It’s a strange time to be a Newcastle fan. Take your pick from a long list of reasons to feel blue, all without so much as a sigh-provoking sip from a Sports Direct mug.
There’s the recent relegation; the subsequent reminders that, yes, Burton Albion away is a forthcoming fixture (December 17th, if you were wondering…); and the latest infuriating ploy in Moussa Sissoko’s unrelenting exit plan – his retweeting of an interview headlined ‘I Want To Leave Newcastle’. But although few in black and white will look back at the 2015/16 campaign with any fondness whatsoever, something out of the ordinary appears to be afoot on Tyneside.
With the focus currently on Euro 2016, and England’s embarrassing defeat to Iceland, Newcastle have been quietly showing signs of change, all of which seem very, well, un-Newcastle. Suddenly, alarmingly even, a flicker of light has appeared at the end of the tunnel. The broken bonds between a huge, loyal fanbase and a club that has become cold and sterile under its current hierarchy are beginning to look as though they can be repaired.
Rewind to the final game of the past season at home to Tottenham – an event that marked the culmination of a catastrophe. Newcastle had already been relegated, another year of failure in the bank, and supporters were coming to terms with the probability of an already much-adored manager departing under the release clause written into his contract.
But the mood in St James’ Park was far from dejected that day. Instead, a ‘what-if’ mentality took hold as Rafa Benitez’s name rang around the stadium. The occasion became more about the fans’ thanks, worship and pleas for him to stay, encouraged by the team giving their best performance of the campaign as they thrashed Spurs 5-1.
After ten days of lingering uncertainty, an unfamiliar exuberance rained down on Newcastle when the announcement was made that Benitez was staying. While the fans’ backing no doubt influenced his decision, in this instance credit should also stretch, remarkably, to habitual gloom-mongers Lee Charnley and Mike Ashley for recognising Benitez’s potential to transform a club that has been dragging its heels for too long.
Much has been made of the scorn felt towards Ashley’s tenure – almost a decade-long merry-go-round of drama and catastrophe – but since the re-unveiling of Rafa, Newcastle have become a far more forward-facing operation, making moves to embrace its role in the community and rekindle its damaged affiliation with supporters. Before a ball has been kicked, it feels like a light bulb has finally lit up in the boardroom. Things can only improve if everyone in black-and-white stripes is pulling together.
In the short post-season period so far, Newcastle have taken much needed steps to re-engage with the local community. This change of tack was absolutely necessary, and Benitez’s role as a catalyst cannot be underestimated.
Central to this is Rafa’s haste to go where other managers in the Ashley era have not: speaking directly to fans via local press and media. A return to open training sessions has been promised, along with a shake-up of the club’s academy system, a focus on grassroots relations, and increased community and charity engagement. Notably, Benitez has outlined the assurances he has received regarding his control over “all football matters”. Even the club’s social media strategy has switched from corporate and aloof to chatty, obliging and light-hearted.
This is small fry for most clubs of course, but not for Newcastle in recent seasons. An open dialogue between club and fan is something every supporter deserves, and it’s been far too long since the Toon Army have been granted that right. What may seem like simple, reflex actions are in fact shoots of recovery in re-establishing the Magpies’ affinity with supporters.
There is still much ground to be made up and the hard work undoubtedly lies ahead, but it is clear that Benitez has kick-started the process and is wasting no time in his quest to mould a club that embodies the city as a whole – a blueprint that follows his time as Liverpool manager. In doing so, Benitez has become the focal point of an unlikely air of optimism and camaraderie, and boy, is it welcome.
A 10% reduction on season tickets – in what was an unexpected move – has added to the feel-good factor. The St James’ Park ticket office was overwhelmed with demand, while a statement regarding ticket sales for the opening day of the Championship declared: “It’s been several years since we’ve seen sales at the high level we’ve had.” When it was thought that fans may finally be driven to turn their backs on the club they love, they’re instead coming out in droves to sign up for the new season.
In Benitez Newcastle have a manager who loves to be loved. He and the players will benefit most from the shift in mood – indeed, the positivity so far is aimed solely at him rather than any clear reconciliation with Ashley. But the crucial detail at the start of a summer of change is that optimism and unity have surfaced for the first time in a long time.
If we’re to assume that the penny has finally dropped for Ashley and the manager is allowed to go about his work with the control and resources he has been promised, then there is a lot to look forward to. The football community of Newcastle can finally dream of getting their club back.