One Small Voice: Soccer’s poisoned chalice

2008-10-03 00:00

Somewhere in South Africa this morning, there is a group of wealthy individuals preparing to make what could prove to be the biggest mistake of their lives.

These investors, as yet unnamed, are reportedly on the brink of buying Newcastle United football club for R4,2 billion. They must be mad. Taking into account the inevitable stress and strife, bearing in mind the public humiliation when their vision turns sour, as it will, this poisoned chalice of a club is not worth R42.

The consortium may be attracted by the prospect of owning a high-profile English football club, rubbing shoulders with the Americans who own Manchester United, the Russians who own Chelsea, the Arabs who have recently bought Manchester City and even the Icelanders who run West Ham.

They may believe the FA Premier League is an elite club they want to join, not just because of the prestige, but also because, by every measure, the product is continuing to boom worldwide. In terms of TV rights sales, TV audiences and merchandise sales, the FAPL has become the world’s favourite league.

“We can make money,” these tycoons may tell each other, and they may well be right. If the current owner Mike Ashley does sell, he could make a tidy £50-million profit on the deal.

Even so, the sports shop millionaire will not reflect on his period in charge at St James’s Park with any pleasure at all because he and his family are now hated — literally hated — by hundreds of thousands of disappointed fans.

What the wide-eyed South Africans need to understand, sooner rather than later, is that Newcastle United is different. This is not a normal football club with normal fans and normal ambitions. It is a social movement fuelled, inspired and ultimately constrained by the hopes and frustrations of the community.

The football club is an institution so closely identified with the people who live in this proud but economically and socially depressed area that whoever happens to “own” the club according to the documents at Companies House, nobody will convince the hordes of supporters who wear black-and-white striped shirts every Saturday that the club belongs to anybody except them.

When you buy Newcastle United, you don’t buy an asset. You buy a burden, effectively a responsibility to give the self-styled “best supporters in the world” the success they crave.

Many have tried in the past 50 years. All have failed. Newcastle last won the championship in 1926/27 and have not won a domestic trophy since the FA Cup in 1955. Year in, year out, successive owners have arrived with fanfare and failed.

The club has been called the “sleeping giant” of English football so often that the question needs to be asked whether the giant is actually sleeping or whether it has in fact expired. Any self-respecting “Geordie” will tell you, at length, that it is a disgrace that such a big club has not won more, and that the fans deserve much better, and that is the owner’s fault. Most youngsters growing up in the Newcastle area are not aware that “Sack the Board” is actually three separate words until they are 11 years old.

The words of Oscar Wilde were never more true — “Yet each man must kill the thing he loves,” he wrote. The supporters of Newcastle United have effectively killed the football club they love because they demand so much so quickly that every owner, every Board, has consistently failed to deliver.

The supporters don’t want a trophy tomorrow: they want it yesterday. Their enthusiasm and passion for their club is so great that planning and preparation is impossible.

The South Africans may well take over and, amazingly, they may tempt the hugely popular Kevin Keegan to return as manager by giving him five percent of the club (overlooking his record as a serial quitter). There will be an initial burst of optimism, but it will end, sooner or later, in anger, bitterness and recrimination, because, in simple terms, the overblown expectations of the club’s devoted supporters are impossible to meet.

All this pain can be avoided. Just say “no deal”.

•Edward Griffiths is a journalist, general manager of SATV sport and was involved in various SA bid campaigns.

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