Newcastle fans in familiar territory as new season dawns
Getting news of the Premier League fixtures in mid-June can feel like receiving contact from school in the holidays. Especially if, like this year, there was an international tournament to create cause for distraction. Domestic football is familiar, it is the base line and it is what makes the typical fan’s world go round. Ask most, and they’ll probably tell you they’d trade England’s rollercoaster Euro 2020 campaign for an FA Cup final appearance. By the time the big kick off arrives, everyone is excited and ready to do it all over again. But not Newcastle United fans.
They are some of the most passionate in the land and would trade almost anything for a semblance of success for their club. In fact they simply want to feel something, to have a reason to get up on a Saturday morning and hand the key to their emotions to 11 men wearing the famous black and white shirt.
Even that isn’t forthcoming when they hear about the fixtures. It doesn’t spark feelings of excitement or even create an unnecessary distraction. Instead, all it does is itemise their pain and misery, telling where they’ll be and when, so that their club can turn up and fulfil their duties.
There is nothing beyond that. It is an annual dance to the same beat, 14 years in the making. At the start of almost every season, the weight of silence from the club is heavy. Mike Ashley has only ever given reason for excitement when he stands to lose out. In the aftermath of relegation five years ago, something happened which Newcastle fans could be forgiven for thinking is a novel concept; he authorised spend the club’s own money to build a squad capable of a swift return to the Premier League.
From the very start of that summer, as soon as Rafael Benitez agreed to stay on as manager, there was a sense that Newcastle were building something. The momentum was like a wave that took them all the way back to where they needed to be. Ashley had the blueprint for how to succeed and, despite his toxic relationship with supporters and countless atrocities committed against the fabric of the institution he has in his possession, it felt as though there was a way forward. At its heart it wasn’t even about spending or sell on value, but rather efficiency and a willingness to force progress.
Once promotion was achieved, everything went backwards. Newcastle became slow and reactive again. Benitez, who seemed at first to be the face of a new, driven and motivated club, eventually left and was replaced by Steve Bruce. Not much has changed in his time, except perhaps the level of pushback from the manager, who is popular with Ashley primarily because of his dislike for internal politics, the sort of thing Benitez thrived upon.
Even last summer, which was viewed as a positive breakthrough for Bruce after the arrivals of Jeff Hendrick, Callum Wilson, Jamal Lewis and Ryan Fraser, was fraught with nerves and worry amid prolonged ignorance before a late burst of business towards the end of the window.
At the time, Newcastle were trying to be risk averse. Signings under Ashley have usually come in the form of young, cheap players with potential to grow into somebody who can turn a very healthy profit. There is very little guarantee on this kind of arrival, particularly if they have come from a different league and need time to adjust. With all four recruits, particularly Wilson, there was evidence they’d be able to hit the ground running having played in the Premier League before.
Ashley’s mindset was on protecting his asset amid a frustrating takeover case which, it was hoped, would progress quickly and allow him to sell up and leave. Here we are a year on and the stasis remains. He is still at Newcastle and there is nothing for fans to cling to. If anything, the takeover feels further away, and there is no suggestion a similarly late influx of signings will offer any sort of positivity heading into the new season, which starts for Newcastle at home to West Ham United a week on Sunday.
For the first few weeks of the summer, chasing the takeover and an arbitration case it was hoped would break the stalemate blocking Amanda Staveley’s Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund-backed consortium from finally ending Ashley’s miserable reign of apathetic and negligent tyranny. Focus was elsewhere for many Newcastle fans and certainly for Ashley himself, but once the decision was made to delay the process until early 2022, the sense of aimless drifting became too impossible to ignore.
There is next to no budget for Bruce to spend this summer. That is, it seems, unless Joe Willock becomes available. The 21-year-old Arsenal midfielder, whose performances in a loan spell since January both saved Newcastle from relegation last season and made history after he became the youngest player to score in eight successive Premier League games, is their top target. The suggestion is, if the right deal can be done for Willock, Newcastle will stretch their budget to accommodate him.
Without question, should Willock move to St James’ Park, it would instantly change the mood and outlook ahead of the new season. But the cold, hard truth of the matter is, his return would only put Newcastle’s first team on par with that of the team which ended the last campaign so strongly with a 2-0 victory at Fulham in May. Back then, there were possibilities, either with new owners or, if Ashley was proactive enough, in the current guise. That doesn’t ring as true anymore.
Summer stasis is depressingly familiar for Newcastle fans but this has been the most painful experience yet. Hope, whether genuine or slightly overplayed, was there in the form of potential takeover progression, but while the likes of Aston Villa and Leicester City show how to recruit proficiency and impressively in the current market, Newcastle are cowering again, rolling the dice and hoping to have enough despite having the power to ensure they will. Ashley has been caught out before, and soon enough he will be again.
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