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Life comes fast at supporters of Newcastle United. No sooner were they prancing around in Arab headpieces while contemplating the appearance of Kylian Mbappé in the cafes of Jesmond than they had to swallow an FA Cup exit at the hands of a club whose previous claim to fame was the completion of 31 matches without a win.
Before we go any further, it should be noted that followers of Sunderland have no cause to chortle; their own run towards competitive irrelevance is such that Cambridge United provide routine opposition. Elsewhere, though, the laughing has been audible. Cambridge’s 1-0 win was a hugely popular one. Sympathy for long suffering fans in black and white? A distant memory.
Newcastle’s takeover by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund has led to the club being replaced as everyone’s cuddly second team. There are shades of jealousy attached to that – who wouldn’t want their club controlled by an entity with an estimated value of $500bn? – but also an element of moral repulsion. Saudi’s appalling record on human rights and reported involvement in the death of Jamal Khashoggi matters considerably more than the image of flags flying in the Gallowgate End.
And fly they have; the demonisation of Mike Ashley on Tyneside was such that you were left with the impression the Jack the Ripper would be afforded herograms so long as he removed Sports Direct branding from St James’ Park. “We have our club back” was the cry, as if Newcastle had been purchased by the cast of Jossy’s Giants. A deflating, if predictable, business. By the time Newcastle edged past Burnley – Burnley! – on 4 December, players engulfed in a Premier League relegation battle were completing a lap of honour. The dawning of a new era, undermined by a subsequent tanking in Leicester.
In the absence of Jim Barclay, Amanda Staveley and Yasir al-Rumayyan – reportedly flanked by bodyguards – gave a dressing-room message of support to Newcastle’s beleaguered players as their Cambridge counterparts partied. Players, surely, Newcastle would upgrade in a heartbeat. The cost of doing precisely that spirals with every on-field embarrassment. Newcastle should have had more than enough to see off Cambridge, four points from the relegation places in League One, but theirs is a squad lacking talent and, more ominously given the on-field predicament, character. Newcastle’s response to conceding Joe Ironside’s goal was more pitiful than the fact it happened in the first place.
Neither Staveley nor Rumayyan have previous experience of running a football club. Despite spending years on the messy deal to purchase Newcastle, PIF breezed into office in early October without a manager – Steve Bruce was forced to limp on in unedifying style – or a director of football. Three months on, the Saudis have provided Eddie Howe (after a botched attempt to prise Unai Emery from Villarreal) with a 31-year-old full-back in Kieran Trippier and Nicky Hammond, a recruitment consultant whose performance at Celtic should have set off alarm balls long before Hadrian’s Wall.
Howe’s coaching credentials are widely lauded but he will recognise that he is featuring in a totally different movie to anything that has come before. When West Ham and Crystal Palace can pay players more than £100,000 per week, the challenge Howe has in convincing individuals of suitable mindset and ability to join a side with one win in 19 league attempts is abundantly clear. Geography has never been in Newcastle’s favour when it comes to transfer business.
It may look mean-spirited to take a swipe at Newcastle – a terrific city that houses passionate and good-natured football followers – at this low ebb but episodes such as Cambridge offer an opportunity to assess what precisely the Saudis have bought into. And for less money, according to reports in the US, that the recent acquisition of Real Salt Lake by an investment group.
Newcastle last won the FA Cup in 1955, with the list of those who have lifted the trophy since including Bolton, West Brom, Sunderland, Ipswich, Coventry, Wimbledon, Portsmouth and Wigan. Newcastle were last FA Cup semi-finalists in 2000. We are just five years short of the centenary of Newcastle’s last top-flight championship win. Newcastle have never won the League Cup; even Luton and Swindon have done that. There was glory in the Fairs Cup of 1969 and Intertoto Cup in 2006; one tournament long forgotten and another so pointless even Uefa ditched it.
So much is continually made of Newcastle’s esteemed past and potential, but that is somewhat undermined by the club’s staggering lack of success. Still, people persist with the bizarre notion that Newcastle are destined for or ultra-worthy of glory. Other clubs, such as Leicester, actually deliver it.
Supporters will blame Ashley’s frugality for recent struggles in the Premier League but statistics stretching back to the 1950s show top-flight top-five finishes the exception rather than the rule. “Newcastle United deserves to be top of the Premier League,” Staveley insisted in October. It was as legitimate then as it is now to ask what on earth that assertion is based on, save large attendance numbers that ultimately count for nothing much at all. Football leagues across the world include clubs with huge supporter bases who have encountered inexorable slides into oblivion.
It seems safe to assume that kind of fate will not befall Newcastle. Saudi resources should at least see to that. Yet this is a club that gladly sold their soul to a pretty dubious regime, for benefits not thus far apparent. Had Ashley and Bruce been at the helm, defeat against Cambridge would have led to an incredible level of screaming and wailing. Instead, the Toon Army have no option but to keep the faith. Theirs is an unenviable position.