club a more attractive purchase and so hasten Ashley’s departure? Take the opportunity presented by home games to protest in the stands so that disgruntlement and anger are broadcast more loudly and widely and therefore harder to ignore? Boycott matches as a way of stanching revenue streams and forcing Ashley into taking notice of the ways in which the club is failing its supporters? Renounce the club altogether?
With the fanbase fractured, no single group can legitimately claim to speak for all. The fanzine writers and bloggers who founded the Newcastle United Supporters Trust in the wake of Keegan’s departure in 2008 no doubt hoped it might do just that, but their visions of a fan buyout — under the banner “Yes We Can!” — faded fast. While the Trust continues to attempt to hold the club to account, it seems increasingly impotent to do so — not least because of a long-term ban from the Fans’ Forum over a typically petty row about the publication of meeting minutes. Much of the Trust’s time, energy and resources are now channelled into precisely the sort of valuable community projects that the club is neglecting — projects that would help to reconnect it to the city. It’s David Cameron’s Big Society in action: a quasi-state absolving itself of its wider responsibilities, content to leave local charitable organisations to pick up the pieces.
One interesting recent supporters’ initiative is the Newcastle Fans Shirt, conceived as a means of simultaneously showing pride in the club but disapproval of both Ashley and Wonga. In many ways, the latter are perfect sponsors for Ashley’s Newcastle United: a company that exists to profit from exploiting those who make up the club’s traditional core fanbase. The payday loans company has tried but failed to assuage supporters’ ire by means of populist moves such as restoring St James’ Park as the official stadium name and funding the reinstallation of the supposedly “historic” gates, and the Newcastle Fans Shirt appeals to all those who, like me, refuse to walk about advertising Wonga. It was originally known as the Magpie Shirt, until Ashley’s threat of legal action over the use of a trademark not only forced a rethink as to the name but also the removal of one of the two crests. The one that remained, a red shield with three silver castles, is in the words of the shirt’s creators “the main insignia on the city coat of arms and its oldest known representation, depicting the unbreakable ties between the club and the area”. As a symbolic attempt to reclaim Newcastle United for the city that spawned it, the Newcastle Fans Shirt couldn’t be much more obvious.
Back, then, to symbolism, and back to the stadium on the hill. Occupying its elevated position, St James’ Park remains a symbol — though today not so much as “a beacon of absolution from the daily mire” as an emblem of “apartness”. Like the club, it seems aloof, remote, distant — looking down literally and metaphorically on the city. Whether Newcastle United can ever be stitched seamlessly back into the geographical, social, emotional, cultural and psychological fabric of the area remains to be seen.