Newcastle

“I want to have fun and win some trophies,” said Mike Ashley soon after assuming control in 2007. The wait for a major trophy now extends over half a century but it is the fact that his 14 years in charge were the opposite of fun that Newcastle fans will not forgive.

Failure, there has been plenty of that. He has presided over two of Newcastle’s six relegations in their 129-year history. Farce, that has been a more frequent visitor to St James’ Park than Ashley himself. But fun has never been a friend to his Newcastle.

During his time in charge, the one-time entertainers of English football were reduced to a grim curiosity. The rest of the country gawped in disbelief. Supporters merely endured.

Icons were alienated, interlopers overpromoted. Money was spent sporadically and begrudgingly, the investment intermittent and haphazard. Strategy was absent. When it did emerge it was about no more than ticking over. Nobody could mistake it for ambition.

Under Ashley, this became a zombie club, an illusion of life.

In truth, Newcastle were not exactly thriving when he arrived. Sam Allardyce was in the dugout and being greeted by those now-familiar chants of ‘we’re **** and we’re sick of it’ that have come to sum up the prevailing perma-mood in the Gallowgate End.

Albeit briefly, there had once been hope, talk of fun seemingly backed up by Kevin Keegan’s appointment. It was a brazenly crowd-pleasing move designed to buy acclaim and breathe new life into the club and the city. It only made the betrayals more difficult to bear.

Keegan was undermined by the incongruous presence of Dennis Wise, then replaced by Joe Kinnear. It was a bizarre turn of events that would culminate in Alan Shearer overseeing relegation, being promised the chance to rebuild, before being ignored by Ashley.

In the aftermath, Keegan successfully sued for constructive dismissal. The club bar was renamed Nine Bar with Shearer’s name expunged from history. It was petty and it was typical, turning what should have been an easy win into a touchstone for discontent.

They could write books about Newcastle’s public relations skills or lack thereof. Some of it requires no elaboration, such as the renaming of St James’ Park as the Sports Direct Arena.

Other aspects are more troubling, such as Jonas Gutierrez’s disability discrimination claim, so poorly was he treated by the club after suffering from testicular cancer.

If the aim was to strip supporters of any pride, their record against rivals Sunderland only underlined the point. It is a decade since Newcastle won that fixture, the draw last time out in 2016 ending an improbable run of six consecutive defeats in the Tyne-Wear derby.

A fan even punched a horse.

This was the banter era but the banter was to be had elsewhere. Even the little victories were bittersweet. It took a payday loan sponsorship to restore St James’ Park name. When Alan Pardew took the team to fifth, it came with an eight-year contract.

Pardew was always an odd fit, saddled by the ‘cockney mafia’ claims that dogged Wise and Kinnear. At least John Carver, the league’s self-proclaimed best coach, understood the area but his presence as manager was indicative of the mess that Newcastle had become.

A second relegation followed in 2016.

By that point, Ashley, who had first indicated his willingness to sell as long ago as 2008, was merely out to protect his asset, Rafael Benitez buying time and wins. The Spaniard’s relationship with the fans became something to cling to but when he’d had enough and was replaced by Steve Bruce even that treat was denied for supporters.

Bruce, an amiable Geordie, has not been well received, his Sunderland links adding to the sense that his connection to the club was overblown, his existence in the role evidence of the paucity of ambition that had long since gripped the club. The football was boring, the future bleak. There was no grand vision for Bruce to sell.

“I hope I can keep the club just ticking along,” he said in September, unwittingly providing supporters with a revealing insight into the mentality that has summed up Ashley’s reign. Of course, that was no hope at all but it was the best that he could offer.

He knew the remit. Everyone knew the remit.

Newcastle have been a little more attacking of late. They still have not seen much of the ball but there have been more bodies in the box when they have had it. And yet, the change has not translated into goals or results, only exposing the team’s defensive frailties.

Bruce described the West Ham game as ‘smashing’ while the Leeds one was ‘terrific’. The trip to Aston Villa was ‘encouraging’ and the visit of Southampton full of ‘positives’, while the Newcastle manager took to praising the clean sheet in the cup against Burnley.

Fans might have bought it had they won any of those matches.

Welcome to the wonderful world of Newcastle United and its incessant double speak. This is a football club that has seemed determined to gaslight the people of an entire city. It was not the lack of success causing anger but the owner’s apparent apathy. It felt like he was failing in his duty of care.

Still they turned up, selling out away allocations despite some of the longest trips facing any travelling fans in the land. The chants for their team have been customarily interspersed with those long since forlorn calls for Ashley to get out of their club.

Now he is going, there is hope anew. The identity of the new owners, said to be a Saudi consortium, is an uncomfortable addendum but, for the fans, perhaps that is a concern for another day. Right now, there will be only relief. Ashley’s reign is at its end.

No trophies and no fun.

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