All in the name

Newcastle United are in the headlines as Mike Ashley prepares to sell the naming rights to St James' Park

Newcastle businessman Barry Moat has been depicted in the press as the club’s potential saviour for several months now but, like someone running up a down escalator, he never seems to get any closer to his goal. With Moat having reportedly failed to come up with the £80 million required to cut a deal, owner Mike Ashley has now taken the club off the market, appointed Chris Hughton as full-time manager and, to general dismay, auctioned the naming rights for St James’ Park.

The Times’ George Caulkin was so seething with Ashley that he “shed any notion of journalistic impartiality” to write a damning criticism of the club’s owner. The Newcastle fans, says Caulkin, have been “dragged through the mud and then, just for good measure, had their faces rubbed in it”. In case his point didn’t get through, the writer repeatedly interspersed his critique with the demand: “Ashley out.”

The renaming of St James’ Park has been roundly ridiculed. Outraged Mirror columnist Simon Bird considers it a tragedy. The supporters are mobilising, says Bird, and he is holding his own protest: “I vow always to refer to it as St James’ Park in my Mirror dispatches.” Take that Mike.

Elsewhere in the Mirror, the proposal to “rebrand” St James’ was turned into comedy at the expense of the fans. They suggested various stadium sponsors, including Weightwatchers, as Newcastle supporters “could do with a few less pre-match pies and pints”. Pirelli topless calendars were also suggested, to capitalise on a special Newcastle edition featuring “porky, bearded Geordies with ‘I love NUFC’ tattooed across their bellies”.

The Telegraph fronted their coverage with a picture of a forlorn girl clinging to the gates of St James’ Park, to keep up the image of down-on-their-luck Newcastle fans. Pundits continue to enjoy both romanticising and belittling Newcastle fans, who are nearly always depicted as either a tragic bunch of put-upon devotees or a comical crowd of hicks.

The most intriguing reaction to the renaming rights story came from the club’s former chairman Freddy Shepherd, who sold the club to its current owner in 2007. Shepherd – who previously claimed Newcastle fans are “mugs” for buying replica shirts and that the city’s women are “dogs” – berated Ashley for chasing money at the cost of the club’s history. “There are some things that money can’t buy,” said Shepherd, who made £37m when selling the club to Ashley, who he described as “an excellent custodian of Newcastle United’s heritage” at the time.

Despite the off-field turmoil, Newcastle have started well in the Championship and look likely to gain promotion. But their fans are still left with an owner groping the club for every last penny, a manager they don’t want and a stadium that could soon be named after Greggs. Only their perennially prospective owner Barry Moat, a man who made his fortune from singing fish, can save them now. 

From WSC 274 December 2009