In another of a series of articles from NUST members, Phil Hornsby sets out his views on the current situation at NUFC.
These are difficult times being a Newcastle United Supporter. I have supported the club for over 40 years and in my view what as a supporter group we are facing at present, compares equally unfavourably with any of the low times in my past experience.
However, we have always found a way forward and I believe we are now doing so again.
I saw my first Newcastle United Game on the 20th March 1970, a 3-1 win against Stoke. However, it was not until the second half of the 1976/77 Season that I started going regularly. We finished 5th and qualified for Europe. The following season we were relegated. Sounds familiar!
My time of supporting Newcastle I will divide into 3 distinct periods:
1977-1990: The club was run by a board of directors who consisted of local businessmen and solicitors whose positions were largely inherited having been passed onto them by their fathers. The chairmen over this period of time were Lord Westwood, Bob Rutherford, Stan Seymour Jnr and Gordon McKeag.
1990-2007: Hall/ Shepherd era
2007-the not too distant future: Mike Ashley
I am going to reflect on these three periods of time and discuss how Newcastle United’s evolution since 1977 within the context of the changes in football and society, mean that as a supporter group and as part of the Magpie Group, I believe we can be confident of being part of the catalyst for effective change in how our club is run.
1977-1990: Lord Westwood et al
There are clear parallels to be drawn with the current situation. The Ashley era is increasingly becoming a painful reminder to supporters of my generation of what supporting Newcastle was like for those first thirteen years.
On the field, the team suffered two relegations. Much of the time was spent meandering in the old second division, going nowhere. Of course there were false dawns, the biggest of which was the two seasons when Kevin Keegan played for the team and led us to promotion. This opportunity was squandered with the manager, Arthur Cox leaving before we kicked off back in the First Division after a dispute with the board about his contract.
We had 3 outstanding players around which a successful team could have been built: Peter Beardsley, Chris Waddle and Paul Gascoigne. All were sold and not adequately replaced.
The quality of managers, Arthur Cox aside were middling to poor.
Supporters today complain, rightly, about the neglect at the ground. However St James Park like many other grounds at this time, was a disgrace. Stories about the state of the toilets in the Gallowgate End told by those of us who experienced them are the stuff of legends, but true! The old Leazes End was demolished and replaced by a high wall with a bit of terracing in front. This was because after the planned redevelopment started the money ran out. Following the Bradford City Fire, priority had to be given to demolishing and rebuilding the West Stand, which became the Milburn Stand. Those of us who sat in that old West Stand can only think there but for the grace of God, goodness knows what those enforcing modern day fire regulations would have made of it.
In summary this was a time of austerity and lack of ambition. Like today, supporters knew the potential that existed and were frustrated by the direction the board of directors took the club in. These were local men who undoubtedly supported the team. However, they had largely inherited their positions at the club. To coin a phrase, Newcastle United was “The Family Silver” and maintaining their control was more important than meeting the aspirations of supporters and they were unwilling to sanction the investment required to make us competitive in the First Division.
However, supporters were unable or unwilling to ever effectively take any positive action due to the difficulties in communication as compared to the present day, and a stoical attitude of acceptance. Speaking personally, it is a desire not to allow the club to regress to this type of situation for the long term again which is a significant motivation now.
1990-2007: John Hall/ Freddy Shepherd Era
The original Magpie Group led by John Hall and Freddy Shepherd understood the potential and had the financial resources to tempt stubborn but greedy men to part with their shares and sell their inheritance.
The achievements of our football team over this period are well known. Although there were disappointing times under the managerial reigns of Dalglish, Gullitt, Souness and Roeder ( although we did reach the FA Cup Final twice), it is the periods when the team was under the guidance of Keegan and Robson that are best remembered; we competed at the business end of the Premier League and European Football was a regularity.
Although there is controversy about their legacy and their stewardship, of course they sold up to Mike Ashley making a huge amount of money, it is the positive aspects of their legacy I am focusing on this article.
This was the time when the club realised its potential both on and off the field. Aside from the achievements of the team, sell out crowds became commonplace, commercial revenues were a significant source of income and we now have a stadium of which we can be proud, “ The cathedral on the hill”. Whether we like it or not, this coincided with Sky televising the Premier League and the exposure they provided significantly increased our profile.
The memory of this period I view as being very significant in the perception of our club today and why to quote Oliver Holt , he regards us as “ a top six club”. It is still relatively recent and a very significant driver in our efforts at this time.
2007-Present Day: Mike Ashley
I do not need to chronicle the misery of this period, other than to say it is increasingly becoming a mirror of my earlier years supporting the club.
The Times are a Changin!
Times have changed and this is the reason why I believe we can be optimistic. The world is a smaller place. Between 1977 and 1990, the travails of Newcastle United were of little interest to the national media, who being based in London and Manchester focused on the fortunes of the clubs in those regions. The misery of the Newcastle supporters were of little consequence.
Up until Rafa Benitez became our manager, I think it would be fair to describe the attitude of the vast majority of Newcastle Supporters, including myself under the Ashley Regime as again having become stoical. We accepted the indignities inflicted upon us with little protest other than a shrug of the shoulders and looking forward to the next false dawn.
Rafa aware of the recent history of the club knew its potential, has reawakened the club with all parts connected apart the owner. Links have been re-established in the community and in some cases expanded.
Rafa has been the catalyst but what else has happened. Social Media now exists at a level enabling much easier communication. This has been fully utilised by ourselves in coming together to work towards effective change. John Gibson once described trying to organise Newcastle Supporters as like “trying to herd cats!” I think we have put this one to bed.
Our efforts have been recognised in both the local but more importantly the national media. We have had Ian Wright on BBC 5 Live and Jake Humphries on BT Sport not holding back in their criticism of the regime. Sky seems to be taking a more balanced approach with contributions from Steve Howey, Jamie Carragher and the Custis Brothers. ( I do wonder if this reflects a change in attitude, so instead of broadcasting cushy interviews between Ashley and Craigy, they are now distinctly unimpressed that given the large sums of money the club have received from Sky, this has not been reflected in investment in the team, and consequently the televised product has been diminished).
Apart from the excellent reporting of George Caulkin, Luke Edwards, Mark Douglas and other local Journalists we have support from influential national journalists such as Henry Winter, Oliver Holt and David Conn.
I must mention the contributions of Dennis Wise, Richard Keys and Andy Gray amongst others. I have enjoyed listening to their opinions. Why? It reflects how out of touch Ashley is that he chooses to uses these type of discredited individuals to argue his case. The saying, “When you are in a hole stop digging” could not be more appropriate. Their utterings only add strength to our cause.
Newcastle is now recognised nationally as a vibrant thriving city whose profile has significantly grown. Our football club is an institution within the city whose progress at the start of the century reflected the development that was taking place making Newcastle a very significant social, cultural and economic centre. Ashley’s lack of respect for the club is seen increasingly at national level as an insult to the city.
We are winning the argument and as our situation is now becoming one increasingly discussed in the national media, this in turn is increasing the focus on Sports Direct, and the unethical way he runs this business. Ashley’s discomfort must be increasing daily.
If we continue our efforts the pressure from all sources on him will continue to increase and he will sell eventually. We can only hope the damage inflicted beforehand is minimised.
We have momentum, let’s keep it going!