It was strange watching Newcastle-Spurs last Sunday. All those empty seats. All those motionless, emotionless fans. All those echoes, like being in Kentish Town pool. Yet for decades, Geordies have been the best, the noisiest in the land. That honour has now been taken by the fans of a club only half its size – Crystal Palace. You should see them jumping, from first to final whistle, even when there’s nothing to jump about.
Then an old-fashioned plane could be heard fluttering and stuttering over St James’ Park, as if Biggles was coming on as super sub. I assumed the TV people wouldn’t let us see it, having spotted it was pulling some obscene and libellous comment about Mike Ashley, the owner of Newcastle United. But they gave us a quick shot, and the little plane was indeed being followed by a banner which read, “5 IN A ROW –SUNDERLAND”.
Anyone switching on by chance would have been totally confused. You had to know that Sunderland are the deadly rivals of Newcastle, recently thumping them for the fifth consecutive time. Where on earth did the Sunderland fans get the money for a plane and a banner, just to go har har har?
Then the Spurs fan, in the almost silent arena, could be clearly heard chanting, “Jermain Defoe, he’s a Yiddo.” This again takes some explaining. Defoe used to play for Spurs and they loved him dearly, preferring him to all their rubbish foreign strikers. He now plays for Sunderland and scored a wonder goal in their recent thumping of Newcastle. Har har.
So, poor old Newcastle fans – they’d organised a day of demonstrations, with marches and banners, and got thousands to boycott the game – only for Sunderland and Spurs fans to have all the fun of mocking them.
They hate Ashley – well, for existing, really, and buying their beloved club – but then, because it is doing badly they have to blame somebody.
In the long history of English football, there have been two sorts of owners. For the first hundred years or so from 1885, when footer went professional, directors of clubs were on the whole benevolent if rather bumbling local butchers, bakers, businessmen, solicitors. They saw it as public service, helping the community. They inherited their love of their local club and also some shares. The ancient, long-established, famous clubs, such as Arsenal or Aston Villa, had some rather grand families that passed down the shares through the generations (as with David Cameron’s at Villa) but mainly the directors were tradesmen.
It is true that among them would be directors who were in it for egotistical or social reasons, to get in with the golf club crowd or to help their business, but essentially they were altruistic. Money was not the motive. In fact, money did not come into it.
As late as 1972, when I spent a lot of time with the Spurs directors, working on a book about the club, none of them was paid, nor had they put any money into the club. There were no advertisements in the programmes, none inside the ground, and no sponsors’ names on their much-loved shirts. Arsenal was the same. Perish the thought of anything smacking of commercialism sullying their reputation. They were above making money.
Today, that is the main point for most owners – and most of it comes not from the fans at the turnstiles as in the old days, but from commerce and TV.
Most owners have to be rich to start with, or have access to riches, and are in it for financial gain or some commercial advantage. Mike Ashley clearly sees his ownership as a benefit to his firm Sports Direct. He had no prior connection with Newcastle or the club.
There are far worse owners, many of them absentees, sucking their club dry, or using it to give themselves and their money respectability. Chelsea fans feared Roman Abramovic when he arrived, suspecting his motives. We still don’t know what they are. Vanity, boredom, contacts, amusement? But he’s still there and even appears to have fallen in love with the club. Unlike most of today’s new owners and investors.
But this is the nature of modern football. There is no going back. Fans have to realise that, for most of us, most of the time, our duty is to suffer, and perhaps have a few har har laughs along the way…