The Last Word: All is lost when even the Toon Army won't report for duty

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The Independent Football

Back in August 1982, when Kevin Keegan had his first coming as a would-be saviour at St James' Park, on that occasion as a permed striker, Newcastle United staged a grand unveiling at the Gosforth Park Hotel. Russell Cushing, the club's long-serving secretary, stepped up to the microphone and boldly proclaimed: "We've got Kevin and we're in heaven." Quick as a flash, Bob Cass, the veteran North-east football writer, retorted: "It's a good job you didn't sign Ritchie Pitt then."

As it happens, 26 years on, Newcastle could do with a central defender blessed with the kind of skill that Pitt displayed in Sunderland's FA Cup-winning side of 1973, before his career was cut short by injury. Even now, at 55 and with one good knee, the Seaham schoolteacher could fare little worse than the youthful members of the St James' home guard.

Still, when it comes to rhyming slang, Newcastle United are most certainly in the Ritchie Pitt. They are deeply entrenched in the stuff: managerless, rudderless, up for sale and heading for relegation unless they achieve a quick takeover and an equally swift turnover in the backroom department. Achieving those basic stabilising measures might even be the easy part. Regaining the faith of the Newcastle supporters could prove to be a good deal harder.

For all of the soap opera dramatics that have featured at the Tyneside club over the past decade or so, and for all of the underachievement, there has always been an air of optimism among Newcastle fans: a belief that one day, despite it all, the Geordie boat will come in and that eternal wait for silverware will be over. With the departure of Keegan, for a second time as manager, and the dawning that the Mike Ashley empire has been built on sand, that positivity has gone. In its place has settled a pall of negativity to match the black and white shirts.

The sea change has been palpable to those of us who live on Tyneside. I know of long-standing season ticket holders who have vowed never to return. I know of others who cannot bring themselves to talk about their once-beloved club and what has been done to it. And these are highly intelligent individuals: teachers, retired businessmen, scientists.

The swathes of empty seats at St James' for the Carling Cup tie against Spurs and the Premier League fixture against Blackburn spoke volumes. It has been four years since the Bobby Robson era came to grief, when fifth place in the Premiership and failure to qualify for the Champions' League was deemed to be a sackable offence.

Even in the thud and blunder days of Graeme Souness, Glenn Roeder and, to a lesser extent, Sam Allardyce, the bulk of the Toon Army were generally prepared to report for duty, in the hope that one day, somewhere along the line, would be a change for the better. Now they are wondering whatever happened to their likely lads – in the same mournful manner of Bob Ferris, who lamented in the film version of that classic Geordie sitcom: "In the chocolate box of life, the top layer's gone and someone's pinched the orange crème from the bottom."

Not that there appears to be very much sympathy going for the Doom and Gloom Army. Newcastle's followers have long been pilloried by the nation as drama queens stricken by delusions of grandeur. It has not helped that at every pantomime twist of events, the television news crews have chosen to seek the considered opinion of some tattooed loon mumbling something along the incomprehensible lines of Michael, the Geordie porter at Alan Partridge's Travel Tavern. You can imagine the rest of the nation chorusing: "Sorry, didn't understand any of that; just a noise."

Yes, you've got to be joking here. That's what the locals were saying when Joe Kinnear reported for duty as interim manager. The Toon Army were not greatly amused, though the transcript of Kinnear's expletive-thon of a Thursday press conference did bring a smile to even the longest of Geordie faces. Judging by the tone of it, a place may well be found in the future scheme of things at St James' for the chairman of 1.FC Kaiserslautern, former German striker Stefan Kuntz.

As it is, a South African consortium apparently leading the bidding for the Tyneside club seem to be intent on reappointing Keegan as manager. It would take that, or something similarly in tune with the Geordie psyche, to win back the goodwill of the disaffected Toon Army.

It would take much more to restore hope of some long-craved silverware being a possibility somewhere over the rainbow. In the meantime, Newcastle United could be contenders for the Turner Prize: a football club stuck in the Ritchie Pitt.