Listening to Ian Wright, a former teammate of Alan Pardew at Crystal Palace and one of his staunchest supporters when he was under heavy pressure from Newcastle United fans, summing up those same people’s feelings towards owner Mike Ashley on the radio this week was a signal of real change. Since the days of goading supporters and backing Pardew nearly four years ago, Wright has lead a growing number of pundits and mainstream commentators in representing the argumemernt against Ashley’s 11-year reign.
It wasn’t always that way; for years, the fans were being painted as villains who refused to accept less than the very best for their team. The narrative at the time, four years ago, was that Ashley and Pardew couldn’t get anything right and were being treated unfairly. Newcastle had to accept that the past was the past; the days of signing players for world record transfer fees and playing Champions League football were gone, football had moved on and they should too. Only, as it is now bwing proven, reports of those ‘demands’ were well wide of the mark.
The Magpies were and are not expected to qualify for Europe every year, but to aspire to greater things. Ashley’s ongoing legacy, as Wright pointed out, is non-existent; there is no ambition to improve the team on the pitch, let alone any to engage with the community off it. Fans want their club back; they want to feel like they matter again. An average crowd of over 50,000 attends matches every week, even in the current state; there is no way expectactions are too high.
So what has changed? Why is it that now, the written, audio and visual press are open to listening to the other side of the argument? And why does it feel as though, for the first time in over a decade, Ashley is not indistructable? Well, the short answer is Rafael Benitez, the manager, and the longer story is that of the Magpie Group.
Benitez, as it has been said so many times before, is a man who embodies exactly what the unhappy hoards who live and breathe football on Tyneside want from those in charge; understanding, belief and ambition. The love and affection he receives whenever he goes to St James’ Park is not only because he is the best manager they could possibly ask for and a Champions League winner they fully understand they are lucky to have, but because he has connected with the area and its people, visiting local charities and making sure he is kept up to date with the brilliant work of the Newcastle West End Foodbank, which collects donations every matchday. Because Benitez offers that, and he has made his feelings known about the state of the club, too, suddenly the fans’ message carries more weight, and more people are willing to listen to it.
When rumours intensified over Benitez not receiving transfer funds and that potentially resulting in him leaving the club at the end of the season, the latest in a long line of fan protest movements was born. ‘If Rafa Goes We Go’ does exactly what it says on the tin, it promotes the idea that Benitez’s departure, whenever that may be, will be the final straw and the threats many fans have made for years of boycotting the club would become reality. The people behind the message, and subsequent protests at every home game this season, the Magpie Group, may have set out to do what many others did before in forcing Ashley to sell, but where those others failed because of internal disagreements and their own politics, leading to a loss of momentum, they have gone from strength to strength. The pressure is as strong as ever, and because their voices are being heard more, their demands for a club that truly reflects the area are getting louder.
Unity is exacltly what makes Newcastle stronger; it did on the pitch last season, helping the team steer away from relegation trouble and into an unlikely top half finish, and it has off it, too. Different corners of the club’s vast fanbase are working together better than ever, and that has been reflected in the changing of the perception from the outside. It used to be fashionable and easy to criticise the hope and ambition of those people, reporting them as self-entitlement and arrogance. Ashley deserves everything he gets, and finally, thanks to the Magpie Group and theit superb persistence, people are realising it.
The old argument still has its believers, too, though they are usually people who have worked with Ashley, such as Dennis Wise, and their platform has massively decreased. Work is far from over, and though the club is still up for sale, there has been little more than speculation of a takeover, but the shift in perception is the first step on the road to a brighter future. Ashley has survived this long in no small part because of the way he is viewed in the media; the negative press and revelations in Kevin Keegan’s new autobiography have helped change that, but the majority of the credit must go to fans themselves, and they are definitely not slowing down.
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