The press box at Swansea City’s Liberty Stadium is a single row of seats in front of a walkway that divides the main stand. In the centre, where intelligent hacks (stop laughing) try to position themselves for the best view, you back right onto the director’s box.
It is here that I got closer to Mike Ashley than I ever had before. For three years I covered Newcastle United and that was it. Just a few meters and some concrete between us. I even caught his eye, just once. I’m sure of it.
Newcastle actually ended up getting a draw from that game, but twice they fell behind, which prompted a chorus of a song more frequently heard than the Blaydon Races these days.
“You fat cockney bastard, get out of our club.”
Big Mike didn’t pretend not to hear. There was no stony expression on his face. In fact, he laughed. Loudly and for a long time.
Ashley doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him. Not the supporters who follow the football club he owns, not the people at Rangers who will try to bargain with a man they will probably never meet and not even the government. He was once summoned by a group of MPs to discuss his business practices. He didn’t turn up.
Ashley has spent the past eight years seemingly deliberately winding up the Newcastle fans. To be fair, he is good at it. He changed the stadium name, sacked Kevin Keegan, appointed Joe Kinnear twice and sold the club’s best players.
Ashley gets his minions to churn out the party line that Newcastle United are, if not skint, then working to a budget. Yet, last week it was revealed they have £34million in the bank.
A boycott was arranged and subsequently took place on Sunday when at least 12,000 regular supporters stayed away from the home match against Tottenham. It might have been more. We will never know as the club did not reveal the real attendance. The official figure included season ticket holders, many of whom were noticeably absent.
So it’s a bloody nose for Ashley then, yeah? Erm… probably not. This cannot be stressed enough: Ashley could not care less.
He is clever enough to work out that the boycott was probably a one-off and while anecdotal evidence suggests a drop in season tickets for next season, the TV deal will more than make up for that.
On a personal level, I backed the boycott and while I no longer live in the North East, I want to see the football club do well. I hope Sunday achieved something. I am just not sure what. But at least the fans are trying. At least they got their message heard.
One of the most vocal and articulate malcontents among the Newcastle support is Michael Martin, editor of True Faith fanzine. After the game, which he did not attend, he wrote that he believed something had been, if not achieved, then certainly started.
“Whatever numbers anyone comes up with following #BoycottSpurs, the conclusion is inescapable,” he said. “The Ashley Out campaign is unquestionably very much up and very much running.”
“I have heard quotes on the attendance ranging from under 32,000 to 47,000-plus.
“One thing is for certain, it was nowhere near the latter and there were huge gaps all over the ground, particularly on Level 7. I’m delighted to see the campaign get started with such a degree of energy and just being amongst the protestors today gave me the biggest buzz I’ve had from Newcastle United for a long while.”
“What I would say, having been around the campaign this last week and a bit, is that leading campaigns of this type is far from easy. In fact, it is very tough. As you might expect 50,000 Geordies all know best and all have different ideas about how to take the campaign to the next stage. I am strongly of the view anyone can do anything they like within the law in my opinion.”
“No-one should be waiting for permission to take forward any action so far as they have the will and the resources to do it – just get stuck in. If you and your mates have a plan to do something, then crack on … let us know and we will publicise it.
“Don’t imagine you can fire your latest wheeze to us here or others and someone else will do the donkey work. That’s not going to happen.”
Martin hits the nail on the head here in terms of that while Sunday was deemed a success by the organisers, it’s hardly the case that there is one song sheet and everyone is sharing it.
During my time on the patch, I spoke with many different fans groups and fanzines. Like the Life of Brian scene when the Judean Peoples Front hate Peoples Front of Judea more than the “bloody Romans” it seemed to this outsider that too many wanted to slag off their fellow fan rather than ignore minor differences and pull together to have a proper go at Ashley.
Earlier this season, I spoke to those behind the PardewOut.com group about their plans. They have now replaced the name of the former manager with the owner.
Interestingly, there were more than a few dissenters who claimed such a thing would never work given the loyalty of the fan-base. These same skeptics are now on board, but the same grievances have been aired on social media. A bit of growing up needs to be done. If Newcastle fans don’t all come together then nothing is going to change.
I’ll finish by saying that Newcastle Upon Tyne is a wonderful place to live. I knew nothing of it and immediately fell in love with the people the moment I stepped foot on the soil. It’s a cliché of course to say they are all friendly and without airs and graces, however, it is also true.
The football club dominates the city and should at least reflect the people. But is a cold and unfriendly club run by a man who is not in the least bit interested in anything except making money, and he has lackeys doing his dirty work for him on a daily basis.
There may well be a meeting this week about how the club moves forward in a bid to get the support back on-side. But I doubt it.
Newcastle are an awful team, but probably have enough points to stay up. They will do just enough business in the summer to avoid relegation and nothing will change. That’s unless there is a Sheik in the Middle East who has a fancy for a football club in England’s North East.
Neil Cameron covered Newcastle United for ncjMedia between 2012 and 2015. You can follow him on Twitter (@neilcameron5)