Sack the board, sack the board, sack the board…

stbI got my hands on my first Newcastle season ticket at the age of 10. My first hero was Imre Varadi, despite his habit of missing nine out of ten chances. What really sucked me in, though, wasn’t the pretty mediocre fare being offered on the pitch but the history of the club. I lay on my bed for hours on end reading great tomes by the likes of John Gibson, memorising the names and exploits of Toon greats like Hughie Gallacher, Jackie Milburn, Frank Brennan and George Robledo. Then something magical happened. I can remember very clearly the minute I found out that Kevin Keegan had signed for Newcastle. I was delivering the Chronicle on my newspaper round in Morpeth and there it was, in black and white. I felt dizzy. When Keegan finally made his debut, after a seemingly endless summer, I was standing in the Gallowgate on a scorching August day, one of the thousands, who Keegan claimed, in his inimitable style, “sucked” the ball into the net. After the game, and a long journey back on the ‘Match Special’, I raced to the bathroom and was promptly sick all over the place.

In the years that followed, I saw Keegan, Beardsley and Waddle lead the line for Newcastle, I witnessed Gascoigne’s debut and enjoyed some of the best quality attacking football I’ve ever seen. I watched on in awe as Newcastle players became England players and wondered whether we were on the brink of an era to match those legendary ones I’d only read about. As spectacular as much of what was happening on the pitch was, though, it was often what was happening on the terraces that captured my imagination. Me and my dad graduated onto the family enclosure in the East Stand (the “benches” as they were known), but I looked and listened on in awe to the roar coming from the Gallowgate and joined in the spine-tingling renditions of the Blaydon Races. The biggest moment in any match was when the Gallowgate deigned to chant “the benches!” at us in the far corner, prompting us to get off our seats and applaud as one. I now realise that it was a bit of a piss take, but at the time it was a matter of great pride. I’ve never been religious, but, to borrow a line from Faithless, this was my church.

Off the field, things were not so rosy. As the more politically ‘switched-on’ were aware, the club was owned by a group of old-school Tory patricians. The finances of the club were a mess and cherished players like Waddle, Gascoigne and Beardsley were sold on the cheap just to balance the books. It broke my heart – and many others too. Gosforth solicitor Gordon McKeag was the chairman and bore the brunt of the fans anger. A “Sack the Board” campaign group emerged, and eventually a group of business men, named the Magpie Group and led by Sir John Hall stepped in to “rescue” the club. For a while, it seemed like the fairy tale was still on. Keegan returned as manager and the Magpie Group’s money, combined with the injection of cash from the new Premier League, put Newcastle back on the map. A new generation of fans flocked to the club and the team was dubbed “The Entertainers”. But something else was happening to football at this time. It was being heavily commercialised and ordinary fans were alternately being priced out of grounds and fleeced for shirts made in sweatshop conditions the Far East. Hall’s successor as chairman, Freddy Shepherd, was even caught bragging about what mugs Newcastle fans were for accepting it all.

The Premier League money had been a poisoned chalice for a lot of working class Newcastle fans. Yes, it delivered Alan Shearer. It even gave us Faustino Asprilla scoring a hat trick against Barcelona in the Champions League. It gave us Bobby Robson and a glimmer of hope that one man might, again, be about to change the history of the club. Great moments. Fantastic moments. But also tinged with a little sadness for those who could no longer afford the high prices being charged for tickets at St James’. Ironically, Newcastle’s own success meant that a lot of fans were left watching great moments like these from pubs in the city or at home. Once the reality bit, and the excitement of the second Keegan era faded, those left inside the ground realised that it was a heavy price to pay. I remember looking around me in the East Stand nearly two decades after I first sat perched on the “benches” and realising that I was surrounded by people in smart shirts, silently taking in the action as if this was a bloody theatre production. It made me angry – but most of all it made me sad, because something seemed to be lost for ever. The atmosphere had gone, certainly, but more than that, something of the soul of the club seemed to have vanished. It was at this point that a lot of loyal fans opted out, and slowly slipped away from St James’ Park. We boycotted, in a way, but our places were taken by others – and the impact was lost. I let my season ticket lapse, then returned with a shared season ticket with my brother-in-law and eventually gave up altogether.

Shepherd’s arrogance and stupidity signalled the final nail in the coffin for the ‘Magpie Group’ era. There was no such fanfare and expectation when Mike Ashley bought the club in 2007. The billionaire owner of Sports Direct had made a fortune using a business model which sees his employees as merely a balance sheet cost – and an expendable one at that. 75% of Sports Direct employees are on zero-hours contracts. As a business man, Ashley is very much in the Alan Sugar mould. By them cheap and stack them high is the philosophy. His companies sell sweatshop-produced goods almost exclusively and he has successfully bullied the opposition to occupy a dominant position in the ‘low cost, high profit’ sector of sports retail. Newcastle United was a business opportunity too good to miss – a chance to promote his brand. Just when you thought that we’d reached the summit of crass stupidity, Ashley decided that it would be a good idea to rename St James’ the “Sports Direct Arena”.

For campaigners, Ashley has come to symbolise everything that is wrong with both British capitalism, our economy and Premier League Football. This has brought him to the attention of the British political establishment – not that this seems to bother him in the slightest. He notoriously said that he was too busy to meet with the Scottish Affairs Committee to answer questions about the treatment of zero hours USC staff at Dundonald in Scotland, who were sacked en mass earlier this year. What was he busy doing? Gambling his vast fortune on the stock market, buying up shares in down-and-out companies to perform the Sports Direct “miracle” again – and aggressively trying to manipulate the ownership of Rangers F.C.

All the while, Ashley has been occupied with finally tearing the heart out of Newcastle United: treating the club like he does his businesses – as a low-cost, high profit cash cow, seeing Newcastle’s players as a purely commodities and most importantly of all, viewing the club’s supporters as he does his zero hours employees – with contempt. Football is emotional. It’s more than just what happens on the pitch. For many people, it is wrapped up in childhood memories and bonds with family and friends. I know it’s silly, but it still brings a moistening to my eye to recall Bobby Robson’s words:

“What is a club in any case? Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. It’s not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes. It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city. It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.”

because that’s exactly how I felt. To Ashley and many football owners like him, fans are at best a money-making source, at worst a bloody inconvenience. Mike Ashley is the classic example of what Tony Benn’s said of Thatcher:

“Her whole philosophy was that she measured the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Now, Mike Ashley is hardly unique in treating football fans with contempt, but it’s good to see a campaign being organised to take Ashley on. It’s made me feel a little guilty that I slipped away without a fight. I saw other, bigger political issues as more important for my energies. I started going to watch non-league football instead and found some of the things I’d been missing there. But Newcastle is my first football love, and I might be tempted back if others are prepared to fight for the club. There seems to be a groundswell of fans aiming to fight for the soul of our clubs. It’s long overdue. So I send my solidarity to Newcastle fans who have this afternoon been boycotting and protesting at the Newcastle vs Spurs game. If you are a Newcastle fan with principles, you should join them – and the campaign to rid the club of Mike Ashley: