Mike Ashley has done many things in his time at Newcastle. He has reappointed and deposed Kevin Keegan, the man known on Tyneside as “The Messiah”. He has sacked Alan Shearer, the man who at St James’ Park seemed The Angel of the North made flesh. But Newcastle United’s owner had never, until now, picked a fight with God.
Had the leader of another, more fundamentalist, religion threatened to “drive Wonga out of business” there might have been a proverbial “ring of steel” thrown around Bloomfield Road, which on Sunday staged “The Wonga derby” between two of Britain’s three clubs who are sponsored by the payday loan company.
However, since it was only the Archbishop of Canterbury making the threat, Blackpool v Newcastle was allowed to go ahead. The game was decided by Shola Ameobi’s low drive after only five minutes – the striker’s third in three pre-season games – Newcastle winning 1-0.
Wonga is a gift to those looking to drive football further into the mire. Naturally, as the two sides lined up there would be jokes about everyone giving it 5,853 per cent to quote Wonga’s annual interest rate. In the words of the MP, Chi Onwurah, in whose constituency St James’ Park lies: “Some of the richest young men in Newcastle are wearing shirts calling on the poorest to go to a legal loan shark.” The North-east has the highest rate of personal insolvency in the country.
Even football’s attempt to take a stand against Wonga collapsed into ridicule. Papiss Cissé’s argument that Islam’s ban on charging interest would not allow him to wear a Newcastle shirt this season dissolved when he was photographed in a casino.
The fact that Anzhi Makhachkala, who offer salaries of £15m, were interested in the striker may have had something to do with Cissé hurriedly consulting the Koran’s views on usury.
Manchester United may have an official noodle partner but shirts matter more than any other sponsorship deal. Norwich City have had their shirts sponsored by Colman’s, Lotus and Aviva, companies with roots deep in the soil of Norfolk.
In the days when Newcastle was run by Sir John Hall, he would talk of building a “Barcelona on the Tyne”, bringing back the Geordie diaspora to play at St James’ and giving it a distinct regional identity with its own rugby and ice-hockey clubs. The shirt sponsors were Newcastle Breweries and then Northern Rock.
Under Ashley it has become not Barcelona but Benidorm. The Wonga deal merely extends the cheapening of Newcastle United seen in the renaming of St James’ as The Sports Direct Arena and the appointment of the foul-mouthed Joe Kinnear as director of football.
The Wonga deal at least saw the ground revert to its historic name and provided investment for the club academy at Benton. Nine months after signing up with the company, Blackpool found themselves relegated from the Premier League. The employees of Wonga’s other club, Hearts, might have more direct need of its services since the club is in administration and some players have not been paid for months. A few years ago, another Scottish club, Livingston, went bust with the words “Intelligent Finance” on their shirts.
Having been treated for gambling addiction and been given a £250,000 loan by his former club Ipswich to cover his debts, Blackpool’s newest signing, Michael Chopra, might think that Bet365, who appear on Stoke’s shirts, would be a more unpalatable shirt sponsor.
Earlier this year, Chopra tweeted a picture of a bag stuffed with £20 notes after admitting he could not afford to defend himself against horse racing corruption charges. “Keep tweeting about me being in debt,” he wrote, adding: “#lendmeafiver”. At 5853 per cent, he might need those £20 notes to pay that fiver back.