On the eve of the Tyne and Wear derby, Tony Dawber speaks to Newcastle United Supporters’ Trust chair Norman Watson about ownership woes and fans’ frustrations.
Set to clash this Sunday, Newcastle and local rivals Sunderland are emblematic of their respective cities and symbolise local identity. Currently both have super-rich owners born far from the area – and therefore detached from its local tradition.
But for Newcastle fans, their rivals appear to be getting along better with the outsider.
As Norman Watson, chair of the Newcastle United Supporters’ Trust and a fervent follower of the Toon for more than 60 years, explains when comparing the two owners: ‘The difference is that at least Ellis Short does communicate with the fans while Mike Ashley doesn’t say anything’.
According to Watson, Newcastle owner Ashley leaves communicating to manager Alan Pardew, who ‘ends up just sounding unconvincing and spinning the party line, so he becomes the target for the fans’.
‘The suspicion is that Mike Ashley is using his ownership of Newcastle as a means to promote his own business,’ he goes on.
Indeed, these issues may also concern fans of troubled Scottish giants Rangers, whom Ashley is also looking to take over. ‘And if he gains control of Rangers,’ says Watson, ‘he will use both clubs to further his own interests. He does invest but does not appear to spend anywhere near the right amount on the team itself.
Some supporters do give Mike Ashley credit for keeping the wage bill under control, but there is a perceived lack of ambition and a strong feeling that finishing in the top eight is good enough and the board would be happy with that.’
And what’s worse for Newcastle, Watson admits, is that the Toon faithful are all too aware that it’s a familiar problem.
‘The stadium towers over the city centre and there’s always been a feeling that the club symbolises everything about the Geordies like Barcelona does for the Catalans,’ he says.
‘There’s a view among neutrals that Newcastle cannot compete with the top clubs but we have been in the Champions League three times in the past 20 years and have a turnover of more than £100m. The fans feel it’s not out of reach.
But what is so frustrating for us is that over the years, not just in Mike Ashley’s time, the club has been badly managed at board level and has therefore been unable to fulfil its potential. Unfortunately, it’s something we’ve become used to.’
Derby triumph on Sunday will see the famous old football cathedral rocking with joy – but it appears that for the Geordie nation, the deeper ills need to be addressed.