It’s an indisputable fact that the larger the fan base of a football club is, the more prone to cult-like tendencies those fans are. Maybe the phrase ‘collective insanity’ is more applicable. Scroll through the Premier League table from the top down and you’ll come across club after club with supporters who are perpetually unhappy with their lot for no discernable reason.
Basically, any club with an average attendance higher than, let’s say, 37,902, generally suffers from these cultish tendencies and is automatically riddled with a large percentage of mouthy wingnuts with zero sense of proportion when it comes to what they can realistically expect.
(Manchester City seem to have some kind of exemption from this law, as their fans are still partially stunned from their recent cash-fuelled upturn in fortunes. They have, however, turned in on themselves and developed that weird aversion to the Champions League, the ultimate goal in world club football.)
Which brings me on to Newcastle United, where the self-styled Toon Army have been foaming at the mouth at various froth levels for the past decade under the stewardship of the Archduke of Gammon, Mike Ashley.
The ongoing stand-off between Ashley and the manager he recruited almost three years ago Rafa Benitez is as fascinating as it is repetitive. The manager won’t sign a new contract until significant transfer funds are guaranteed and the owner won’t deliver said funds until he’s sure that Benitez is prepared to commit to the long haul.
Just why the pair can’t get neutral third parties to simultaneously deliver a signed contract and a massive sack of cash to the middle of the Tyne Bridge where a pre-planned swap could be carried out is beyond me.
Jimmy Nail and the currently Ant-less Dec perhaps? It’d make for a great afternoon on Sky Sports News.
In spite of the impasse, a relegation crisis was averted last season as Benitez coached his team towards an impressive tenth-place finish, fashioning a side that was effective while not exactly easy on the eye. The mantra emanating from the Newcastle fans for the past couple of years is that they’ve finally got a world class coach in the Spaniard, so that’s sort of what you’d expect. World-class coaching as opposed to simply buying success.
But second season syndrome has kicked in this time around, and the Magpies are currently floundering in bottom place in the league, having lost all five of their opening home matches, the latest being Saturday’s 0-1 defeat at the hands of Brighton.
That has triggered a major shift in tone from Benitez – his previous ploy of shrugging with barely-concealed frustration while mumbling about trying to make the best of the personnel he’s got to work with has vanished. He’s now saying that Newcastle’s best hope is that there’s three teams worse than Newcastle by the end of the season. Strong words.
It’s reminiscent of two years ago when David Moyes told Sunderland fans they were in for a relegation battle just a couple of weeks into the season – a ludicrous statement that swiftly became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Relegation inevitably followed.
Hang on – world-class coach though? Yes, Benitez hasn’t had a bottomless well of quids to splash around and yes, he’s working with a chairman who seems to delight in dashing the hopes of the Newcastle fans just when it seems that progress is within touching distance.
Surely this world-class coach should be delivering more right now? A quarter of the season has gone and results so far have been abject, even taking a tough run of early fixtures into account.
He hasn’t lost any key first team players over the summer – in fact he sold Mitrovic to Fulham for £20m rather than try to bring out the best in him, and the striker has out-performed all of Newcastle’s goal-shy players since moving to Fulham.
Plus, Benitez has had SOME money for squad strengthening, so the plunge from tenth to bottom can’t all be the fault of the grinning Cockney billionaire Ashley. Watford had a similar season to the Magpies last time out and have spent less over the summer, but I haven’t heard any mass dissent coming from the terraces at Vicarage Road.
Perhaps the blame is being overly-weighted in the direction of the fat controller – after all, it’s easy to keep on booing the pantomime villain when it’s all you’ve been doing for a decade.
If Alan Pardew or, God forbid, Steve McClaren had performed at the same level as Benitez has so far, would the fans be backing those two unequivocally? It seems unlikely. But if there’s one thing Benitez is world-class at, it’s cultivating ‘Brand Rafa’ – coating himself in Teflon and wriggling out of any situation with his rep intact. At Liverpool it was the club’s owners who were to blame (see also Newcastle) and at Chelsea, those mean, mean fans refused to accept him when he pitched up for a short-term tenure.
All of this brings me back to the cult-like nature of the big clubs. While a lot of Newcastle fans feel hugely aggrieved by Ashley’s antics and the inevitable departure of their Spanish saviour, out in the rest of Planet Football, passions don’t run as high and sympathies aren’t as strong.
Before the defeat at the weekend, editors of a local fanzine were aghast at the lack of solidarity from Brighton supporters whose opinions they’d canvassed. There’s a chuckle or two to be had from the griping at the fair and balanced assessment from Seagulls fans – who, let’s not forget, have have had their own fair share of being shafted by baddies in charge of their club down the years.
Newcastle may or may not have new owners in the near future but they’re not going to go bust any time soon and the majority of their current squad was good enough to finish tenth a few months ago. That squad HAS been enhanced in spite of what you might hear and there’s surely only one man to blame for the on-field calamities so far this season.
Time to justify that world-class tag now, Rafa.