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Death by a thousand cuts - opposition profile
Friday, 15th May 2015 00:39 by Clive Whittingham

Newcastle’s Mike Ashley business model is a product of the modern day Premier League, which handsomely rewards mediocrity. But have they started to coast a couple of weeks too soon?

Amidst the UKIP bile, fantasies about inflicting physical harm on Harry Redknapp, and ongoing debate about whether Robert Green is actually any good or not, there was an interesting hypothetical posed of the posters on the LoftforWords message board a couple of months back. It went a little something like this…

The year is 2015 and QPR are safely ensconced in the middle of the Premier League where they’ve been for all but one of the last 20 years. They continue to sell 50,000 tickets for home games in their iconic, modern, state of the art stadium and make use of the pristine training facilities they own on the edge of the city. They have a first class youth academy. The club has become known for shunning the high transfer fees, wages, agent rip offs and signing on fees that blight the rest of the sport and has developed a reputation for scouting the darkest corners of Europe, regularly picking up young foreign players for cut-price fees and selling them on for big money two years down the line. A profit for the year of £18m has just been announced, the fourth straight year the club has made rather than lost money. The head scout is renowned and his work admired by the rest of the division.

Would you take it?

QPR has worked itself into a right state again - like the homeless alcoholic who just can’t help himself but spend the change he was tossed today on another can of Special Brew or Ji Sung-Park- so it’s no surprise to know that most Lostus Road regulars would snap your arm clean off at the shoulder and lick the wound clean for such a scenario. Which leads me to introduce our visitors to W12 this Saturday afternoon, Newcastle United. A club with all the above, yet seemingly in crisis and open revolt with the chairman, manager, supporters and players all at counter-purposes and making no secret of their hatred for one another. John Carver, the latest nodding dog parachuted into the managerial position here, has accused one of his players, with some justification, of deliberately getting sent off at Leicester last week to miss the crucial run in.

This situation has generated nearly as many column inches this season as the various fascinating wars of words Jose Mourinho has been involved in, and the ongoing fascination with dragging up years-old photographs of Raheem Sterling and Jack Grealish messing about with balloons, accompanied by the obligatory condemnation from the mother of another young boy who spontaneously burst into flames and died when he messed about with balloons at his friend’s birthday party once. The great and the good of the North East sporting press have lined up to pen near-poetic pieces on their first experience of the Gallowgate End, their first black and white scarf, their first sight of the lime green playing surface and ask what a football club means, what role it plays in the lives of the people who follow it, what status it holds in a northern city in Cameron’s broken Britain and what we’re all here for anyway?

What more can they do? Write pieces encouraging Newcastle to stop turning a profit? Tell them to stop scouting those European bargains and start spending £30m on Eliaquim Mangala like everybody else? Criticise them for selling out all their home games?

Fact is, Newcastle are simply one of half a dozen clubs in the Premier League at the moment running in this manner, and there are about three dozen others – QPR included – who aspire to it. We speak to an opposition supporter every week and always finish by asking for the short, medium and long term aims for the club. The most popular answer is “first and foremost, we have to stay in the Premier League…” For Newcastle, for Stoke, for West Brom, for Villa, and Sunderland, Swansea, West Ham, Southampton, Palace and maybe soon Leicester as well that’s where it begins and ends. The aim every season, is to get the season finished as soon as possible. Games like last week’s deathly dull mid-April dead rubber between Swansea and Stoke are what we all aspire to now. Get to 42 points, get out of the cups in case they create a fixture backlog and prevent you getting to 42 points, and get yourself off to the Costa Del British Footballer with your colossal piles of money.

This is mainly a Premier League problem, partly a UEFA problem and soon to be a Sky problem. But it’s not a Mike Ashley problem. He is simply working the same way many owners are, just in a more brazen and cynical manner.

It’s a Premier League problem firstly because the Premier League is a league you cannot win. Arsenal, with a magnificent stadium, healthy bank balance, big support and annual Champions League income don’t even really try these days. It used to be between them and Man Utd, now it’s largely between Chelsea and Man City. Essentially, unless a Sheikh or a bent Russian turns up, there’s no point in even trying.

Secondly, because you don’t have to win it, or try to win it, to get your hands on all the money. QPR will take home £60m basic this year for finishing dead last – the same Man Utd were given for winning the whole thing the last time they did so. The season after next, the team finishing bottom will get £100m. So you can’t win the league regardless of what you do, and you get the hundreds of millions anyway, so where’s the incentive to do anything other than spend the absolute bare minimum required to survive every season?

Certainly not in the Europa League, that’s for sure – the recent results at Liverpool, Spurs and Southampton are testament to this and could reasonably be dubbed the ‘race to avoid the Europa League’. UEFA have absolutely torched a once great knock-out competition with an unnecessary group stage rather than a straight knock-out, with a refusal to countenance any other football being played on their precious Champions League nights meaning all the games are on a Thursday, by parachuting losing Champions League teams into it halfway through, and by admitting all manner of drek for all sorts of spurious reasons.

West Ham, for instance, may be rewarded with a European place next season because they’ve had the fewest yellow cards this season – a season which has seen them win just two of their final 15 matches. Should they get it, they’d start playing again on July 2, which means their pre-season training should already have begun. Should they roar through four qualifying rounds, one group stage, and then the knockouts to the final they’ll have played an extra 26 matches across 11 months – all on a Thursday night.

You can see why Newcastle aren’t keen on that, or the domestic cup competitions which bring only more fixture congestion and, if you win, a dreaded spot in the Europa League again. The Premier League could, could, give over Champions League qualifying spots to the cup winners to negate the problem we currently have where several clubs who should be looking to win the cups – Newcastle chief amongst them – deliberately dip out at the first stage every season. But then why would they do that?

This will all soon become a Sky problem for the reasons we see this weekend. Their live matches are Liverpool v Palace, Swansea v Man City, Man Utd v Arsenal and West Brom v Chelsea. Penultimate weekend of the Premier League season, not a single thing at stake in any of them. They could all finish 8-0 one way or the other, or 5-5, or 13-13, or 0-0. The ghost of Sir Bert Millichip could parachute down clutching a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape and interrupt the second half and it wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference to either team or the league table. “More of the games that matter” they tell us, as we fork over 80 notes a month. Not this weekend mate, there’s stuff going on in my back bedroom that matters more than this.

This is all being felt particularly acutely in Newcastle, and provoking such an angry reaction, for several reasons.

One, because if bloody Newcastle United can’t crack the monopoly, win the odd cup, upset a few apple carts and so on then what hope is there for the rest? Given the facilities, the bank balance, the size of the support, the size of the stadium, what more could you actually want or need to have a bit of a pop at some silverware? West Brom, Stoke, Swansea, QPR, Leicester – these are all tiny, tiny clubs by comparison. There are differing expectation levels and rightly so.

Secondly, because Mike Ashley has been so callous and blatant about it all. Turning a famous old venue of English football into an advertising hoarding for his emporium of nasty, cheap-shit sports gear. Selling the front of the iconic black and white jersey to a legal pay-day loan shark in a part of the country hit particularly hard by the double-dip recession. Allowing players like Yohan Cabaye to leave at the very end of January transfer windows with no replacements because it looks good on the balance sheet, and there are already enough points on the board to coast through the second half of the season and still stay up. Appointing John Carver to replace Alan Pardew believing the same.

Three, because Newcastle, like no other place in the UK, is a city with football at the heart of everything. You can literally, physically see it because St James’ Park stands on top of the highest hill, dead in the centre of the city, towering over everything else, visible from wherever you are within 20 miles. I’ve compared it to a cathedral, calling its church together once a week for a common cause and belief. If you go in the actual cathedral in Newcastle, an altogether less impressive structure near the railway station, you’ll find, on the mantelpiece in the coffee shop, a picture of Kevin Keegan making his Newcastle debut (against QPR) rather than one of Jesus. Go and see for yourself.

Football clubs are community assets and should be treated as such. Nowhere is that more applicable than Newcastle, and nowhere is it being so flagrantly ignored. It is a disgusting disgrace that such an institution is being used to sell crap trainers and dodgy loans while lining the pockets of a fat, rich businessman from the affluent North London suburb of Totteridge while the league stands idly by and lets it happen, congratulating itself on its latest gross television deal which will only exacerbate this particular situation further – rewarding Newcastle, and Ashley, in ever greater amounts for their mediocrity. The Premier League rewards you handsomely for achieving nothing, so why would you ever stretch yourself to try and achieve anything?

But fourthly because Ashley might have actually taken it one too far. Maybe Newcastle have added just one too many foreign mercenaries, fully aware they’re only here as assets to be traded and all to ready to turn it in when the going gets tough. Maybe they’ve started coasting with the John Carver appointment just that little bit too early. Maybe, in Carver, they’ve made an appointment just that little bit worse than their previous flirtations with Dennis Wise, Joe Kinnear and Iain Dowie. Maybe they’ve made one too many pragmatic, money-orientated decisions and one too few old-style calls from a time when football was about winning on Saturday and going home with a medal. Maybe they’re about to inflict a death by a thousand cuts.

Eight straight defeats and a draw means that utopian set up that was put to the QPR fans a couple of months back could be welcoming Swindon Town and Rotherham United for league fixtures next season. Newcastle are no longer ‘safely ensconced in the middle of the Premier League’.

If that does happen – and, sadly, you couldn’t pick two better games to end with than QPR away and West Ham at home so they’ll probably squeeze by – how will Mike Ashley, Richard Scudamore and Michel Platini sleep at night? Not for the first time we finish on a Simpsons quote… On a pile of money, surrounded by many beautiful ladies.

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dixiedean added 10:53 - May 15
A brilliant but sadly depressing summary of the malaise surrounding football, largely due to Sky's corruptive influence. The most chilling slogan they ever had was ' no turning back'.How true that is, sadly - you can't un-invent the wheel . As a 50-something my formative years were spent watching the glory of the 60s & 70s , a time when every club craved a cup run, for financial reward and the glamour . Sadly cup competitions are treated as an irritation and possible drain on resources by top- division clubs. But the thrust of your article is really about differing expectations. Newcastle have always considered themsleves entitled to win things becasue they're a ' big club' ( which they are in terms of attendance) and half the teams in the Prem would swap places without hesitation , but the Geordies are not happy swanning around in mid-table. As for the Europa League. That is indeed a farce and in most cases a poisoned chalice , so good luck to the Ammers when they have to let everyone in for a fiver at the Olympic Stadium ( or whatever their sponsors will be calling in ) to get more than 15000 in when they play some unheard-of team from Latvia in the qualifying round.
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Cochise added 14:34 - May 15
An excellent piece free from the usual bile or completely missing the point by claiming newcastle fans are hard to please. last year we filled our stadium for steve harpers testimonial why? Well partly because of our admiration for a loyal servant but mostly because "the entertainers" team were playing a team revered as legends up despite the fact that they won exactly? Nowt, We have a statue of Sir Bobby outside our ground who won? Nowt again hard to please indeed! And before any of this geordie's hate anyone from the south malarky Sir Les anyone? Sky has made football a lot more tribal than it used to be dont ever remember Bryan Robson or Gary linekar being booed by oposition fans or any other england star player You'll hear that in every ground this weeekend. Football's may have lost it's soul but by shining a light on that fact this article has restored my faith in football fans thank you a lot better than anything i've read in our Chronicle for a hell of a long time
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TacticalR added 11:18 - May 16
Thanks for your opposition profile.

I think you have captured the problems (and absurdities) of the situation of the bulk of the mid-table teams in the Premier League.

The only thing I would add is the European dimension - in particular the danger of the Champions League turning the national leagues into something of a backwater. I was thinking about this the other day while listening to a discussion about Guardiola and Bayern - winning the national league is taken for granted and the real measure of success is what Bayern can do in Europe. Fourth really is a trophy for Wenger as it allows him to get into the 'real league' every year. The mid-table 'national' clubs are just roadkill in this process.

As the for the Europa League, it's clear qualifying for that competition is now widely regarded as an act of gross indecency and any manager who qualifies for it faces instant dismissal and possible criminal proceedings.
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zakopane added 17:54 - May 16
Thanks man . . .a non reactionary, balanced view of what's happening . . . .not just at SJP, but throughout the footballing world - no regurgitation of the soundbites provided the generally idiotic and unbelievably blinkered pundits and journos . . . .with the odd exception. . . . . .look after Joey . . . . .he's not a bad lad really.
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