If Rafa Goes, We Go: can fans really change the way a football club is run?

A supporter-led movement at Newcastle United aims to convince unpopular owner Mike Ashley to change his ways.

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“Football,” said the former Celtic manager Jock Stein, “is nothing without fans.” And that is the very real fate Newcastle United are facing under the ownership of Mike Ashley. The billionaire businessman, who also owns the discount sportswear chain Sports Direct, has used and abused the Premier League club for over a decade, but this summer his unpopularity on Tyneside has hit new heights.

In alienating and undermining his antithesis – man of the people manager Rafael Benítez – Ashley risks turning supporters away in their droves. And a fan-led movement – If Rafa Goes, We Go – has sprouted from social media to protest Ashley’s perceived chronic lack of investment in the club he bought for £134m in 2007. The movement’s message is simple: a failure to back Benítez sufficiently in the transfer market and provide him with the training facilities he deems necessary in order to commit his long-term future to the club, will result in a mass cancellation of season tickets and a boycott of all Newcastle-related merchandise.

While in fairness, match-day turnstile revenue accounts for only a fraction of Newcastle’s income in a modern era of football buoyed by broadcast money, the reality of an empty St James’ Park on television, covered in Sports Direct logos, is not one Ashley would consider ideal. Neither is the departure of the world-class coach who has managed not only to temporarily placate the fan base that has hated him for years, but who delivered the Championship title in 2017 and a top-half Premier League finish with only a modest net expenditure the following year.

Ashley, who allegedly wants to sell the club after a decade during which he has overseen two relegations from the top flight, at least appears to understand the value of Benítez in that objective. Benítez, a manager of indisputable pedigree, is Newcastle’s prized asset. He has won major trophies in Spain, England and Italy, including the Champions League in 2005. If Ashley hiring him was his greatest achievement as Newcastle owner, then losing him would be his gravest mistake.

Although Benítez himself, keen to stay on Tyneside for the sake of its commutability to his family home in Liverpool, has expressed an interest in being Newcastle manager for the next “five to ten years”, the former Real Madrid boss is not prepared to sign an extension on his current deal, which runs out next summer, until Ashley has shown he can match his ambitions. Seeing the club’s vast potential, Benítez says that he wants Newcastle to compete at a level that is above simply staving off the drop and has a vision to turn them into a stable top-half outfit, potentially challenging for a spot in the Europa League.

Under Ashley’s ownership, Newcastle have been anything but stable. Within the context of a parsimonious transfer strategy – the club’s average net spend annually over the past ten years is £6.5m – the club have spent more time in the second tier of English football than they have in European competition. In the 14 years prior to Ashley’s arrival, it is worth noting, Newcastle finished in the Premier League’s top seven on eight occasions, enjoyed multiple campaigns in the UEFA Cup or Champions League, and reached two FA Cup finals.  

Ashley’s ownership is reviled by Newcastle fans not just for its unambitious approach – the club’s transfer record remains the £16m paid for Michael Owen in 2005 – but for its dishonest and disrespectful nature. He lost an employment tribunal to former Newcastle manager and club legend Kevin Keegan, after Ashley and his board sanctioned player purchases and loans without Keegan’s say-so.

In 2011, Ashley temporarily renamed the club’s stadium The Sports Direct Arena in order to “showcase” the pull of naming rights. In 2013, he commissioned a report on why winning trophies was actively harmful to the club’s fortunes. Factor in the numerous press embargos – Ashley has banned more newspapers and journalists from St James’ Park than Newcastle have won FA Cup ties in the past decade – and his series of crony appointments in the boardroom, and it is easy to see why Newcastle fans feel that his ownership is not working.

Newcastle’s last relegation in 2015-16, Ashley claimed, meant that the 2016-17 promotion campaign was operating at a significant loss. Yet the club’s accounts, released to the public and spun by Ashley’s preferred PR agency Keith Bishop Associates, failed to acknowledge impending income from player sales and the fact that a significant chunk of the wage bill for that season was made up of one-off costs such as promotion bonuses. However much Ashley wishes they were, Newcastle fans are not stupid.

Even if Newcastle spent the 2016-17 season operating at a loss, their return to the top flight and share of the Premier League’s TV money for 2017-18, should mean that there is cash for Benítez to spend this summer. Yet, at the time of writing, Newcastle have signed just three players in the transfer window: Ki Sung-yueng on a free transfer from Swansea City, Kenedy on loan from Chelsea and Martin Dúbravka for £4m from Sparta Prague.

When Ashley attempted to justify his lack of spending in an interview with Sky Sports conducted by a client of Keith Bishop Associates, the presenter David Craig, he said that he was unable to “compete with the likes of Manchester City”. This summer, Newcastle have been outspent by five clubs in the division below them, while raising replica shirt prices at seven times the rate of inflation.

At the end of the 2017-18 season, which saw Newcastle finish tenth in the table, Ashley released a rare written statement via the club’s website in which he promised that Benítez could have “every penny generated by the club” to improve his squad. Newcastle received around £120m in prize money for their league position as well as £100m from the TV deal, but Benítez confirmed in an interview with the Newcastle Evening Chronicle that he had been forced to “wheel and deal” in the transfer market.

The If Rafa Goes, We Go movement, essentially, represents the final straw of a fan base that is tired of being misled; and it is already causing problems for Ashley. An orchestrated Twitter campaign has been sabotaging Sports Direct’s online marketing and it has been raised by Newcastle Central MP Chi Onwurah in the House of Commons as part of a crackdown on “exploitative” ownership in football. Should Ashley fail to act this summer, protests in and around St James’ Park are on the cards, and should Benítez feel his position is unworkable by the end of next season, Ashley at long last will have done enough damage to put off a fan base completely.

Of course, Ashley’s apparent reluctance to run Newcastle properly is counter-productive. He claims he wants to sell the club, but has rejected offers north of £250m for it. He says he wants Benítez to stay on as manager, but won’t allow him the funds to improve his squad. If all Ashley cares about is advertising and money, as many Newcastle fans suspect is the case, it makes no sense that he should self-sabotage in the way that he does. A Newcastle managed by Rafael Benítez and in the top half of the Premier League will generate far more money than a Newcastle outside of the division and with no fans.

It is important to understand that the If Rafa Goes, We Go movement is not about Newcastle fans laying claim to being the hardest done by. The movement respects the plights of Leeds, Aston Villa, Coventry and other clubs who have experienced difficult ownership. But it is not a question of who has had it the worst. It is a question of what fans are prepared to do about it.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.