There’s no question the last fortnight has been a great one to be a Newcastle United supporter. The away win at Cardiff having secured promotion at home over Preston on the Monday night set a new club record of 14 away wins in a single season and no-one can take that away from Rafa Benitez. Sunderland very kindly got themselves relegated at home to set off an epidemic of grinning on the Black & White planet while we looked at the wobble at Brighton and gave ourselves an outside chance of winning the division. Although they were 7 points ahead of us with three games remaining, they managed to lose away to Norwich at home to Bristol and could only draw against ten men at Aston Villa, who ironically, did us a favour with a fabulous late equaliser setting off fantastic celebrations in St James’ Park. The last few weeks will stay with us for many a year.
It was a bit of a common refrain to hear supporters say they weren’t really bothered about winning the league – promotion was the priority – I had one of them next to me – but everyone’s favourite Yasser Arafat stunt double was jumping all over me when the realisation sunk in we’d be getting our hands on that beautiful trophy. We all talk a fair bit of rubbish don’t we? We loved winning the division, we loved seeing the reaction of the players when it was confirmed and we loved seeing Rafa hold that trophy aloft. I wanted us to win it and I’m delighted we did. It crowned a great season and the players will all have wonderful memories of seeing a packed SJP going crazy with delight and I hope it encourages them to want to repeat the feat.
It didn’t do any harm for a watching Mike Ashley to see the whole thing and clock the adulation Rafa is held in by the rank and file, the people who go to matches, who pay their way into games rather than people who appear to have turned their back on the club on a permanent basis and even take a perverse pleasure in its failings, talking it down and imagining they are somehow superior to those of us who never stopped believing in Newcastle United. I pity those people.
It wouldn’t be Newcastle United however if every positive moment at the club wasn’t tinged with anxiety. Throughout the season I’m sure you like me have had conversations with battle-hardened Mags speculating whether Ashley wasn’t about to play some elaborate con-trick on all of us and leave us feeling lower than we ever have done previously. In January, I worried the lack of movement in the transfer market might have pushed Rafa out of the club.
But that doesn’t appear to be the case. Thankfully, Ashley appears to understand he has won the lottery with Rafa Benitez now being at Newcastle United and is ready to invest in his future success. He has made Rafa happy and by dint of that so are we. That doesn’t mean anyone seriously believes we are about to make an assault upon the Premier League the like of which has never been witnessed before. No, most of us are happy that a world class manager is being left to run our football club and build a team that will compete, that we can believe in and is part of a longer-term strategy to build Newcastle United into the best club it can be. Personally, I think the PL has been rigged against clubs like ours because of investment from Russia and Abu Dhabi but also through the Champions League which has created a virtual cartel at the top end of the league. That makes it difficult enough but the TV money has delivered a weird kind of egalitarianism amongst the also rans and thrown up the likes of West Brom, Stoke and Watford et al as being far richer clubs than the traditionally much better supported and decorated clubs such as Villa and Leeds now only one division below them.
We return to that fray without the benefit of last year’s TV largesse but with promises from Ashley of suitable investment that I believe will mean we might be able to hope for something next year beyond a grim fight for survival. It would be a fantastic achievement next season were we to be close to mid-table. That would represent a real turnaround and from that point Rafa can continue to build, continue to improve and we can grow to being the best we can be.
We return to the PL with so much more than the promise of decent investment in the team however. We have a new spirit that has been absent for so long. The support has a belief in the manager that hasn’t been so obvious since the days of Kevin Keegan. We believe that Rafa wants what we want. We believe Rafa is our man rather than a lickspittle as per Pardew or McClaren. That means so much to us – a reason to believe.
Off the park you’d have to been hiding under a rock not to have felt the new atmosphere around United and evidenced by the development of Gallowgate Flags (which was superb on Sunday) together with a renewed support for the Newcastle United Foundation and the rapid development of the Newcastle United Fans Foodbank which has acted as a magnet for deep and latent solidarity and feelings of community I feared we’d lost for good. We’ve seen the warmth for various charity raising and there’s an unquestionable air of positivity with old enmities melting away. Long may that continue.
Its not just the team we’ll be following next season that should give us so much optimism however. I hope as part of the enthusiasm Ashley might have discovered for United that he recognises the club needs more than a decent first team. To build the club further the training facilities which are really quite mediocre in comparison to lots of others need to be significantly improved. Rafa should oversee that and bring in the best expertise he has garnered across the continent and that needs to be drilled into the Academy which has been moribund for too long. Rome wasn’t built in a day but the foundations can be dug by Rafa Benitez.
Off the park there are other areas that Ashley has to address. The first is United’s lamentable commercial operation. That needs expertise brought in to help grow the club significantly so that it can continue to provide the finances to build the team to take United further. Our commercial arm has been a car crash since 2007 and seriously needs to be addressed.
With the relegations of Boro and Sunderland we are now the only Premier League club north of Manchester if Hull follow their east coast neighbours down the flusher. There is now sadly a reduced offer from Durham CCC in the region. Into this breach United must step quickly to ensure it shifts its corporate packages and makes the absolute most it can from the open goal it now has. On a corporate basis United has huge potential and it has to be the number one sporting offer between the Tweed and the Tees befitting of our status as the North East’s biggest and best football club and most famous sporting institution. WE have to grasp this opportunity with both hands.
We all know and understand Newcastle United’s appeal goes far beyond the city boundaries and has long been the club of choice for the vast majority across Tyneside and Northumberland as well as Durham. Now we have an opportunity to extend the club’s appeal down to Teesside and across to Cumbria to establish ourselves as the club of the North. With Sunderland and Boro entering into what I imagine lengthy periods in the wilderness we have to move to attract new generations of supporters for Newcastle United in those areas of the region we might not have thought as being fertile breeding ground for our just and righteous cause. We have to ram home that advantage we have been handed and sabotage the growth potential of those rival clubs for many years to come.
Well, that was possibly the happiest one of thee columns I’ve written that I can remember. I may go off for a lie-down.
On behalf of everyone connected with this fanzine may I thank you all for indulging us once again this last season. Its a pleasure to publish this little lot for all of you out there and especially those of you who have been with us from the beginning back in 1999. We’re all friends and we’ve been through a lot together supporting our great club.
We’ll have some news about some quite significant changes with true faith over the next week or so but its all very positive and as we approach our twentieth year in existence I can say with confidence our best years are still ahead of us.
Anyway. Its been emotional.
Keep On, Keepin’ On …