The Ragged Tracksuited Philanthropists (Part 1: Winter 2013)

Here is a special treat for my readers. A good friend of mine, Bob Tressell, asked me to plug an article that he wrote a while back – pre Xmas – and personally I think it is an excellent depiction of the state of the club right now. This is part 1 of what will hopefully be a serial of articles which I will be delighted to publish for Bob. Enjoy. 

On Black Friday, my local Asda was turned into a neanderthal scrum of warped fat middle aged Retail Darwinists fighting over discounted televisions. Such wild and rampant commercialism was depressing and distasteful to such a sensitive soul as myself.

My faith in humanity however, was somewhat restored the next day when in the wake of the Glasgow helicopter tragedy I saw a community – so often divided – unite and show the spirit which reveals the inherent goodness we all possess as human beings inhabiting this tiny revolving marble in space.

Then Saturday came. Newcastle United dispatched West Brom to make it 4 (FOUR) wins in a row. Amazing. Who could have foreseen this run after the insipid display on Wearyside? The glow of light from these results warmed all of my NUFC cockles but has this upturn really changed the overall picture?

Certainly we are looking at a higher finish with the points already accumulated ahead of our traditional festive slump. Even the biggest doom monger may consider cutting down on his prozac intake if they were preparing for a repeat of last year’s brush with relegation.

However, at the risk of raining on your parade here, this may indeed be the pinnacle of our season. We have reached that strange twilight zone whereby we are actually ‘over achieving’ in our official stated ambition for this season and the transfer window is suddenly looming large in our thoughts. As fans, this  should have us gushing in excited expectation with talk of potential signings to ‘kick on’. The fact it does not and most of the pub talk I have been party to has been full of fear, is a sad reflection on how transfer window business has been conducted since Ashley took control. Proactive recruitment from a position of strength is not what we are used to.

Moreover, our manager, looking worryingly smug in his post match WBA comments, insisted we have a strong squad and yet again managed to mention how draining Euro football was for us last season. Fans’ enthusiasm for our lofty position and a  Euro push has somehow become a cue for our patsy manager to snigger up his sleeve at such naivety – the team’s display at Swansea the following Wednesday and the appearance of Gabriel Obertan promptly put us plebs in our place and quite possibly made Mike breath a sigh of relief. I don’t think this is unfettered cynicism on my part, just experience and analytical observation.

I can’t bring myself to accept that Pardew is using clever motivational technique to get Big Mike to spend. It’s likely that whoever writes JFK’s programme notes will be drafting the next installment of how we are terminally the ‘underdog’ fighting to dine at the top table without the financial clout of the big boys. To fans, Europe is an achievable ambition, but to the bigwigs it is spun to be an ogre to fear. Who knows, maybe this is part of a new commercial approach to attract ever more controversial sponsors in our very achievable aim of mid table mediocrity? The irony of having a predominantly French speaking team wearing a UKIP or BNP sponsored shirt is the kind of perverse thing that may appeal to our resident Bond villain!

The last issue of TF dealt mainly with an economic analysis of how the club’s commercial potential is being wasted – who would have thought that accountants could be so interesting? More questions arose than answers but it should focus every discerning fan’s mind not only on where the generated money goes but also the motivation of our owner. A business which is contracting instead of expanding is a big worry. The questions recently handed into the club by the Time4Change pressure group also touched on the subject of how the NUFC brand can grow when the potential for growth seems to be being deliberately restricted.

It’s a fact that the gargantuan TV deals of Sky have ensured that traditional matchday revenues – via ticket sales and hospitality takings etc – have for ALL  top level clubs become less significant. Football directors insist fans are just a composite part of a balance sheet.This has universally been used against the average Premier League fan to strip them of any sense of importance or dignity.

Of course, dignity and its partners – pride and identity – are all things that we as NUFC fans are more than used to getting challenged by Mr Ashley. The huge shrinkage of matchday and commercial revenue since 2007 exposes the paradox in this regime’s repeated bleating about not being able to compete with other teams.

Our manager stated last summer that we couldn’t compete financially with Southampton in the transfer market. If you have an average gate of 25-30k and were in the third tier within the last 6 years, I could understand caution and dampening of expectation but it’s not what I hear from Southampton or our recent Welsh conquerors and current League Cup holders. Pardew’s outrageous statement should have brought public hanging back to Gallowgate yet his comments were received by the downtrodden masses with nothing more than a grimace as the latest season ticket direct debit ate into their bank balance. It should have prompted everyone to question why Newcastle are in this predicament.

Certainly, Mark (The Mag) Jensen’s  curiosity was piqued and his comparison with Spurs’ financial performance (a much fairer gauge than Southampton, given the relative size and status of our respective clubs) was a revealing expose. While Spurs’ off field performance has improved significantly in the last few years, so has their on field performances. It is the exact opposite of what has happened at NE1.

The crux of the matter is that matchday and commercial revenue  ARE crucial if we are ever to realise NUFC’s full potential. Success breeds success. The comparative figures of Spurs and NUFC in this sector prove it.  No matter what JFK’s ghost writer may assert, we CAN compete on and off the field with the Spurs of this world.

If the regime truly wanted to boost revenue streams then maybe talking up a tilt at Europe would help? Maybe recruiting an able team of people to tap into corporate sponsorship and advertising would be useful (there’s only so much Bob Moncur can achieve by popping into my cousin’s factory for a cuppa and asking him to renew his season ticket). Also insisting on getting a going rate for advertising hoardings which now go free to SD would be nice. They could also thank Sodexo for their overpriced pint and pie franchise and take over the operation themselves so that money spent by the calorie loving Geordie public goes back into the club for reinvestment.

Instead of SD controlling nufcdirect.com and more than likely taking a cut from merchandise sales, fan confidence could be restored by a commitment to ploughing that money into a transfer kitty. Maybe Sports Direct News, in an attempt to stop increasing cynicism, could refrain from running constant transfer stories linking our players with moves away?

Of course many of us – me included – have had their fill of buying into this regime. But a significant number – enough for this intolerable inertia to continue – still can’t help themselves when it comes to buying into our hijacked brand, whether that’s via replica shirt sales or multi year ticket deals. I did not castigate anyone who attended the T4C march if they wore a Wonga shirt (at least they did something) but it requires a bit more thought if they really want change.

It’s ironic when I think of my past spending habits. Pre-Ash, however naive it may seem now with hindsight, in the run up to Christmas I used to think nothing of flagrantly spending my cash in the club shop on presents for the family. Then I would quite happily release a turkey fart on Boxing Day and bask in the sweet smell of success; feeling sure that my hard earned cash would eventually filter through into helping the club fulfill it’s potential. Of course, it may well have went towards an extra drink in a Spanish bordello to achieve the ‘full potential’ of one of our overpaid directors of the past, but life is all about perception.

The perception now is that the club don’t even feel the need to create the illusion of ambition. Officials have dumbed down things so much and created a myth whereby fans are sold the notion that there is clear a choice between cheap tickets and competitiveness.

This is of course a complete falsehood, but is a natural enough result after six years of abuse, erosion of trust and the emergence of a club PR campaign. Under this assault, many fans have been turned into hysterical fannies -whereby each game exists in its own vacuum. Debate about policy should exist within a wider framework than just the latest result.

The regime can’t do an about turn and ask everyone to participate in building a truly successful club because their lack of understanding on how to properly engage the people of  this fair city is now evident in abundance. They neither aspire to silverware or Europe. We exist in a kind of limbo; “Walking in a Pardew Hinterland” should be our seasonal song. I suggest you keep as much of your money as possible until such times as we have the right conditions to grow under a different regime.

But make no mistake, they crave your money and attendance. The flow legitimises the whole sordid process. If this is not so, why did Derek Llambias go nose to nose with a fan at a meeting in the dark days of 2009 and tell him to “call off your f**cking boycott” (I hasten to add no such boycott was threatened).

They fear fan power and our lot is an existential conundrum which will remain long enough so that I can explore these themes further in the future. Having mentioned philosophy, I can only hope that if we fail to capture any more Gallic players in January, you at least explore the work of such French artisans as Sartre, de Beauvoir and Descartes and apply their wisdom to your NUFC lives: “I think therefore I am…anti regime”

Happy New Year!

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