About 15 years ago, a young girl wrote my mother a beautiful poem for Christmas, talking about how she hoped the new year would bring an end to famine, war, and generally make the world a better place. Coming from one Tyneside family to another, the message ended with the plaintive line “Hope for Newcastle”.
Fans have been hoping ever since. But although they have packed out St James’ Park every other week, all they’ve been given is hopelessness. Although that young girl didn’t intend it, the line in that poem has become a cruel joke, mocking quietly from the kitchen cupboard door where it hangs to this day.
News that the long-delayed, controversial Saudi takeover of the club has gone ahead could change all that. Or maybe not.
I’m old enough to remember the last time a takeover of the club from reviled owners offered a sense of hope. Back in 1992, Sir John Hall, property magnate and all-round Mr North-East, wrested control from the patrician custodians who had presided over decades of decline. As things went from strength to strength on the pitch thanks to Kevin Keegan’s wildly entertaining side, the region was gripped by a giddy sense of possibility. Hope was everywhere, fans wore their shirts with pride, and when in 1996 we broke the world transfer record to sign Alan Shearer, silverware seemed only a matter of time.
It wasn’t to be, of course. Hope duly turned to despair, and the pain of unfinished business has lingered on Tyneside ever since. There seem to be plenty of people who think the fans whinge about not challenging for the league and how we think we should be rubbing shoulders with whoever the big six or big four are at any given moment.
That might be what the odd phone-in fan might have you believe, but it isn’t what the vast majority of Newcastle fans think. Most have been scarred by a lifetime of underachievement and just want the team to be competitive, watch a decent game of football that they can get excited about, and, yes, maybe even win a trophy.
The dearth in this department is truly impressive. It’s a well-known and oft-trotted-out line that we haven’t won a domestic trophy since 1955 (the FA Cup, for the record). Less well known is that 35 different clubs have won a trophy in the intervening decades. Two of them, Oxford United and Luton Town, have had time to disappear from the Football League and come back without us catching them up.
Our record in cup games at Wembley in that time is also a study in hopelessness: played five, lost five, goals against 11, goals for two. Throw in the 1996 Charity Shield and the 2005 FA Cup semi-final in Cardiff and there’s another eight goals in the debit column and one on the plus side.
I have not got a handy attendances-to-silverware ratio up my sleeve, but I’d be prepared to guess that there can’t be many other clubs in Europe, if any at all, that regularly have 50,000 fans at home games and yet boast such a hopeless record.
I know from the 90s experience that a takeover does not come with any guarantees and the same thing could happen this time. The initial spin seems to be suggesting there will not be a massive Chelsea- or Manchester City-style spending spree and that improvement will be more organic with an emphasis on youth development.
Along with the prospect of serious money, the Saudis obviously come with serious baggage and there is no denying it is going to be an uncomfortable fit. It could end in tears but with the idea of a more competitive team – as well as much-needed multimillion-pound investment in the entire region – the fans are overwhelmingly in favour of the takeover.
We have had enough and positive reaction to the deal should be judged against the background of years of failure. Why shouldn’t we dare to dream, perhaps even one day having a highlights reel in colour instead of, you know, just black and white? Without fantasy, football becomes meaningless. Under Mike Ashley’s 14-year ownership, the club have become zombified, content to merely exist somewhere near the bottom of the table – or the Championship – without any ambition to progress. If reports are to be believed, even shelling out the wages to bring in the Leicester squad player Hamza Choudhury during the previous transfer window was too much. Some might say we are selling our soul to the Saudis but there’s no soul left to sell.
If the laughable Choudhury failure is one of the last acts – or rather non-acts – of the Ashley regime, it seems a suitable moment of bathos on which to end 14 years of disappointment. Maybe make that 66. Hope for Newcastle.