On 9th November 2011, Newcastle United wiped away over a century of history and renamed their world-renowned stadium the Sports Direct Arena. As expected, many fans responded furiously at the latest decision from the unpopular regime headed by businessman Mike Ashley.
One of the most common criticisms we receive at United For Newcastle is that we are overly negative, failing to highlight the good work of the regime and getting wound up over something as “meaningless” as the name of the stadium.
Others point to the decisions made at Newcastle as being symptomatic of a wider trend in world football: where commercial interests have to be considered, and finance rules supreme.
Whilst these fans are more than entitled to their views, the situation at Newcastle is not this simple. The hypocrisy of the club and the lies they have peddled over the last half-decade simply cannot be brushed under the carpet. They are numerous, from guarantees that for as long as Mike Ashley remained in charge that the stadium name would always include St. James’ Park, to promises of reinvestment from the sale of players that hasn’t yet materialised.
The key to maintaining power with weak support – in politics, as much as in football – is to promise what will happen. For instance, we will get back into Europe; we will buy new players; we will find someone else to sponsor the stadium. The hallmark of a great regime, however, is their ability to look back and say “look what we have achieved”. The current administration at Newcastle has precious little to show for five years in charge outside of relegation. They have sold top players, sacked multiple managers and acted – all in all – exactly how one would expect from two people who, in the words of Kevin Keegan, know nothing about football.
It is clear that Newcastle United is not Mike Ashley’s priority: money is. I would never be so ignorant as to claim Mike Ashley wants Newcastle to perform badly; why would he? A successful club has global appeal and wide-reaching advertising potential both for brands such as SportsDirect in which he has a vested interest, and others willing to pay.
However, the heritage of the club and what it means to the fans of Newcastle is of no concern whatsoever. Most Newcastle fans would agree that the name St. James’ Park is worth more than a mere £8 million a season. Especially when we can hardly trust that money to be reinvested fully. As Kevin Keegan’s tribunal revealed, the club intentionally and repeatedly misled the supports and the media to suit their own needs. How can we trust these assurances?
Do we even really need that money? Can we really sympathise with an owner who will sell the heart and soul of the club for every penny its worth, when he then proceeds to blow £1 million in a single gambling session.
The Guardian summed the situation up on the 10th November 2011, when David Conn wrote that “part of what feels so wrong about the 'rebranding' of St James’ Park is clear to anybody who has actually been in Sports Direct.”
The real question is: what do we want from Newcastle? Do we care only about the football on the pitch? Or do we care about the history of our club, and of the city above which St. James’ Park proudly stands. If we care only for the former, then sadly we have lost from football the spirit that has endured for generations.
There will be those who claim I am being a doom-mongering negativity junkie, and am blowing everything out of proportion. I disagree. I’m standing up for the history of the club I love, and trying to protect something more valuable than money – the soul of the club and the city – from vanishing forever.