After months of protests and drumming up support on social media, Newcastle United fans are ready to take a stand. West Ham United are the visitors to St James’ Park on Saturday afternoon, but in a strange way, that is not the main focus of the day on Tyneside.
Instead, it is the 11th minute walk-in protest planned by the Magpie Group, a collaboration of fans uniting together in an attempt to end owner Mike Ashley’s reign in charge. The specifics represent the eleven years to Sports Direct tycoon has owned Newcastle, and in that time, he has crushed the soul, the enhusiasm and the ambition of the club and its fans.
Rafael Benitez, the current manager, represents all those things, and he has been breathing them back into every corner of the stadium, the training ground and the city as best he can in the two-and-a-half years since he arrived; but with his contract expiring at the end of the season and disagreements over how the club moves forward threatening to end their obsessive relationship with Benitez in the future, fans are now beginning to act.
Whilst an upturn in form, three successive wins and ten points from 12, have been great for silencing the alarm bells around relegation, they may not have had the greatest impact on the protests. The issues have not changed at all; Ashley is still the main reason Newcastle, and Benitez, are unlikely to ever achieve their dreams at St James’ Park, but positivity can be so scarce in the North East of England that some will refuse to give it up, even if the cause may be for the greater good. As a result, there is no guarantee that this particular endeavour will create anything more than a ripple; but whatever happens remains to be seen.
Benitez himself has spoken about “respecting“ the fan base and credited them for their support in the last few weeks, particularly at Burnley on Monday night. That was a crucial win, not just because it ended a run of defeats in that fixture slot and winless games at that stadium, but because it validated the tactics; with more confidence, Newcastle are developing into a genuine counter-attacking team, rather than just a defensive and occasionally direct outfit.
Fixtures against West Ham have taken on real significance in recent years; it was the Hammers whom Newcastle beat 2-0 to stave off relegation on the final day of the 2014/15 season, and while they failed to repeat the trick the following year, Jonjo Shelvey inspired the Magpies to a rare victory on his debut the previous January.
Last season, Newcastle did the double, and both of those wins came at crucial times; after a torrid start, West Ham were the second visitors to St James’ Park in August, but a typical Benitez masterclass helped earn a 3-0 victory. That December, just two days prior to Christmas, Newcastle struck again at the London Stadium, coming from behind to win 3-2 and end a run of nine straight defeats.
The unnerving link to Benitez also gives games between these two sides a little extra spice, too. In 2015, West Ham had a verbal agreement with the Spaniard for him to take the job, only for Real Madrid to come calling; the talks ended, but Benitez respected their graciousness in stepping aside before eventually hiring Slaven Bilic. Speculation the Hammers were trying to prize him away from Newcastle in the summer certainly unsettled some corners of the support, for the exact reason many will protest on Saturday. Nothing came of it and, instead, Manuel Pellegrini will be in the away dugout.
On the pitch, it has been a strange season for the visitors; in many ways, similar to Newcastle, hence why they find themselves separated only by goal difference. Four successive defeats to start the campaign forced some to wonder whether Pellegrini was the right man for the job, though he has shown that fleetingly since. Victory over Manchester United has been their high point; but they head north this weekend licking their wounds having been taken apart by a casual Manchester City performance.
History and form are in Newcastle’s favour, which is a very unfamiliar feeling for them. Of course West Ham have a lot of quality at their disposal; temprimental striker Mario Arnautovic has looked good this season, while Andy Carroll, the former Newcastle frontman, and Jack Wilshere, could feature after failrly long-term injuries. But the home side have nothing to fear; Benitez says only Paul Dummett is certain to miss the game, with a host of first teamers, including Jamaal Lascelles and, for the first time this season, Florian Lejeune, potentially featuring.
For Newcastle, the message is clear; more of the same is needed. They have proof of their ability to compete now, and will certainly fancy their chances against West Ham on Saturday. Before that, though, there is the small matter of the in-ground protest and the impact that could have on the result, the season in general, but most importantly, the futures of Mike Ashley and Rafael Benitez.