Saturday, October 24, 2020

2010s – NUFC’s decade of mediocrity and depression

Today marks the final day of the 2010s – and with all of the “best of” and “moments of” pieces flying around the internet, it seems important to me that we recognise the harsh reality of the impact that this decade has had on those on Tyneside. With (mostly) mediocre managers, mediocre players and frankly poor ownership, Newcastle United have languished in the lower reaches of the Premier League for most of the 2010s – even suffering a second relegation in the space of ten years.

2010-2013

At the turn of the year in 2010, United were vying for promotion from the championship following on from their first relegation in over 20 years. You may think that, due to that frankly depressing fact, the Toon Army would be despondent – but that wasn’t true. Watching their side winning week in, week out gave the fans a real sense of optimism. At the end of the season, the Magpies would gain promotion as champions of England’s second division.

Back in the Premier League, where the fans believe Newcastle belong, that was when we all expected the 2010s to kick fully into gear. With Chris Hughton at the helm, United looked to secure their Premier League status in the first year – with a few incredible memories along the way. The season ended up becoming something of a tale of two halves for United fans – as the hierarchy opted to sack Chris Hughton in December, with the club doing fairly decent in the league. The highlight of Hughton’s tenure as manager was a 5-1 drubbing of local rivals Sunderland, just a month or so prior to his dismissal.

In his place came Alan Pardew, much to the dismay of the Toon Army. His arrival brought questions from the fans and pundits alike, with some even suggesting he was only hired as he and United owner, Mike Ashley, were “gambling buddies”. A month or so later, just to add insult to injury in the mind of NUFC fans, Newcastle sold star striker Andy Carroll to Liverpool for a massive £35million – money that was never to be seen again. Pardew’s first season somewhat stagnated with United finishing in 12th in the league.

The next season, which was to be Pardew’s first full season in charge, was without a doubt the best of the 2010s for NUFC fans. In the summer, Pardew cleared the decks – getting rid of the likes of Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton, replacing them with cheap players from abroad. In came little known French midfielder Yohan Cabaye, accompanied by freebie striker Demba Ba from West Ham…

United started the season with an 11 game unbeaten streak, somewhat setting the tone for their season. The team, propped up by £9m January signing Papiss Cisse (went on to become the top scorer in the 2010s), went on to defy all expectations and finish fifth – qualifying for European competition for the first time since 2006. In the next season, with the distraction of a European road trip, United came back down to earth with a bump – finishing 16th in the league, narrowly avoiding relegation. Their European campaign was largely successful though as Newcastle reached the quarter-finals, only to be edged out by a talented Benfica side.

For me, this marked the beginning of a bumpy road…

Struggling seasons

For the next few years, with the exception of the 2013/14 season, Newcastle flirted with relegation. Pardew left to go back to his boyhood club, Crystal Palace, he was replaced on a temporary basis by his former assistant John Carver.

That season, Newcastle avoided relegation on the final day of the season, with a late goal from Jonas Gutierrez sealing the deal. Even that poignant moment where Jonas scored and completed the ultimate comeback ended up being marred by controversy as he used his celebration to protest against the horrific ownership – who had mistreated him during his cancer treatment.

The following season, United marked the official beginning of their downfall by hiring Steve McClaren. Despite spending some decent money on some very good players – the likes of Gini Wijnaldum and Aleksandar Mitrovic – United struggled from the outset. On March 11th, with the club flirting with relegation, McClaren was sacked and replaced by legendary manager Rafael Benitez. Despite his best efforts, Benitez could not undo the damage done by McClaren and Newcastle would be playing Championship football for the second time in the 2010s.

Benitez love affair

The relegation back to the Championship was confirmed before the end of the of the season and on the final day, United fans serenaded Benitez for 90 minutes straight. This outpouring of love from the fans to the manager persuaded the Spaniard to stay for the Championship season. The Championship season, much like last time, galvanised the fans behind the team – averaging a gate of 51,108 at home throughout the season.

As expected, United bounced back to the Premier League at the first time of asking, winning the league on the final day of the season. From then on, Benitez’s Newcastle managed two remarkably identical seasons in the Premier League – finishing in mid-table, miles clear of the relegation zone on both occasions. Then, everything started to turn a little sour…

Benitez departs, fans follow…

At the end of last season, Benitez decided that he wasn’t going to renew his initial contract with the club. The reasons for this related to a sheer lack of ambition from the hierarchy within the club. Rafa wanted to build new training facilities and he wanted the club to allow him to build the project he had envisioned building when he decided to stick around three years ago. Instead, what he was promised was a club where finishing mid-table season in, season out was deemed to be “success”.

So long as the club are earning there £100m television money every season, they’re happy. For Benitez, that simply wasn’t enough – if the club wasn’t going to show the ambition to try and compete for European places and the likes, he wasn’t going to stick around. This, for the fans, was no surprise at all. The end of Rafa’s contract was something the entirety of Tyneside had been dreading for the better part of 18 months – they knew what was going to happen.

Following the departure of Benitez, the club appointed Steve Bruce as his replacement. Although he’s done a perfectly serviceable job so far, the appointment showed not only the magnitude of the disconnect between the club and the fans, but the sheer ambition-less mess that Newcastle United has become. To go from a world class manager to one who’s managed had spent the last four years struggling to get out of the second division was a real kick in the teeth – as a result, the fans began to take action.

2010s

For decades, you’d have struggled to find a more loyal, passionate and caring fanbase than that of Newcastle United. In the 2010s, particularly towards the end, Mike Ashley and his hierarchy have drained that level of support from the fans. Now, I regularly have interactions on Twitter with fans who have simply given up on their club.

Large sections of the fanbase can’t see anything other than lies and deceit from the club. Even down to the return of Andy Carroll in the summer, some sections of the supporters deemed it to be nothing more than a pointless PR stunt. The fans are so mis-trusting now and this season, the attendances have reflected that. Every day I speak to fans online, who I know to have been loyal to the club for 10, 20, 30 years – have simply given up on the club they love.

Many of them, who have been season ticket holders for years, this year decided to bring that part of their life to an end. It’s gotten to the point now where, for the first time since 2009, there’s often upwards of 7k empty seats around St James’ Park. The club had to resort to giving away 10,000 free season tickets as a “reward” to the existing season ticket holders.

Now that the 2010s are over, the Toon Army need to dedicate the ‘roaring 20s’ to getting their club back. I’ve seen some even suggesting they’d swap places with Sunderland down in league one if it meant no Ashley – trust me, you do not want that. However, at this point, it feels like it’s going to take something drastic like that for Ashley to sell up – but even then, you have to be careful what you wish for.

At this point, any new owner would be worshiped as a God on Tyneside, just because they aren’t Ashley. As fans, there is a certain box clever element to this – potential owners like Peter Kenyon and the likes aren’t what the club needs. The club need a level headed, experienced owner with interests in the club beyond that of a business persuasion. Kenyon is not that – he’s a pretender with a serious professionalism shaped gap in his list of personality traits, as well as a funding shaped gap in his bank balance…

But for now, lets focus on the current season at hand – Bruce is doing a better job than expected, and United are five wins away from surviving another year in the Premier League. Although 10-15 years ago, that’d be seen as a failed season – these days it’s a successful one. That shows in itself just how far the club has fallen…

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