The second coming of the ‘Geordie messiah’
Kevin Keegan can be relied on to maintain Newcastle United’s traditions: Keystone Cops defending, lousy signings, and bugger-all trophies.
‘Geordie messiah to be unveiled as new United manager’, announced the Newcastle United website. Is it just me or doesn’t anyone else find that caption amusing? There are some phrases that are so manifestly absurd that they are guaranteed to provoke roars of laughter. Just utter the words ‘England’s golden generation’, ‘The Premiership is the best league in the world’ or even ‘Liverpool, European City of Culture’ and grown men will weep with laughter. And then of course there’s that perennial comedy classic: ‘Newcastle is a massive club.’
All week, in the wake of Sam Allardyce’s sacking, the phrase ‘massive club’, arguably the mother of all risible phrases, has been trotted out along with variations on the theme such as ‘big club’, ‘sleeping giant’, and ‘a big club with massive potential’ (Newcastle chairman Chris Mort’s own formulation). Whichever version you prefer, the underlying sentiment is utterly vacuous and unfounded. ‘A mid-table club with massive delusions’ is a much more apposite description of Newcastle United.
True, the club has a big fan base. Getting 50,000 people to every home game is nothing to sneeze at. And thirteenth on the Deloitte rich list isn’t bad either. But what about, er, winning stuff? Isn’t that a more reliable measure of a club’s status? How massive is Newcastle’s trophy cabinet? Not very is the answer. Newcastle have won bugger all for decades. Their last league title was in the 1926-7 season. The last domestic trophy was the FA Cup in 1955. And, apart from the Inter City Fairs Cup in 1969, that’s about it. Still think it’s a massive club?
Was the demise of Sam Allardyce down to Massive Club Syndrome, the misconceived belief that a once-glorious-but-now-perennially-mediocre club has a divine right to success? The poor results certainly didn’t help but it was the ugly football that was even more unpalatable for many fans. Allardyce had to go, they said, because he didn’t share the Toon ethos or values. And what exactly is that ethos? According to Newcastle owner Mike Ashley, it’s the kind of buccaneering football that Kevin Keegan used to serve up. ‘I want a team that is going to be admired up and down the country because of our brilliant, attacking football’, said Ashley. Chris Mort told the club website that they were looking for a manager who could get the team ‘playing with the right balance of stylish football and winning football’.
So, not only a massive club but a byword for beautiful football too. What a joke! Ask anyone without black-and-white tinted spectacles what Newcastle United brand values are and I suspect you’ll get a different answer. When I think of Newcastle these are the values and traditions that spring to my mind:
Trophy cabinet. Empty. End of.
The city of Newcastle’s motto, which used to be on the club crest, is Fortiter Defendit Triumphans (triumphing through brave defending). Nothing could be further from the truth these days. Sure, Kevin Keegan’s team did entertain but it wasn’t just because of the beautiful football. When we weren’t admiring Ginola’s tricks we were pissing ourselves at the Keystone Cops defending. More recently, the likes of Titus Bramble and Jean-Alain Boumsong have kept neutrals amused and entertained. And, although Bramble was offloaded last summer, one tradition that Big Sam didn’t eradicate was the slapstick defending. Now that Keegan’s back we can expect the chuckles to continue.
‘It seems to me that as soon as Newcastle lose a game their manager’s career in threatened’, said Sir Alex Ferguson. Big Sam was the seventh manager to get the chop in the last 11 years. No wonder Harry Redknapp turned it down. The Newcastle job has acquired a Mission Impossible status. Can the Second Coming of Keegan buck the trend? Watch this space.
When Newcastle fans aren’t screaming abuse at their own manager they are invariably weeping like girls for the cameras. It was Geordies who introduced public weeping to Britain. Gazza started the trend by blubbing shamelessly in Italia 90. In 1996, the Toon Army took tearfulness onto the terraces as Kevin Keegan’s team spectacularly blew the title. If you thought Liverpool was the capital city of self-pity, think again. The Geordies are world beaters when it comes to welling-up.
If you’re a fading superstar looking for one last big payday you could go to Qatar or LA Galaxy. Or else you could go to Tyneside. Newcastle are good at collecting trophy players – big names like Patrick Kluivert, Emre, and Michael Owen, who look good on the teamsheet but don’t actually do very much on the pitch. It’s a pity they’re not so good at acquiring actual trophies.
Bad boys club
When they’re not acquiring trophy players they are signing troublemakers. Keith Gillespie, Lee Bowyer, Kieron Dyer, Craig Bellamy and now Joey Barton have all had their off-the-field problems. Were their discipline problems sorted out at Newcastle? No, instead they were paid silly wages to sit in the treatment room or underperform on the pitch. Or else fight each other.
In 1996, Newcastle directors Freddie Shepherd and Douglas Hall told an undercover reporter in a Marbella brothel that Newcastle women were ‘dogs’ and Toon fans were stupid for buying overpriced replica kits. Shepherd subsequently became chairman where he ran up debts of £80million.
Mike Ashley has paid off the debts but the sacking of Allardyce shows that the club still doesn’t have the stability it needs. Moreover, with Harry Redknapp having unexpectedly turned down the job, the decision to bring back Keegan appears inspired by a mixture of panic and nostalgia. Certainly under Keegan the team played with passion and flair. They should have won the title in 1996. But they didn’t. And the reason they didn’t was that Keegan might have been an inspiring leader but he was tactically clueless. His gung-ho Newcastle team didn’t know how to defend or close a game down. And that was over ten years ago. Football has moved on. The Premiership is now a much tougher league to win. It’s much harder for teams like Newcastle to even break into the top four than it was a decade ago.
The Toon Army will doubtless welcome Keegan back as a returning saviour. But is the man who admitted he was ‘a little bit short of what’s required’ when he resigned as England manager really capable of bringing back the glory days to Tyneside? I suspect not but at least we’ll have a good laugh as we wait to find out.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.
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