Newcastle United: How a football club ‘lost its soul’

CNN  — 

Every other week 50,000 fans of an English Premier League team flock to the city’s soccer cathedral to cheer on a club that hasn’t won a trophy for over half a century.

But it’s not Newcastle United’s inability to end an exhaustive wait for silverware that is troubling a sizeable chunk of its supporters.

Its billionaire British owner has seemingly perfected a method for squeezing every last cent out of a club that made a $28 million profit for 2013/14, while appearing content to let it tread water in sporting terms.

The English Premier League team is deep in a trough of form, defeat at Liverpool on Monday its fifth in a row, and could yet be sucked into another bitter battle to avoid relegation.

But an under performing team is only part of the problem.

Many supporters feel betrayed by a perceived poverty of ambition from Mike Ashley, who they accuse of allying the club to “tacky” brands and prioritising profit over performance since his takeover in 2007.

“A zombie club,” is how one Newcastle fanzine describes United’s current state. “An empty shell,” cries another.

Newcastle is renowned in soccer circles for the passion of its fans.

The joke goes the club could schedule a friendly for two days’ time in Timbuktu and a clutch of hardy souls would still make the trip.

But patience is running thin. The four-time English champions’ last domestic trophy was secured 60 years ago and it hasn’t won anything of note since 1969.

Ashley stands accused of not investing enough in the squad, selling the club’s best players and being content merely to survive in order to milk the huge riches on offer from multi-billion dollar television deals.

Yet despite the discontent, 50,000 disciples ritually flock up Gallowgate Hill on a match day to pack the Premier League’s third biggest stadium for every home game.

There might be a few less sporting the famous black and white stripes on Sunday though, as disillusioned fans call for a boycott of the clash with Spurs in protest at the club’s apparent stagnation.

“When Ashley rolled into town you thought ‘We’ve got this mega-rich, English businessman in the sports industry, what could possibly go wrong?’” Mark Jensen, editor of The Mag fanzine, told CNN.

“Our place in his business empire appears to underpin the rest of it. The eternal optimists keep thinking he’s going to reach a point where he says ‘I’m going to invest in players, and we’re going to plan to be successful.’

“He’s been in charge nearly eight years now and any sane person can tell that’s not going to happen.

“The club have said that cup competitions aren’t a priority and they mean it. To remain in the Premier League is the overall aim. But survival – what does that offer fans?”

Ashley is a fabulously wealthy man, and a controversial one.

He has grown his Sports Direct empire significantly since acquiring Newcastle, piggybacking on the Premier League’s profound global reach to spread its name far and wide.

From a turnover of $1.8 billion in 2006, it recently announced a “record” 15% rise in annual pre-tax profits to $359.8m and a turnover of $4.05bn. There are stores in 19 European countries and an expansion into Australia and New Zealand is planned.

But the company, whose logo is plastered all over Newcastle’s St James’ Park stadium, has been criticised for employing an estimated 75% of its staff on zero-hour contracts — that guarantee no set hours each week.

The retailer’s chairman, Keith Hellawell, told a British parliamentary committee that 15,000 of its 19,000 staff were on such terms, arguing it offered flexibility for what is, predominantly, a young workforce.

The club argues it is unable to compete with the untold riches at the disposal of fellow top flight clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City, and Ashley has tried desperately to drive up revenue.

The 123-year-old St James’ was temporarily renamed The Sports Direct Arena in 2011 to try and attract a naming sponsor. It was a move that infuriated fans.

And the decision to sign a shirt sponsorship deal with payday loans company Wonga is one that stoked anger in what is, traditionally, one of the most economically deprived regions of the country.

“Like a lot of fans, I think (the association) is cheap and tacky and undermines the values of what the club stands for,” the leader of Newcastle City Council, Nick Forbes, told CNN.

“As leader of the council it really concerns me we’ve got a toxic brand like Sports Direct, with the zero hours culture it promotes, and Wonga and the payday loans it promotes. To have both of those concepts sponsoring our football club is deeply unfortunate.

“As a council we are having increasingly to pick up the pieces of people whose lives have been shattered both by zero hours contracts and by loan sharks.

“Newcastle United has such brand recognition it penetrates into some of our poorer communities in a way that others can’t and I find it absolutely appalling that’s the message they get.

“It doesn’t feel that there’s any social responsibility.

“Because there’s only one Newcastle United I think there’s a reliance on fans as cash cows to keep supporting the club come what may.

“I think there’s been a calculated business decision to keep milking that cash cow without generating the football returns that people expect.”

Sports Direct declined to respond when contacted by CNN and questions to both Wonga and Newcastle United were unanswered.

While Ashley’s appetite to grow his retail business appears limitless, he has insisted on a far more frugal modus operandi at Newcastle.

The club seeks to unearth bargains in foreign markets then sell them on for huge profits when they reach peak value.

United’s stated aim is a 10th place finish or higher in the Premier League while the two domestic cup competitions are “not a priority.”

But Newcastle are on an unquestionably sound financial footing.

Ashley has turned a traditionally debt-laden outfit into one that turned an $28.05 million profit in the 2013/14 season, recent accounts showing it had a $51m surplus in its bank accounts.

The club’s managing director Lee Charnley trumpeted the figures as a “reflection of the prudent and measured manner in which we operate.”

But fans are at a loss to explain why a man whose fortune amounts to $4.5 billion, according to Forbes, seems so reluctant to chase success for a club that is the 19th wealthiest in Europe.

“People are miserable, fed up,” Forbes added. “Newcastle’s current performance is like a permanent cloud over the city.

“The club feels soulless — an island. In the same way the senior management doesn’t have any engagement with fans, they don’t have any engagement with the city either.

“People have worked out the current owner has a business model, which is participating in the Premier League but not winning it.

“What people see is a disinterested owner, interested only in the cash the business generates, not the trophies it could produce.”

Just like last year, Newcastle are stumbling towards the end-of-season finishing line.

In January 2014 it sold its star player Yohan Cabaye to Paris-Saint Germain for $28.5m, making a cool $22.5m profit in the process.

No replacement was hired, the money was banked and its season quickly nosedived. A year on, history is repeating itself.

Manager Alan Pardew left for Crystal Palace — a much smaller English top flight club — and was replaced by his assistant, John Carver and Newcastle signed no new players.

They have won two out of 14 games since and its threadbare squad contains only two fit defenders. They are leaking goals, losing games and haemorrhaging confidence.

Fans, having suffered one relegation under Ashley’s ownership in 2009, are fearful of another. Protests have been audible at matches, now the Toon Army are planning to vote with their feet.

“There has been a numbness and with Ashley twice failing to sell Newcastle, there has also been a powerlessness,” George Caulkin, north east correspondent for The Times newspaper, told CNN.

“A huge part of the North East tradition is simply turning up at the football — turning up no matter how bad it gets, turning up and bearing witness, turning up and singing, turning up, regardless.

“It is like being locked in a loveless marriage. The fact some people are now considering not turning up at all shows how much alienation is around.”

Mark Douglas, who covers United for two local papers The Chronicle and The Journal, says fans find it hard to believe the club when it says it will invest healthily in the summer.

“Most Newcastle fans say they’ve heard all that before,” Douglas explained. “It’s the second season that it has drifted after Christmas and it’s created this toxic atmosphere.

“They have lost all the faith and belief of the supporters who don’t believe in what Ashley is trying to do any more. The identity of the club has been lost in the last seven or eight years.

“It has culminated in a feeling that this club is happy just to exist. They’re not interested in glory or in winning things any more. You can see it in the way the players are the results have gone.

“It’s a slow evaporation of what NUFC is all about.”

In the early 90s, Newcastle were dubbed ‘The Entertainers’ for a swashbuckling style under manager Kevin Keegan, and came close to winning the Premier League in 1995/96.

After losing successive finals of the FA Cup — England’s premier cup competition — in 1998 and 99, the late Sir Bobby Robson led Newcastle to a third placed finish in the Premier League in 2001/02 and into the European Champions League.

Keegan returned at the start of the Ashley’s reign but later resigned in protest at how the club operated. Fans demonstrated and Ashley vowed to sell, but he could not find a buyer.

Keegan was subsequently awarded $3m by an independent arbitration panel, that rejected some of the club’s evidence as “profoundly unsatisfactory.”

Newcastle finished fifth in 2012, narrowly missing out on a return to Europe’s top club competition, as a slew of signings gelled together. Finishes in the Premier League of 16th and 10th have followed.

But while those flirtations with glory under Keegan and Robson have shown fans could be possible, Douglas says the ambitions of supporters are much more grounded these days.

“Newcastle’s fans are often painted as delusional, believing that they should be regularly in with a shout of winning the league,” Douglas explained. “Having lived and worked here for eight years that idea is complete rubbish.

“What Newcastle fans want to see is a club that, even if it fails, it is at least trying to be the best it can be. That means attempting to win things, taking a few risks.

“It could be a northern powerhouse. At the moment, it’s almost a shell of a club, it exists just to exist and that’s not what fans want from a club that is supposed to represent the city much better.”

There have been protests before but Ashley has ridden the storm.

Whether a groundswell of support for the boycott on social media translates into an embarrassing number of empty seats in what is a televised match on Sunday, remains to be seen.

But even if it does, fans are unlikely to hear what their publicity-shy owner thinks about it.

“Does Ashley care? As it is impossible to get close to him, so it is impossible to answer,” Caulkin explained.

“The evidence of recent years will probably make him feel he can just about get away with anything and people will still troop through the turnstiles. Is that different now?

“In the final analysis, he’ll only go when someone meets his asking price, but there can be a value in protest for protest’s sake, in saying that this is not good enough, that more should be expected, that a club is not just about profit margins but a collection of human beings brought together for a common cause.

“Sometimes a howl of anguish is all that there is left.”