Newcastle United 1 Bolton Wanderers 0: Predator Owen strikes as reality bites at Newcastle
Monday 25 August 2008
Two good happenings at St James' Park on Saturday: first, not everybody turned up; second, Michael Owen scored a goal. What unites the two events is money.
In case anyone has forgotten, the sponsors on Newcastle United's shirts are Northern Rock, the Tyneside-based bank that in decades to come will be recalled as the symbol of a nationwide economic downturn.
The spasms of Northern Rock's financial earthquake are being felt daily and go far beyond the local 1,300 job losses announced by the bank in July. This is about a feeling as well as the physical experience of financial insecurity.
Those are reasons for the attendance of 47,711 – Newcastle's lowest in the Premier League at the expanded stadium.
There are various schemes to get fans to buy season tickets but £494 is regarded as the cheapest for an adult, though to get it you have to pledge to go for three seasons. In the current climate, it is a commitment to make people think. Add a summer filled with rumours about owner Mike Ashley's intentions – which he has clarified, though much too late – concern about Kevin Keegan's authority and an absence of early major signings, and you have explanations for nearly 5,000 empty seats at a club where the most important element is the crowd.
It was still England's biggest on Saturday, and 4,000 up on Sunderland versus Liverpool. But it was still striking for Newcastle to have cash turnstiles. Reality has bitten.
"You can never take anything for granted in life, never," Keegan said. "I would like to think we're one of cheapest clubs in the Premier League and I think that's right for the area we live in. I don't think we'll be the only club who get affected. The credit crunch is there, there's no doubt about it. Sometimes people think that football can just sail on regardless of what's happening in the world, but it's vulnerable to these things."
Ashley, a High-Street businessman, knows the score, but one wonders if Owen and his advisers are as aware. If we accept that Owen earns a minimum of £5m a year at Newcastle, the idea that he wants more to sign a new contract, or the same again, is breathtaking. A 10-20 per cent cut in the current circumstances would be healthy and heartening for all involved. Owen will not be forced to close his stables.
The argument is that the market dictates these astronomical salaries. Well, the market at St James' has just spoken loudly with its feet.
Owen's talent will endure, as shown when his 71st-minute header won three points. This was a light and decisive touch when others had laboured. Keegan said he has plenty of invention in the team but he needs more. But for Shay Given's 59th minute penalty save from Kevin Nolan this could have been a defeat. Selling tickets for the next home game – against Hull – would have been even harder.
Goal: Owen (71) 1-0.
Newcastle United (4-4-2): Given; Beye, S Taylor, Coloccini, N'Zogbia; Milner, Guthrie, Butt, Gutierrez; Martins (Owen, 53), Duff (Geremi, h-t). Substitutes not used: Harper (gk), Edgar, Bassong, Enrique, Smith.
Bolton Wanderers (4-4-2): Jaaskelainen; Steinsson, Cahill, A O'Brien, Samuel; Muamba, Nolan, J O'Brien (Riga, 85), M Taylor (Gardner, 65); Davies, Elmander (McCann, 15). Substitutes not used: Al Habsi (gk), Shittu, Hunt, Dzemaili.
Referee: S Bennett (Kent).
Booked: Newcastle S Taylor; Bolton J O'Brien, McCann, M Taylor.
Man of match: Given.
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