Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

Why Newcastle United are the most intriguing club in English football

Mike Ashley (left) and Derek Llambias (right)
Mike Ashley (left) and Derek Llambias (right)

It is getting on for three months since an eagle majestically and breathtakingly seemed to ease from the gods and glide onto the pitch at the Stadium of Light.

You will see all sorts inside football grounds. Nothing has the impact of an eagle.

Newcastle were playing Benfica. That alone has a ring to it.

Everyone there from the North-east of England, and there were around 4,500, had their breath taken. The flashing lights of mobile phones sparkled as, against the backdrop of a tumultuous Lisbon night sky, Benfica's very own eagle landed.

Lisbon is a beautiful city. The Stadium of Light is a citadel, a fitting amphitheatre for one of Europe's truly huge football clubs, and they were playing Newcastle United in the quarter-final of a European competition.

These are the moments football fans live for. It is an untouchable magic. The camera lights flash and the memory bank saves.

Romance in the game breathed; the last bastion of football that the money men marching their tanks onto the lawns of supporters all over the world can never touch.

Newcastle supporters filled their boots that night. Newcastle lost, but there is nothing new in that. They had a right go though. Papiss Cisse had one of his nights, he scored, he missed, he hit the woodwork. Cisse is a fitting Newcastle player because he remains unfathomable. In the end two glaring, individual errors cost Newcastle, and that, as with Cisse, felt apt. If the foot has a black and white sock on it, then Newcastle will at some point shoot it.

There was disappointment in that but Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the industrial wasteland of south Scotland, was back throwing punches. Newcastle as a football club, after six messy years, felt relevant again.

That was less than three months ago and three months is a long time at Newcastle United.

A week later they were knocked out of the Europa League. Three days they lost heavily at home to Sunderland. Then came a pummelling at home off Liverpool. Two results - Swansea winning at Wigan and a rare victory away from home against Queens Park Rangers - saved the team from relegation. Alan Pardew's position was questioned. Yohan Cabaye was linked heavily with a move to Monaco. The first strips with Wonga on the front were released. Derek Llambias, the managing director, resigned. Graham Carr, the chief scout, was ready to leave. Joe Kinnear was appointed director of football. The supporters were insulted on national radio by the new director of football. Alan Shearer's bar at St James' Park was closed.

All in less than three months. Make sense of that.

Newcastle is the club where so much happens but nothing ever changes.

It is more than six years since Mike Ashley came from nowhere to be the new owner of the club. He didn't even do due diligence. He discovered debt. There have been six managers, one executive director (football), one director of football, two high profile departures (in Kevin Keegan and Shearer), the attempted name change of St James' Park and the new sponsorship deal with payday lenders Wonga. Only once in six years have Newcastle finished in the top ten of the Premier League.

That quarter-final against Benfica was the first since Ashley took control. In the previous six years they reached two FA Cup finals, one FA Cup semi-final, two League Cup quarter finals, one Uefa Cup semi-final and one Uefa Cup quarter-final. Newcastle also qualified for the Champions League twice.

Freddy Shepherd, the chairman during that period was not loved either. He had made comments about supporters in a national newspaper. Kinnear did it with much more gusto on the radio last week.

Much is made of Newcastle's support but most of it has never seen the club win a major trophy. They have not won a domestic cup for 58 years. The title last arrived in 1927. It has never been driven across the Tyne Bridge, which was completed a year later. The club still intrigues. Under Keegan, and with the backing of Sir John Hall, Newcastle almost won the Premier League. It was the most relevant the football club has been since the 1950s, when they won the FA Cup three times.

Along the way have been great players, great nights, the odd very good side and moments for those supporters to savour, like the one in Benfica, despite the result.

There is now a renewed desire for more progress and less chaos. Monday night was the most forcible sign yet that there is a feeling stronger than just initial anger to afford change. Supporters' groups are starting to unite. Ashley will now go if he gets what he has spent, around a quarter of a billion pounds. It seems implausible anyone will pay that much, yet desire for change still stirs in the Tyneside air.

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