It has been aimless for nearly 15 years now.
Mike Ashley’s Newcastle United exists as a shell of what came before, with all the life and purpose sucked out long ago; the memories of what the club used to be are being preserved through little more than nostalgic pub chats, books and old films, because looking back has become so much better than looking forward.
That is and will be — when he finally sells Newcastle — Ashley’s legacy. But the one thing the club has always had, that even Ashley hasn’t been able to break, is a passionate fanbase. There has been a steady erosion of support — 10,000 part-season tickets had to be made available for free two seasons ago because of consistently dwindling attendances at St James’ Park — but by and large, it has remained steadfast. Ashley has been a target of anger and blame for almost the entirety of his ownership, but there has long been criticism of efforts to usurp him from the stands because they regularly involved boycotting games. For many, even in the darkest, most existential of crises, not going to the match was a test of their love they just couldn’t pass.
Being forced out of the stadium for over a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic may factor into a further shift in perception. But such is the desperation for fans to see the back of Ashley and reunite themselves with hope and ambition, they cling onto anything they can to see themselves through a seemingly endless trudge of mediocrity and disappointment.
This summer, there was something to offer that sense of change. The long-running takeover involving a Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund-backed consortium, led by Amanda Staveley and also involving billionaire brothers David and Simon Reuben, has been in stasis ever since the Premier League began their Owners and Directors Test. That is down to a number of reasons, mainly centring around the Saudi state’s involvement and its links to PIF. It was due to move forward this month when an arbitration case to answer those questions was expected to begin, but that has been adjourned until early 2022, relating to “issues with the disclosure of evidence”.
Despite both Ashley and Staveley joining calls for transparency during proceedings, the delay is believed to involve all parties. Calls for government intervention have repeatedly been ignored and a fan-led review into football, chaired by Conservative Member of Parliament Tracey Crouch, has resulted in calls for an independent regulator. Meanwhile, fans are facing up to the prospect of another season under their current owner and almost universally denounced manager Steve Bruce.
— FootballJOE (@FootballJOE) July 16, 2021
There is a second legal route – an anti-competition tribunal case launched against the Premier League by Newcastle, which those most confident about the takeover going through now believe may happen before arbitration, with a positive outcome potentially rendering it obsolete. Worryingly, though, Ashley, who has never been the most hands-on owner, appears to have emotionally checked out, with almost everybody focused on his exit. Now that is on hold, uncertainty is engulfing the club again, but everything needs to keep on turning.
📰 Newcastle are expected to have a 'very frustrating' transfer window amidst the takeover talks.
— Football Daily (@footballdaily) July 23, 2021
“Bids [for players] haven’t been as forthcoming as they should have been because there was this expectation that Mike Ashley wouldn’t be there by the end of July and certainly the start of August,” Chris Waugh, Newcastle United correspondent for The Athletic tells Compare Bet. “That has now flipped; now everyone knows he is going to be here for the remainder of the window and there isn’t going to be this grand restart of Newcastle United that had been promised over the past 15 months.”
Over 96% of the 14,000 Newcastle United Supporters Trust members who were polled last year backed the takeover, but it is those people and many more who are being left in the dark and taken advantage of throughout this process. Their passion and loyalty should not make them pawns, and they should not be taken for granted.
“There was a feeling of hope before arbitration was delayed,” NUST board member Charlotte Robson says. “As Newcastle fans, we are endlessly hopeful for a better reality. Everyone is fed up of Ashley, but we are now staring down the barrel of another season with he and Steve Bruce at the helm. We were saved by a fluke loan in Joe Willock last season, and we do have a reasonable squad, but I don’t think our manager is very good. If arbitration doesn’t start until January, how long is it going to take? We are not going to have a new owner by the end of the coming season and that is really depressing to me. Hope is just ripped away from the fans at every turn.”
BREAKING: Newcastle United’s takeover hearing with the Premier League has been adjourned to 2022 – due to issues with the disclosure of evidence. Arbitration set to take place early next year now #NUFC
— Keith Downie (@SkySports_Keith) July 19, 2021
Newcastle finished the season strongly last term by reaching 12th in the Premier League, but genuine, deep-rooted problems perpetuated by a run of just two wins in 22 games during a long, tough winter were eased by a run of two defeats and five wins from their last nine. The upturn in form and fortunes coincided with Willock’s historic run of scoring in eight consecutive league games and the respective returns to fitness of Allan Saint-Maximin and top scorer Callum Wilson.
Willock has gone back to Arsenal and although Newcastle have made him their top target, Ashley’s ever more prominent flakiness and the fact the 21-year-old became so heavily relied upon show just how fine the line between success and failure can be at Newcastle. Evidence that Ashley wants to ease the fraught atmosphere he created has never been forthcoming.
“I spoke to Steve Bruce on Sunday [after a 1-0 friendly defeat at National League North side York City] and I asked him if he was being stopped from signing players because of the takeover. He was adamant that wasn’t the case, but I sensed an underlying tone of frustration and that he wanted things to speed up. I do think things will start to intensify now; whether that means Newcastle will be shopping in a slightly higher price bracket than they did before arbitration was postponed, I just don’t know the answer to that.”
Uncertainty is crushing Newcastle as a club and the fans are both the most heavily impacted and in the weakest position to combat it. They have made their stand and done everything they can, but continue to be left in the dark, preparing again for another miserable campaign following a club they don’t believe represents them.
“The fans are desperate for something, anything,” Robson continues. “They get used to putting pressure on and all different groups have done amazing things, putting pressure on the Premier League and on government, writing to MPs, all that should be commended. But then it feels like, ‘for what?’ We are not being told anything and we are looking at another season in the same situation, a relegation scrap.”
The future is more delay and more waiting; officially, the consortium has stepped away from the table, though Staveley has insisted all members remain committed should a route to the deal getting done become clear. NUST have put their own plans in place to ensure a fan voice is heard when it matters in the future.
Known as ‘the 1892 Pledge Scheme’, it is hoped that, whenever the club is sold, money raised through donations can go towards buying a stake in the club. If it doesn’t succeed, whatever is raised will be donated to local charities
“The current price of a 1% stake is £3.5million, so we are hoping to get to that, but the club could be revalued at any time,” Robson says. “We want fans to be consulted on matters relating to their club: ticketing, safe-standing, the community. This club was born out of community and wouldn’t exist without it.”
Waugh isn’t expecting many of the fans who have walked away under Ashley’s watch to return, but hopes for a much smoother season regardless of any off-pitch issues.
“I understand why supporters will be pessimistic,” he says. “The issue is attracting back the supporters who walked away, and there is no reason for that; no marquee signings and a manager that the majority don’t like. It could turn toxic inside St James’ Park if Newcastle start the season poorly.
“In my opinion, their squad should be comfortably mid-table; Saint-Maximin and Wilson are crucial to that, Willock will be if he returns as well. If they can stay fit, Newcastle will have assets going forward; they can get into any bottom half side in the Premier League. Every season under Ashley is a slog, but I don’t see why it has to be an out and out relegation battle.”
From now until the New Year at least, Newcastle will continue to flounder in the hope of change rather than searching for it themselves. There will be no new approach from Ashley, only the dream for fans of one day seeing him leave. Whatever happens long term, the club must focus on a purpose rather than aimlessly drifting under the false security of a possible bright future.