Officially, there were 47,427 at St James’ Park, Newcastle, on Sunday. In reality, there weren’t, because of a fan boycott that underlines the level of discontent with owner Mike Ashley, who bought the club in 2007 and has seemingly been trying to suck out its soul ever since.
Long gone are the days when the retail tycoon endeared himself to fans by illegally drinking beer in the stands while wearing a Kevin Keegan replica shirt. These days, there’d surely be a mini-riot if Ashley tried to watch a match among the team’s hardcore fans. Though if he’d have sat in the stands on Sunday, he’d probably have been more or less alone.
The still-impressive crowd was Newcastle’s lowest of the season in the EPL, but they did an MLS-style “tickets sold” count rather than tallying everyone who actually attended. The true figure was probably closer to 40,000, suggesting that about 10,000 fans boycotted the match, missing the chance to see the legendary Harry Kane in the flesh. (He scored, obviously.)
While fans protested loudly outside, in the arena the occasion had all the atmosphere of a quiet day in outer space. As the fansite nufc.com put it: “The season’s lowest crowd at St.James’ Park was still the weekend’s highest domestic league attendance, but the absence of passion, commitment or interest was surely unsurpassed anywhere – even the 1,351 at Accrington.”
Apparently all of the Newcastle starting XI turned up, though you might have believed otherwise given their performance in a 3-1 loss to Spurs that left the club in 14th, still not entirely safe from relegation.
All in all, it’s a story of passionate fans responding to apathetic ownership, a crisis brewing that shows that for big clubs with a proud tradition, trouble needn’t be sparked by relegation, financial woes, a player exodus or the firing of a popular manager. It can be caused by a slow atrophy into mediocrity. The club’s going nowhere, so the fans aren’t going.