James Lawton: Newcastle fans: deal with it. That's modern football for you

Did you think, after all the warnings to the contrary, that he would ring-fence the name?

James Lawton
Friday 11 November 2011 01:00
Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley has poured millions into the club
Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley has poured millions into the club

All right, bonnie lads, get it all out, all the rage and the disillusionment, assuming there is still much of it left under those rip-off souvenir shirts, but when the latest instalment is spent, maybe you should ask yourselves a question.

This may sound slightly callous at the death of the proud name of St James' Park and you're right, Sports Direct Arena doesn't have quite the same pull on the heart-strings; indeed, if it was any less romantic it would be a strong rival to the enchantingly named home of LA Galaxy, the Home Depot Center, but the necessary query is this: exactly what football planet do you imagine you're living on?

After all these years, after the Halls and the Shepherds of this world, saying one thing in one breath, plundering in another, making mugs of you and all the time getting a little richer out of your faith in the idea of a football club, your football club existing beyond the demands of business or the egos of owners who can, at least for a while, take the financial hit, what do you really expect of an operator like Mike Ashley?

Did you imagine, after all the warnings to the contrary, that he would ring-fence the sacred name of St James', where Jackie Milburn worked his sleek, home-grown magic and his young relatives the Charlton Boys spent their grocery round money on their expeditions from their mining town to the metropolitan splendour of Gallowgate?

Do you think any of that registers for a second in the world of Mike Ashley and his business partners?

Surely not because if one unpalatable truth has been rammed into every English football fan this last decade or so it is that he can no longer for a moment imagine himself as some scurrying figure on a Lowry canvas on his way to The Match.

St James' Park, like all the other parks, Burnden in Bolton, Roker down the road in Sunderland and Ayresome in Middlesbrough, were the beating hearts of the community. Sports Direct Arena, let's give Ashley and his partners some credit for honesty, is a newly created business opportunity.

Buy the name and the shirts and it doesn't matter if you sell airline tickets, as those whose names decorate the Etihad Stadium of Manchester City and the Emirates of Arsenal do, or insurance or mortgages, one stroke of the pen and more than a hundred years of highly emotional history drops into your business portfolio.

What we can be pretty sure of is a certain degree of bemusement in the heart of Mike Ashley today.

What do these people want? He might wonder about this after running his eyes over his accounts, totting up the hundreds of millions he he has now invested in Newcastle United and noting that after decades of futility, and his making a decision that some said was the most heartless and egregious in the history of the club, they are now sitting in the mythic top four, unbeaten and with Alan Pardew, a manager who had to run a gauntlet of anger and contempt, pulling strings with some of the inspiration of Kevin Keegan in those early days.

What they want, of course, is everything and, unfortunately, in English football this is no longer possible. You can't have the backing of a man for whom life has been one long battle to turn a business profit or some great Middle Eastern conglomerate or Russian oligarch and still expect the warmth of some community endeavour. Such desires can no longer be joined up.

So what is the solution? There isn't one this side of the extremely unlikely possibility that the Premier League is prepared to create a huge revolution in the working of the top flight of English football and do what the Bundesliga does.

This is to forbid any majority control of a single football club by a single business interest. Forty-nine per cent interest, fine, but no more than that because the Germans in their wisdom do understand business – it is probably why they remain the last hope of financial reality on Europe. They understand that business will always be business, which means in the end that the profit motive will always be supreme, and that the idea that the name of a football stadium can ever again be more important than a major injection of income is at the very best quaint.

The president of Barcelona, who probably understands that the financial affairs of his club and their great rivals Real Madrid are somewhat less than models of shining decorum, was saying only the other day that ultimately the club would always be independent, always in the control of its fans, whatever hazardous terrain that might involve.

In the shadow of the Sports Direct Arena it is, of course the purest fantasy. But then for some years so it had been in the old place called St James' Park.

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