Poetry Blog: Farewell Mike Ashley.

This is a post that’s been a long time in the making. It’s a poem about one of the greatest loves of my life, Newcastle United. And if that seems like a bit of a pathetic sentence, then you should probably stop reading. But the football team that I support have been a constant in my life for well over 40 years now and let’s face it, around the globe there are plenty of us that fall in love with their chosen sports team. The club is something that I blog about sporadically as I like to write about lots of different things, but I couldn’t resist this one.

The poem itself was written in June 2019, when I’d finally allowed myself to think that Mr. Ashley, the owner of my football club, was actually leaving. For those who don’t know, Ashley has owned the club for 14 years and it’s been an incredible low point in our history; lacking in investment, lacking in ambition, lacking in hope and a time where balancing the books has been deemed way more important than success or even excitement and hope on the field.

When I wrote the poem a Saudi Arabian investment group seemed on the verge of buying the club, meaning that hopes and dreams could return. And then, to cut a long story short, it didn’t happen.

Fast forward 18 months or so from when the news of our takeover first broke and following high profile legal action, and almost at the drop of a hat, the club has been sold. So, here’s my poem.

Farewell Mike Ashley

When you first pitched up you were greeted optimistically.                                                                                                                                 A sportswear billionaire set to change the Toon fiscally.                                                                                                                                        But then, a reason to doubt your intelligence                                                                                                                                            when you sloppily disregarded your due diligence. 
But, your black and white shirt in the away end provided a distraction,
the drinks are on Mike, no need for (Sports) Direct action.
Then you brought back King Kev, a masterstroke,
yet the way that you treated was nowt short of a joke.
Wise and Jiminez, your plan to bring the good times back,
followed by Gonzalez and Xisco; two straws to break the camel's back.
Keegan gone and relegation drawing near,
your answer? Joe f***ing Kinnear.
A sleeping giant in an idiot's grip,
you were seemingly determined to sink this ship.
But you didn't reckon with Kinnear's heart
which inadvertently gave us a brand new start,
Shearer tempted, a legend returning
but his hands were tied, the ship still burning.
Relegation and Shearer left waiting for your call,
but you chose to ignore the greatest scorer of them all
Against the odds Hughton took us straight back up,
but still the chequebook remained shut.
In time you brought in Pardew and a Director of Football...
Kinnear again though; pissed and capable of f*** all
Years passed and we made it to the Europa League
but with little investment we fell away, fatigued.
As Pardew stuttered you committed the cardinal sin
out with SJP, the Sports Direct Arena in,
terrible and sinking with Pardew's palava
as he blamed the grass, the science, the fans, then left us with Carver.
Still there was time for you to behave like a wanker
by blanking poor Jonas, stricken with cancer, 
and oh the sweet irony when he came to the rescue,
yet still you got rid like a cockney Ceausescu.
And then more alarm bells as you gave us MaClaren, 
a hair island, no idea and his tactics board barren.
Even Benitez couldn't save us from our fate,
another reason for more Geordie hate.
But Rafa rebelled, he was made for these fans,
but your silence said you had other plans,
but the tide was turning, a truth became clear,
we were nothing but right not to want you here,
we didn't want Charnley and we didn't want Bruce
whatever you did there would be no truce.
Transfer windows where nothing was spent
anyone could see it was time that you went.
Protest groups, boycotts, banners and the Trust gave hope
now finally, deal done, get out of our club you fat dope.

The future looks incredibly bright for Newcastle United and it’s been a bit of a ridiculous few days. I’ve watched the celebrations in the city from afar, just wishing I could be part of it. Making do with social media footage and various reports on the telly has had to be enough, but it’s still been amazing to watch. Then you read the media reports and the quotes from Amanda Staveley and others involved in this new dawn and it’s been as bewildering as it’s been exciting.

There are other, darker issues to address with this takeover but for now I’m happy to just wallow in what it could mean from a footballing point of view and try to forget the last 14 years of penny pinching and constant disappointment under Mike Ashley. As someone who first sat in the East Stand aged 6 and has been in love with the club ever since, I’d resigned myself to the fact that we probably wouldn’t win anything in my lifetime. As someone who walked away from attending games 13 years ago as I realised what Ashley represented, that feeling was utterly miserable. But it’s time to look to the future, because the future’s bright; the future’s black and white.

I hope you enjoyed the poem. Feel free to leave a comment.

Newcastle United: The End of the Line

I don’t want to write this post. It’s sunny outside, I have things to do. I could go for a lockdown walk, I could spend time with my wife and my kids. I could go and do jobs in the garden and get more pleasure than this is going to give me. Christ, a day trip to sunderland would be preferable! But I have to write this post and I might as well write this post because I’m such poor company today. I’ve gone ‘silent angry’. I dare not speak about my football team for fear of spoiling everyone’s day. So I’m sat at a laptop instead, writing off the top of my head with no notes and no plan. Apologies if you clicked the link expecting something better. This is just the product of frustration. But I hope what I write echoes with some kind of truth for you.

Having supported Newcastle United for four decades and counting now, I thought I’d seen it all. We probably all did. Some of us watched McGarry’s team. Some of us were around to see Jack Charlton’s version, even Jim Smith’s. And in more recent times we’ve toiled our way through Allardyce, Pardew, Kinnear, Carver, MacClaren. None of it, I’d argue has had the same lack of hope or joy as Steve Bruce has been serving up for almost two years. And the worst of it is, apart from a small number of Bruce apologists who would probably give Joe Kinnear another chance, we all said that this would happen. We all said that Steve Bruce was the wrongest of the wrong in terms of people who should manage our football club.

Last night – on top of all that’s gone before under the same man – was utterly unacceptable. It was a disgusting surrender from start to finish against a team that we should have been looking to put under pressure at the very least.

For the record, Graham Potter is a manager I admire. I won’t profess to have watched a lot of his football and don’t have some kind of encyclopedic knowledge of him, but was made aware of him a couple of years ago, having read an article on the progress he was making at Ostersund, a team based near the Arctic Circle in Sweden, if my memory serves me rightly. He appeared to be a bright, young, forward thinking manager. However, Potter’s Brighton team are one place above us in the league and fighting for their lives, making last night’s shambles all the more unpalatable. This wasn’t a team gunning for the title or fighting for a European spot. This was a rival who’ve been poor for a lot of the season. And we made them look like one of the best teams in Europe. In fact, no; scrub that – we didn’t make them look like anything, we simply stood to one side and allowed them to do it.

From minute one, the pattern of the next 90 odd minutes was clear. We weren’t up for this. By the time five minutes had elapsed we could and should have been 2-0 down, with two chances falling to a player I’d never heard of and one that while writing this I can’t recall the name of. He was making his debut and went on to have an excellent game. That’s not meant to be disparaging, by the way. On the contrary; it’s a point I make to try and highlight how far we’ve dropped as a football club. Brighton’s team last night contained several unfamiliar names. These were players unearthed by a scouting system that is clearly light years ahead of ours at a club that is clearly light years ahead of ours. But that’s a subject for another time.

Conceding the first goal was inevitable for Steve Bruce’s Newcastle United. Conceding more after that was predictable too. We’ve become a team that seemingly doesn’t look to win football matches, which for me would question our identity as a team.

In the build up to the game it was billed as our most important game for years/decades. The urgency and the need to win this one were clear for all to see, right? Wrong. If Bruce sent that team out confident that he’d done his job and that we were going to put up a fight, then I’d question not only his ability, but his sanity. However, he clearly didn’t send us out to have a go. Instead, heartbreakingly for fans, he sent us out to contain, to defend, to get to half time and not to lose. But we looked nowhere near good enough to even do that.

Time and time again, Brighton players ran past our players into spaces where they would inevitably cause problems. They wanted the ball, whereas we looked scared of the responsibility that it would bring. We looked scared to do our jobs, unable to compete and unwilling to work for the manager. We lacked the smallest part of what we as fans ask for – desire. The pride in the shirt and the badge was only fleetingly evident in a handful of players. Almiron – rushed back from injury in a desperate throw of the dice – wasn’t himself, tracking and pressing but only ever at 60% of his abilities. Ryan Fraser was our best player, chasing lost causes and trying in vain to cause problems. And all too late in the game, Paul Dummett made a tackle that was late, but at least showed he either his frustration or that he cared. As the old saying goes, we were lucky to get nil.

Last night stunned me into near silence and I sulked like a child. I forced myself to watch Bruce’s post match interview though and felt even more angry that he simply had no answers. In place of anything that might have been right he simply kept telling us that it wasn’t good enough. No shit, Sherlock. Even here, he missed the point. It hasn’t been good enough for a long, long time. Two wins in twenty games tells that story. The performance at Newport away early in the season told us that. That night Bruce was schooled and out thought by a younger manager who had the drive and ambition and pride in his position that Bruce simply lacks. And he coached his League Two team to outplay us and outwork us for large chunks of the game.

Clearly, the trigger should have been pulled months ago. But instead, there’s a vote of confidence and not in the traditional ominous sense either. This is Ashley genuinely thinking that Bruce has got the skill and the know-how to get us out of this. This is complete and utter ignorance and the fact that it’s dressed up as rewarding Bruce’s loyalty is completely unfathomable.

The signs are ominous. How it ends is inevitable. Ashley has failed us. Bruce has failed us. Our club is in freefall and the people that have been trying to point it out for longer than I care to remember are being ignored because we simply don’t matter.

Graeme Jones; manager in waiting or just a coach who got lucky?

It felt like we’d waited for years. We’d looked on as the predictable happened again and again. Watched the same mistakes being made over and over. And then it happened. That’s right, we got a coach in who wasn’t called Steve. Finally, a difference, a breakthrough! Of course, I’m being daft for the sake of it and as good as it was to see a new coach come into the set-up, the performance and result on Saturday were much better and much, much more important.

Much has been made via social media about the impact of Graeme Jones at the club. But how much of Saturday’s dramatic upturn was down to him and how much – as Steve Bruce has been hinting at – was coming anyway?

The answer of course is that it’s difficult to tell and I’ve found some of the coverage on the likes of Twitter over the weekend a little bit uncomfortable. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still completely anti-Bruce and have been since he was appointed. Whether we gave the bloke a chance or not, I think the trouble we find ourselves in at the moment has been inevitable since day one of his tenure. But can one man, who let’s not forget is working as part of a team of many coaches, make that much of an immediate difference?

It’s a interesting one to ponder. Part of me doesn’t doubt Jones’ impact. The so-called ‘new manager bounce’ is a common factor in top level football. We’ve witnessed it time and again with people like Sam Allardyce being hailed as some sort of hybrid Red Adair/Jesus figure for his work in fighting relegation at various clubs over the years. People seem to happily ignore the influx of players that usually follow his appointment, preferring to think that he has some kind of magical powers. He probably has, but I suspect they’re only relevant in making pies disappear. And pints of wine. All the same, it is possible that bringing in a new face gave the players a bit of a lift. Personally, any face that wasn’t Bruce’s or Agnew’s would probably make me try a bit harder.

So what do we know of Graeme Jones then? Well, his track record is fairly common knowledge and it shows us that he’s worked in some very high profile jobs. And wherever he’s been he’s been part of a coaching set up that has presided over some very good football. Working alongside Roberto Martinez, he worked at Swansea and Wigan, both low profile clubs that achieved amazing success in relative terms. These weren’t clubs where untold millions were spent so you’d have to put it down to excellent coaching as the reason why they performed beyond the sum of their parts. Then when Martinez went to Everton, Jones followed, so there’s experience of working at a high profile, ‘bigger’ club too, depending on your view of Everton.

After Everton came working with the Belgium national team, again as part of Martinez’s set up. That’s Belgium, the number one ranked international team in world football. So, safe to say that Jones has got a bit of pedigree then. After all, it’s not often you get some absolute duffer working with the best players in the world.

So, apart from anything else, Jones is a really good addition to the coaching set up. It was needed too, in my opinion. I can’t shake the opinion that Steve Agnew is not the answer to any positive question that I might have about coaching and I can’t see past a certain ever-present gormlessness when I think of Clemence. I don’t particularly understand Steve Harper’s role, certainly not in terms of the first team and I get the impression that although Ben Dawson has been promoted from the youth set-up and may well be highly regarded, his input won’t be taken on board by our dinosaur of a manager.

A lot has been made of certain images that appeared on social media over the weekend. Jones pointing and shouting while Bruce and Agnew just stand and stare and Clemence, comically, isn’t even looking. But how much can we read into that and the videos that surfaced? I’m torn. Part of me says that we can take quite a lot out of them. I’ve made the point that this type of thing hasn’t been seen this season under Bruce. All I even seem to hear Bruce shouting is the word ‘Up’when we manage to clear a ball, although I can recall a few ‘Go On Jo’ cries to Joelinton. However, social media (again) revealed that this might have just been encouragement to go and get his hair cut rather than anything football related. It certainly hasn’t seemed to inspire if it was meant in a footballing sense. So Jones standing in the technical area seems to me to be a lot more productive and positive than what we’ve witnessed so far this season.

As a coach myself – alright, it’s only Under 12s, but the game’s essentially the same – I’m definitely more an advocate of that style of management than those who stand and watch and tell me it’s better to ‘let them take responsibility’ or ‘let them make their own mistakes’. Even elite footballers need direction. And if Jones having a bit of animation about him made Jonjo Shelvey realise the value of hard work, then he’ll do for me!

Tactically it’s hard to argue that it was solely Graeme Jones that made the difference. But then again, we have a manager who has admitted himself that he’s not a fan of tactics. However, the odds of someone having input into at most a couple of training sessions and that being the sole reason for the performance we saw at Everton on Saturday, have surely got to be low. Jones – as stated previously – seems to have pedigree in terms of being a forward thinking coach, so he’s made something happen, but to what extent is surely anyone’s guess? Unless of course, you’re one of Twitter’s famous insiders with eyes and ears at the training ground…

Then you read Steve Bruce’s post match comments. Firstly, his affirmation that we’ve seen signs of this performance being in the offing. I disagree. Especially when he says the signs were there in the second half at Aston Villa. Sure, we didn’t concede again, but we still couldn’t string passes together, continued to look backwards or at best sideways instead of forwards and were ordinary at best. Against Leeds we toiled again in the first half and it was difficult to see what was keeping Bruce in a job. The second half was better, but the result remained the same – a loss, no points and an inability to put chances away.

After the Everton result Bruce also talked about ‘getting after the ball’ and playing ‘on the front foot’, but if you give those statements a little bit of thought they really just equate to putting effort in. So with his ‘nearly 500 games’ and twenty odd years of experience how had Bruce been unable to coax a bit more running, tackling and attacking out of a squad of professional footballers for such a long time? So you could read into that the fact that, of course, Jones has had an immediate impact. Certainly the signs that Bruce had talked about haven’t been so evident that such a dramatic change in fortunes could be said to have been just around the corner. It certainly adds fuel to the fire.

Talking about his time at Luton, Jones said that he’d wanted to attack teams but realised that they couldn’t beat every team without better players. So certainly no genius there then. But when you dig a little deeper into that it’s possible to see how we might actually be benefitting from his coaching right from the off. The fact is – and suspend your knowledge of what you’ve been watching for the entire season – that he is now undoubtedly working with better players. So is it really too much of a stretch to think that our more ‘front foot’ attacking and snarling approach on Saturday might not be down to the prompting of a certain Mr. Jones, rather than a man who’s coaching has failed to produce such a performance all season? It’s certainly hard to ignore the fact that Bruce has had Wilson, Saint Maximin, Joelinton (I know, I know), Almiron et al at his disposal for some time and produced a relegation battle.

Overall, I must admit, I feel optimistic about Graeme Jones. Is he waiting in line for the big job? I feel it’s possible. Could he do it? I really don’t know. I’m fed up of reading that a coach we’ve brought in is highly rated and then watching as their input makes no difference. Ian Cathro springs to mind here, as well as several who’ve had involvement with the academy over the last few years. But you can’t ignore Jones’ pedigree and experience, can you?

I am fully aware that we’ve won one game during his time in the set up and for all I know it was a moment of coaching genius from Steve Agnew that had the desired effect. But I have to ignore the rational side of my brain there. I had no faith in the management team 18 months ago and still no faith in them when we were getting beat at Villa. And while I laughed at the ‘Graeme Jones is my manager’ brigade on Twitter over the weekend, his arrival could just well have made a big difference.

Perhaps Tuesday night against Palace will change all that and a lot of us will end up with egg on our faces, so to speak. But I for one, can’t ignore the presence of the faint whiff of optimism in the air again. Fingers crossed for Graeme Jones’ Black and White Army and let’s get carried away!

Miguel Almiron: A New Hope?

 

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Forget the money, the league and anything else; we all know they only sign for the bridges.

After several months of will we, won’t we, with peaks of excitement followed by troughs of an all too familiar despair, on Thursday 30th January Newcastle United, finally signed Miguel Almiron, a player identified as a priority several months before by Rafa Benitez.

The signing also broke a long-standing and well-publicised transfer record for the club. Fifteen years after we signed Michael Owen from Real Madrid for £16 million, we completed our search down the back of the settee to scrape together the slightly more than £16 million (although even that figure is shrouded in mystery) that it would take to complete the transfer of Almiron. So what does this mean for us, the fans? And what could it mean for the club?

‘We want a team that endeavours to be better.’

Firstly, Almiron’s arrival brings excitement. Every fan of every club loves a new arrival. They bring a chance for change. At a very basic level they mean that your team might be a bit better. As Newcastle United fans – despite what attention seekers like Merson, Keys and Gray might tell you – that’s all we want. We want a team that endeavours to be better. We’re realistic and understand that the Premier League title and the Champions’ League are out of our reach; but we do want our team to compete. Put simply then, Almiron gives us a better chance to compete in an increasingly competitive league.

Now I can’t confess to being the type of person who has the time or the inclination to sit and watch the MLS. As such, I have precious little knowledge of Almiron. But I’ve watched the clips shared on social media and via YouTube, and with fingers firmly crossed, I’d say we’ve bought a proper player. I’d like to think that I’ve gathered enough experience of football over the years to be able to be fairly sure of that. Almiron appears to bring the kind of flair and imagination that entertains; that gets fans out of their seats. In terms of continental flair players, think more Hatem Ben Arfa and less Diego Gavilan. And that can only be a good thing. It’s what we wanted from Kenedy and what, sadly, we’re still left wanting. Let’s hope then, that Miguel can fill the void.

He certainly looks the type who’ll drive us forward. A strong runner with more than a touch of flair and pace. He’s shown that he has an eye for goal with 22 goals and 19 assists in his last two seasons and so I’d hope that the least we could expect is excitement. If he can chip in with a few goals and assists before the end of the season, then he’ll have settled in nicely. He also, from what I’ve heard and read, seems like someone is isn’t afraid of hard work, which given our league position is again the kind of player that we’ll need. Flair is OK to a point, but in the position we find ourselves in, graft is king; especially in the eyes of Rafa.

Again, from hearsay – the noun, not the manufactured pop group from Pop Idol – I gather that Miguel is very much a positive influence around a club. Certainly from the photos and interviews with former colleagues, he seems quite the contented soul. The football fans in Atlanta, it seems, are nothing but grateful for his contribution over the last two years. And on a very basic level, he smiles a lot. So let’s hope that’s a good indicator of a player! With the Hispanic influence of the likes of Rafa and his staff, Fernandez, Manquillo, Ayoze, Perez, Kenedy, Rondon, Joselu – yes, even Joselu – he has a better chance of settling in quickly and if his roots mean that he can strike up some kind of understanding with our centre forward, then all the better.

‘…for every Rafa, terrifyingly there’s a Marcelino.’

We have a history with players from South America though and so we all know that it’s not always that simple. In terms of influence and positivity, for every Perez there’s a Mirandinha and for every Rafa, terrifyingly there’s a Marcelino. We can only hope that Almiron settles quickly. And in terms of a Mirandinha comparison we can only hope he refrains from kicking goalkeepers up the arse.

Some have questioned Almiron’s size, wondering if he has what it takes to adapt to the sheer physicality of the Premier League. In truth, only time will tell, but if you look at players around now like Aguero, Sane, Sterling, Salah, Fraser and Erikson as well as players from the recent past like Modric and Suarez, then size isn’t everything. You could argue that all of these players are also exceptional footballers, but again with Almiron we don’t yet know.

In terms of the future Almiron could have a huge effect. Could his signing be a signal that the purse strings are being loosened? Well, given the overwhelming evidence of the last 11 years, then you’d say probably not. But given that you’re a Newcastle United fan, you’re the eternal optimist by definition, otherwise you’d have given up the ghost years ago! So let’s hope that his signing leads to more of the same. Could Almiron help bring success? Conceivably, yes. But it’s obvious that he’s going to need help in the form of more signings of at least similar quality if we’re to start battling for trophies. While his signing brings a certain level of optimism, it doesn’t blind you to the fact that January still left Rafa with a great deal less than he’d asked for.

Which brings me to the man himself. Rafa Benitez. A man who has invested so much into both our club and community over the last few years. Although still not enough if your name’s Richard Keys. And if your name is Richard Keys, then pop off back to hanging around the sixth form gates; this blog’s not for you.

‘But this is NUFC and life is never, ever that simple…’

It’s been speculated that Almiron’s signing might well be the gesture that helps persuade Rafa to sign a new contract. And it’s true, there’s a certain poetic kind of logic to that. He desperately wanted the player, so why would he leave mere months into coaching the fellaa? But this is NUFC and life is never, ever that simple or straightforward. It’s a nice dream, but really? Almiron – and I mean this in the most respectful of ways – should be viewed simply as a start and I feel sure that Rafa will think very much the same. I mean, for all the good feeling he brings, we’re still playing with somebody else’s centre forward leading the line and a bloke bought from Stoke’s reserves as back up. So while signing Almiron might make Rafa feel like we’ve got more of a chance, I’m sure it won’t make him sign the first contract that’s stuck under his nose.

Looking at the signing from another ‘future’ angle, I wonder what he might do in terms of the development of players like Sean Longstaff, Mo Sangare, Kelland Watts and the like. Certainly in terms of Longstaff who will at the very least be training with the first team for the foreseeable future, Almiron could be a fantastic influence and totally compliment his style of play. And from a slightly different angle it could be interesting to see how he might link up with the likes of Shelvey.

‘He won’t have missed the league table…’

As ever with Newcastle it’s important to look at the darker side of things though. Almiron comes into a club that in many ways is in turmoil and into a team that is fighting relegation. It’s to be hoped that he settles quickly and begins to exert his influence on the team so that we can start to gain even more positive results. However for any player coming into a fight such as ours there will always be a question mark. That said, I’m sure he’s coming in with his eyes well and truly wide open. He won’t have missed the league table and I’m sure that he’s been informed of the current stand off between fans and owner. It has to be hoped though that his focus is solely on the team and results. He’s certainly going to find that he’s a long way from Atlanta in every sense of the phrase.

One thing is absolutely certain about the signing of Miguel Almiron. Our fans will be behind him from the off. His signing has caused a definite excitement; one that we haven’t had from a signing for a number of years. For me, there’s even a certain parallel between signing Almiron and signing Asprilla. Granted Asprilla was already very much established in the game, but still in terms of how he’d settle and what he’d produce, an unknown quantity. Well Tino definitely produced the goods. Let’s hope Miguel can do the same.

Whatever happens, the signing of Miguel Almiron is a step in the right direction. Whether it’s a baby step or some sort of seismic leap…well we’ll have to wait and see. Whichever way you look at his signing though, it’s going to be an interesting next few months. Same as it ever was then.

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