Unrealistic expectations

With Newcastle being relegated and Arsenal fans unhappy at their defeats to Manchester Utd and Chelsea, the question is raised as to just how much is expected from the teams in the Premier League

In these turbulent times for their club, let’s spare a thought for the silent majority among Newcastle United fans. “Passion” has long been deemed to be a key attribute in English football, whether it’s shown by players, managers or supporters. For several years now, Newcastle followers, or at least a subsection of them, have been seen as the epitome of the committed fan whose life revolves around their club. Thus the arrival of Alan Shearer as manager was greeted on television and radio by blethering idiots hailing the return of the saviour. Many supporters questioned the wisdom of appointing a novice but their views couldn’t be summed up in a crass soundbite so we didn’t get to hear from them.

In view of the media’s fondness for images of over-emotional adults in black and white replica shirts, anyone watching Sky’s “Survival Sunday” coverage might have anticipated some cringe-inducing scenes after the defeat at Villa Park that sent Newcastle down. While the commentator duly intoned platitudes about the team’s passionate support, the cameras panned around in search of sobbing figures but only found a couple; most of the travelling fans seemed quietly stoical in defeat.

Even Alan Shearer, never an easy person to warm to, may have won some sympathy for his forthright post-match comments, notably for saying that the day’s outcome was the culmination of several years of mismanagement. No business should base its strategy around the demands of its most whiny and annoying customers. The Newcastle board however has doggedly repeated the same mistake of taking note of the loudest voices among the fanbase and giving them what they called for – the sacking of Sam Allardyce, the return of Kevin Keegan and then the appointment of Shearer.

But the type of supporters who storm out of the ground when their team is losing 15 minutes from time or who clog up phone-in shows baying with fury at defeat can be found at every club. Five days after their team were humiliated at home by Manchester United in their Champions League semi-final, the boos rained down from sections of the Emirates crowd when Arsenal lost 4-1 to Chelsea. Some didn’t bother to jeer but simply walked out as they had done in the previous game. This defeat meant that Arsenal were “condemned” to fourth place and potentially a tough route into next season’s Champions League. It was their biggest home defeat since March 5, 1977 when Ipswich won by the same score.

As was the case with the side beaten by Chelsea, the Arsenal team of 32 years ago contained several youngsters, although Richie Powling, John Matthews and Trevor Ross didn’t go on to have the sort of glittering careers that are prophesied for their counterparts today. Still, they finished eighth, which was a considerable improvement on the preceding two seasons when they had ended up in the bottom seven. Arsenal were in another slump when Arsène Wenger took over in 1996. They have since won three titles including two Doubles and reached a Champions League final. Success spoils some people and textbook cases could be seen at the Emirates at the end of the season, raging at having their sense of entitlement undermined.

Of course, Wenger should not be immune from criticism, indeed his failings have been pored over in the press, as though fourth place was a national crisis. Most of the suggested remedies, however, involve spending large amounts of money, when other clubs are criticised by many of the same commentators for having irresponsibly built up huge debts. If Wenger were to leave, which seems unlikely, his replacement might work his way through a small fortune for a year or so until he too departs with the team even further behind the top three.

Newcastle’s trophy drought has now lasted for 40 years compared to Arsenal’s four but their supporters have not suffered uniquely, nor do they have some mystical affinity for football. They are also far from the only club to be run by fools – it just happens that the bunch they’ve been landed with have done more damage than most. It’s not clear whether Alan Shearer will still be in the post for the start of 2009-10. He can’t be said to have revealed an aptitude for management so far and any obligation he might feel to the club will be offset by the fact that he will have to recruit almost an entirely new team on the cheap, while underachieving millionaires are shipped out.

There might be worse still to come. If Mike Ashley does succeed in selling up, the most likely new buyers are a group involving former chairman Freddie Shepherd – and that would be enough to bring even the most mild-mannered supporter onto the streets in protest.

From WSC 269 July 2009