Sunday, November 05, 2006

Washes Whiter Than White

There are some clubs whose entire existence seems to be some sort of insane soap opera. The likes of Leeds United, Sheffield Wednesday and West Ham United appear almost pre-determined to inhabit a universe of perpetual chaos, lurching from one plot line to another while the rest of the nation looks on with amusement. To stretch the analogy to breaking point, the "Coronation Street" of football soap operas surely have to be Newcastle United. The whole saga at St James Park plays like a tragi-comedy, but Newcastle have a habit of causing their supporters so much distress that their very existence almost appears to be cruel.

A couple of days ago, I was watching their Second Division play-off match against Sunderland from 1990. Whilst Newcastle fans remember the era for the likes of Paul Gascoigne, Chris Waddle and Peter Beardsley, the fact of the matter is that their staple diet at this time at this time was the likes of Kevin Brock, Mickey Quinn and, heaven help us, John Burridge. The story was a familiar one. In the first leg at Roker Park, Newcastle had done the hard work, with Burridge having saved a last minute penalty to earn them a draw. The second leg should have been a great night for them, but it fell to pieces in a predictable manner, with a late second goal for Sunderland from Marco Gabbiadini sparking a pitch invasion from the Gallowgate End. Ever was it thus for Newcastle United.

At least expectations weren't as high in 1990 as they are now. Sir John Hall stepped in, and Newcastle got into the Premership at the end of the 1992-93 season. Hall was, if nothing else, big on hyperbole. He invested in St James Park, turning it from a crumbling relic from a bygone era into a 52,000 capacity palace. The team shot straight to the top end of the Premiership, playing insanely attacking football under the managership of Kevin Keegan. It couldn't last, of course. Keegan quit, and the succession of managers since then have tried to revive some life into them but no noticeable success.

Newcastle find unique ways of treating their supporters. It wasn't enough for their dreadful bosses Freddy Shepherd and Douglas Hall to be caught in a brothel slating their team, their supporters and women. Having been forced into resigning from the board, they voted themselves back onto it a mere ten months later. Since then, he's taken to running the club as his own personal fiefdom, paying himself half a million quid per year, whilst letting the club's training facilities to such a condition that they have been rumoured to have caused injuries to their players during training sessions. Of course, when Michael Owen got injured during the World Cup, Newcastle were quick to howls of outrage, demanding compensation from the FA. He is clearly a man well beyond irony. What they do best, though is to offer their supporters a glimpse of the possible glory of the game before snatching it away from them, whether it's through tossing the Premiership away under Kevin Keegan in 1996, getting to the FA Cup final two years in a row and playing dismally in both of them, or signing Alan Shearer and continuing to not win anything. At the time of writing, Newcastle haven't won a major trophy since the Fairs Cup in 1969, and that is something that doesn't look like changing any time soon.

Personally, I don't buy the "best fans in football" rubbish that is always touted in the press. Newcastle's fans have been dumped on, but they haven't suffered in the way that some other teams' supporters have. They did, at least, get a couple of big days out at Wembley, which is more than can be said for the supporters of Manchester City. They haven't been relegated in over fifteen years, unlike Leeds or Sheffield Wednesday. They haven't seen their local rivals fluke their way to becoming the European champions, unlike supporters of Everton. St James Park is as likely to be half empty as anywhere else on the night of a UEFA Cup match against the third best team in Lithuania.

That said, though, the current round of self-flagellation takes some beating. As I noted last week, the decision to hire Glen Roeder to the job was one of the more peculiar managerial appointments of recent years. Roeder has no track record of any sort, and he didn't even hold the requisite UEFA coaching badges that all Premiership coaches are supposed to have. They've played much of this season like a team coached by a man without any qualificiations, but on Thursday night they were given a small taste of the high life when they travelled to Italy and beat Palermo 1-0 in the UEFA Cup. Had they turned the corner? Was this the start of a great revival? Well, no - and they managed to sink to a new low on Saturday tea time, by losing 1-0 at home to Sheffield United. Victories for Charlton and Watford further emphasised their plight - they're now only one place off the bottom of the table, and they're sinking fast.

Whilst I have sympathy for the supporters of Newcastle United, I can help but think that relegation may even do them a favour. It's interesting to note that the protests at the ground after lasy night's defeat were largely not aimed at Roeder, but at the board of directors. Shepherd and Hall are parasites, growing fat off what is starting to look like the carcass of a great name. If the current crisis at St James Park did result in the removal of this pair of singularly obnoxious individuals, then I think that a lot of people might consider that all of the pain might have been worth the effort.


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