Their departure may have been painful, but at least it was not for long. Newcastle have climbed back into the Premier League at the first attempt, and over the Easter weekend, there was no messiah in sight.
At the lowest ebb of their desperate struggles last season, the welcoming St James’s Park and the usually amiable Toon Army hordes gradually turned more vindictive and bitter. As the descent down the table became terminal, the scepticism towards anyone born outside of a Newcastle postcode became worryingly neurotic. The infamous ‘Cockney Mafia’ banner became a symbol of the disharmony on and off the field. Whilst the team performances were below par, the greatest focus of anger from the terraces centred on the ownership of the club, and the perceived intentions of Mike Ashley and his various associates. In truth, Ashley’s faults were more naivety than negligence, taking over the ownership without doing due diligence on the state of the clubs crippling debts. As a result, he assumed the role of pantomime villain, this beer bellied-baddie, infiltrating the ranks of the natives with his tight-fitting black and white disguise. Ashley himself described his role in Newcastle’s relegation as ‘catastrophic’, which was probably the very least he could do considering his very public attempts to sell the club led to the melee of four managers across a season, none of whom were ever certain of their own position.
Quite understandably the fury of the Toon Army needed to be vented somewhere and Ashley was right in the cross-hairs, but surely this had more to do with his gross mismanagement of the club, rather than his place of birth. This city may have produced a string of fine footballers over the decades, but the list of successful football businessmen are less easy to recall, yet the Newcastle fans continued to tell the rest that they needed Geordies to run the club. The ‘Cockneys’ would not do. They needed someone who understood the club, the people, the city and what it was like to be a Geordie. What they needed was Alan Shearer, but he took them down. All against the background noise of how big the club were, how good their attendances have been for 15 years and how they nearly won the league under Kevin Keegan. The rest of the footballing nation were confused by this regional concept which only seemed to exist at one club. After all, in an era of foreign owners, managers and captains, entirely overseas XIs, global marketing and television deals and worldwide voyeurism to our clubs, did anyone buy into this theory that Newcastle needed to be run by Geordies?
However, now thanks to a Cockney (Chris Hughton born in Stratford ) a couple of Argentines, a Dane, a Spaniard, four Scousers and a sprinkling of Geordies (two of whom had an alleged fist fight at the training ground) the Magpies will at least be competing with the country’s elite next year having served a detention in the Championship. As even the most passionate, Shearer loving, Cockney hating, Brown Ale drinking Toon will tell you, the hard yards start here. The hardest aspect will be for their overly optimistic supporters to accept just what Newcastle are at the moment. Essentially, they will start the new season as a promoted side, with a squad heavily fitted with players straddling the Championship-Premier League divide, being led by an astute but under experienced manager who will have limited funds to create a decent enough team to match the pressure and aspirations of a thoroughly demanding set of fans, and that patience is likely to be tested again.
Since Newcastle started winning again and destination Premier League was on the radar, the ‘Cockney Mafia’ banner seems to have gone missing. Of the London Cartel, only Dennis Wise has been uprooted. Ashley and Derek Llambias are still in charge and have largely overseen a frugal reshaping of finances, mainly by reducing their ridiculous wage bill. The clubs bank balance is the healthiest it has been for some years, and the team are back competing where they belong. Where Newcastle go from here though is an interesting conundrum. If they were not what they thought they were 12 months ago then they certainly are not that now. The club have already confirmed that their recruitment process will involve signing young players for small fees with a high re-sale value.
That news could be worrying. For a start, why aren’t the board prepared to sign quality to try to improve the clubs chances of at least staying up? The money men are wise not to go cheque-crazy but a certain degree of replenishment will be needed to keep them afloat. The underlying issue is Ashley’s continued desire to sell the club. He could not expect his money back for a championship club, that is no longer the case. If a buyer can be sought, a sale is likely. There are no shortage of takers for any Premier League club, let alone one with this fan base and infrastructure. What will be interesting is to see who the fan base would like to see takeover, and whether the scepticism will dissipate in correlation with the amount of millions spent as opposed to the distance born from St James’s Park.