With the autumn crisis all but forgotten, Glenn Roeder’s side face up to one of his former clubs against a backdrop of takeover rumours that could make one man, somewhat undeservedly, even richer. Harry Pearson looks on
The experienced approach Newcastle on the penultimate Saturday before Christmas with caution. The city is the scene of such frenzied shopping that the unwary football fan can easily find himself swept away by a tidal wave of present-hunters outside Central Station and deposited without warning in Fenwick’s ladies’ gloves department.
Best to approach St James’ by a circuitous route, then, one that takes you in a loop around the fringes of Chinatown and past the statue of Jackie Milburn. Once located in front of Virgin Records in Northumberland Street, the bronze sculpture has been relocated to a less salubrious position, facing four lanes of rumbling traffic on a pavement by the A189. If Wor Jackie went bursting after a through ball here, even his legendary speed wouldn’t save him from being crushed by a juggernaut.
At St James’ Park, shopping is on the agenda, too. And not just in the club store, either, though it’s doing the traditional roaring trade in black-and-white baby-grows and bed linen. Newcastle, like every other club in the Premiership, it seems, is on the verge of being bought by foreigners. The Belgravia Group is said to be inspecting the books. The Belgravia Group sounds about as British as Terry-Thomas, and indeed it has the same caddish ring to its name. You imagine a cabal of ex-Household Cavalry colonels presided over by Lord Lucan in the velvet-upholstered basement of a gambling club. The reality is altogether more prosaic. Belgravia, or so it appears, is a buyout specialist working for Polygon – a group of US financiers – and the Union Bank of Switzerland. That at least is what it says in the papers. Many locals, prone to optimism of the most delirious sort, still live in hope that Polygon will prove to be another false front, one that will crash to the ground to reveal a dream ticket of the Sultan of Brunei and Kevin Keegan. “They’re big mates, apparently,” people tell you. And the fact that they have been saying the same thing over and over again for at least five years hardly seems to have chipped the shine off their belief at all.
That something is going on is plain to everybody. “If a business is badly run then you’re bound to get people sniffing round,” the man from Back Page football bookshop had said the week before. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know you can make money out of Newcastle United.”
The current chairman, Freddy Shepherd, has indeed made money from the club and he, I think we can say without fear of contradiction, is no rocket scientist. If the Belgravia Group conjures images from A School for Scoundrels, Shepherd brings to mind a different landmark in British cinema. Since the fake sheikh revelations it has been hard to look at him without thinking of that strip-club scene in Lindsay Anderson’s Oh Lucky Man, in which Arthur Lowe and a group of red-faced, sweating Northern councillors begin chanting: “Chocolate sandwich! Chocolate sandwich!”
Not everyone agrees, of course. In the programme for today’s game, Alan Oliver, Tyneside’s sports-writing kingpin, takes Patrick Collins of the Mail on Sunday to task for his constant attacks on Newcastle’s cheery chairman. “As far as I know [Collins] has never met Freddy Shepherd,” Oliver concludes brilliantly. Fair enough. Then again, I have never been shat on by an elephant, though I know enough to guess is it wouldn’t be a fun experience.
Oliver also comments: “I’m not a big lover of people from the south having a go at United.” In many ways it is this attitude of us against them that has insulated Shepherd against revolt. Or at least it did until recently. In October a poor run of form had seen the Magpies drop into the relegation zone and for the first time since Sir John Hall and the Magpie Group wrested control of the club from the detested Gordon “I won’t sell the family silver” McKeag, the crowd at St James’ had dusted off the once popular “Sack the board” chants.
Today’s game might have marked some kind of watershed but, since a home defeat to Sheffield United on November 4, Newcastle’s fortunes have revived and the noisy protests have turned to a bitter muttering. Shepherd’s capacity for self-preservation is amazing. If there’s ever a nuclear war, you could do worse than stand next to him.
St James’ towers over the city as a cathedral must have done above a medieval city. Sitting in the upper tiers there’s certainly a feeling of watching events from a bell tower. For visiting fans, binoculars wouldn’t be a bad idea. They are tucked away in the top corner of what used to be the ramshackle Leazes End, so high above the pitch that low lying clouds would interfere with their view of the action. Not that this, or the fact that they’re bottom of the league, seems to have dampened Watford supporters’ spirits. They keep up a constant racket throughout the game, which draws admiring comments from the Geordies who know a thing or too about singing through adversity.
Perhaps Watford fans have picked up the attitude from their manager, Adie Boothroyd. A member of what newspapers optimistically assure us is “a group of bright new English coaches” (Kevin Blackwell’s membership has recently been rescinded), Boothroyd’s approach to the gathering crisis is to deny that it is happening. He refuses to admit that Watford are in relegation trouble. A mastery of psychology is as much a part of being a Bright New English Coach as a chest full of badges and a passing knowledge of the work of Lao Tzu.
On the field, things are distinctly less cerebral. Boothroyd’s side, in common with those of quite a few of the BNECs, play a type of football that might politely be described as “dynamic”. They are big, strong and fit. They move the ball fast when they have it and when they lose possession they compress the space so efficiently that Newcastle appear to be playing the game on a postage stamp. The more learned football writers tend to turn up their noses at this kind of hard work, but as someone who has regularly paid £30 towards the upkeep of Alen Boksic I find it hugely admirable.
Not that the game provides much in the way of entertainment. For Newcastle, James Milner is busy down the wing and Watford batter in a couple of long-range efforts, one of which, from Darius Henderson, the admirable Shay Given does well to save. That’s about it for the first half.
The second begins much the same way with Watford on top but, paradoxically for such a muscular side, lacking punch. Newcastle boss Glenn Roeder is on the touchline, nibbling the end of a pen. Perhaps it’s anxiety or maybe it’s a secret signal, because Milner promptly bursts down the flank and crosses into the middle, where Obafemi Martins is waiting. Martins has not had a happy start to his Premiership career. A player who looked huge and muscular when playing for Internazionale seemed literally to have shrunk when he put on the black-and-white stripes. A £10 million buy reportedly instigated by the chairman, his apparent unfitness for the Premiership was another grievance against Shepherd. But now he leaps high in the air and directs a powerful header into the net.
Newcastle fans celebrate by twirling scarves in the air in a truly continental manner, but there joy is short-lived as Watford equalise when Ashley Young’s corner is flicked on by Henderson and stabbed in by Hameur Bouazza. “Where’s our bloody marking?” a man nearby bellows belatedly as the ball crosses the line.
After that, Watford look the more likely side to score, but they don’t. Instead it falls to Martins to get the winner from substitute Damien Duff’s deflected cross. “I always said he’d come good,” the man beside me says ironically to his mate and they both chuckle merrily.
It is Newcastle’s fourth win in five Premiership games, they have reached the quarter-final of the Carling Cup and the expensive Martins is finally looking like a player. After the final whistle only a lone voice calls for Shepherd’s removal. But by that time I am on the way home and nobody can hear me.
From WSC 24o February 2007. What was happening this month