In July 2008, Newcastle United signed Jonas Gutiérrez. The Argentine international would go on to play 187 times for the club. Despite relegation from the Premier League in 2009, Gutiérrez decided to remain on Tyneside and help in the quest for promotion.
His dedication to the cause endeared him to the Toon army and cult status was assured. It was therefore with deep regret that they learned of Gutiérrez’s ill health at the end of the 2013 season. Despite making an inspirational comeback two years later, Gutiérrez was released.
This week Gutiérrez successfully sued the club for the way he was treated following his cancer diagnosis. The debacle is the latest in a long line of shambolic incidents at St. James’ Park.
Newcastle United boasts the proudest of followings in England. Despite being surrounded by one of the poorest areas in the country, you’d be hard pressed to find an empty seat at St. James’ Park. With 52,000 fanatical supporters packed into the ground on a regular basis you’d have thought that they are treated to regular footballing feasts; instead the club trudges along through quagmires of controversy.
Yet while the natives are no strangers to adversity, they are getting ever more restless.
In 1991/1992 Newcastle United were languishing in the doldrums of the old Second Divison. When Sir John Hall became the third chairman of a tumultuous season, the prospect of demotion to the third tier of English football was very real. A fan-favourite during his brief stint at the club as a player, Kevin Keegan was immediately installed at the expense of Ossie Ardiles.
Newcastle survived, albeit with a last-minute own goal on the final game of the campaign.
Having enthralled the city as a player during the 1980’s, St. James’ Park was packed to capacity once again with Keegan at the helm. Despite limited experience in the role, Keegan was acutely aware of what the Geordie faithful wanted – he talked a good game and delivered a better one as Newcastle stormed into the new Premier League.
But Keegan was not content to take his team to such heights merely to make up the numbers. He understood the expectations of the Toon Army. In Rob Lee and the prolific Andy Cole, the genesis of a competitive side was already in place while the additions of Peter Beardsley, Ruel Fox and Darren Peacock further helped the Magpies to defy the sceptics.
Newcastle duly finished third in their first Premiership venture, their highest league finish since 1927.
The return of Beardsley to Tyneside was a particularly astute manouvere by Keegan. In Newcastle, the football team is a source of immense pride and identity. Youngsters grow up under the shadows of St. James’ Park hoping to one day emerge under its bright lights. While anyone who furthered their cause was appreciated, local lads were the heartbeat of the team. Keegan’s captivation of Tyneside inspired homegrown talent like Beardsley, Chris Waddle and Paul Gascoigne, the PFA Young Player of the Year in 1988.
But in typical Newcastle United style, the aspirations of the football team were tempered by a boardroom’s preference to cash in on its most prized assets. The Magpies returned to the Second Division a year later.
Over the next few years Keegan supplemented his side with further quality in Phillipe Albert, David Ginola, Les Ferdinand and Shaka Hislop. When David Batty and Faustino Asprilla were added to the ranks in early 1996, Newcastle were 12 points clear at the summit of the English football. Where once Keegan enthralled Tyneside, his team now entertained Sky Sports’ wide-reaching audiences.
They seemed destined to claim the spoils, and nobody could begrudge them – aside from Alex Ferguson. Following a stream of slim victories, a Manchester United side comprised of kids and led by Eric Cantona pipped them to the post as Keegan capitulated in front of the cameras. The club has never recovered.
It seems a long time since the heady heights of January 1996. In the interim many a journalist has scraped his barrel of words to castigate all aspects of the Magpies. While Alan Shearer added further firepower that summer, Keegan’s shock resignation midway through the 1996/1997 campaign allied to the development of Fergie’s fledglings impacted upon a sustained challenge on the title. Under Kenny Dalglish and Ruud Gullit, Newcastle descended into mediocrity. Despite a brief reprieve under Sir Bobby Robson, Newcastle’s decline continued and hit its lowest ebb when they were relegated in 2009.
But it is Mike Ashley’s takeover of the club in 2007 that represents the nadir in Newcastle’s proud heritage.
When Ashley first invested in Newcastle, many believed it represented good business. Despite his London roots, the Geordies were content as Ashley, a self-made billionaire, paid off large sums of inherited debt, re-installed Kevin Keegan and engaged with the people in the manner of an everyday fan (however unruly). Keegan however, was not so content. The apparent meddling of Dennis Wise, the Director of Football, in the team’s affairs prompted another abrupt departure.
Within 18 months Ashley sought to offload the club amidst growing unrest in the stands, but with little interest in an unstable environment the club was taken off the market. Such uncertainty still permeates the boardroom.
Ashley has done little to endear himself to the city of Newcastle. In 2011 he sought to sell the naming rights of St. James’ Park, a local landmark. The Sports Direct Arena was deemed to be another avenue for sponsorship potential. While the commercial deal with Wonga saw the traditional name return at their behest, the same agreement drew much criticism from local MP’s who found that a partnership with a short-term loans company that preyed on the vulnerable was simply unacceptable. Many of those who suffered hailed from the community.
The owner’s tendency to ensure that his trusted associates were accommodated in his plans has also led to the doubting of his motives – Wise, and Joe Kinnear’s respective tenures in executive capacities being prime examples.
Similarly, other decisions have drawn considerable ire – namely the removal of Chris Hughton despite promotion and the restoration of integrity to the club during his time. Alan Pardew, his replacement, set about recruiting a legion of Frenchmen and dealing with opponents on a first-hand basis. Steve McClaren’s appointment to the Board of Directors upon taking the managerial reins last summer beggared belief.
Furthermore, Ashley’s intentions for the football club have been questioned given his mostly underwhelming record in the transfer market. A club of Newcastle’s size should reasonably expect to attract high-profile targets. Keegan secured several, Graeme Souness rescued Michael Owen from Madrid while Bobby Robson signed one of England’s hottest properties in Jonathon Woodgate.
Upon his acquisition of the club though, Ashley signaled his intent by signing the troublesome Joey Barton and Alan Smith, an outcast at Manchester United. This trend would continue despite recouping enormous fees for the likes of Andy Carroll and Yohan Cabaye – one of the few success stories in the transfer market.
Arguably one of his better buys was that of Jonas Gutiérrez. Although he was not able to prevent Newcastle from slipping into the Championship, Gutiérrez played for the club as though he were one of the local lads. The identity of Newcastle should espouse that of their faithful following and Gutiérrez managed it better than the majority of those who have worn black and white in recent years.
Before joining, Gutiérrez saw that Newcastle were perennial underachievers. His compatriot Lionel Messi predicted that the Spiderman would bring Newcastle to the next level. Although such predictions were never realised, Newcastle admired his endeavours. Through his honesty, enthusiasm and hard-working mentality, it was clear that the Argentine wanted the same for the club as the 52,000 in the stands.
Having returned to the field at home to Manchester United in March last year following testicular cancer in 2013, the Argentine set about re-establishing himself in the first-team and activating an automatic contract extension. Such a clause required that Gutiérrez play 80 games between 2011 and 2015. But as Gutiérrez closed in on the number he mysteriously disappeared from John Carver’s plans, before returning to start every game once the target was out of reach to help with Newcastle’s fight for its own survival.
Following Sunderland’s victory over Norwich and their own demolition of Swansea on Saturday, Newcastle have been given another lifeline. They barely deserve it. Nevertheless, Newcastle should not be in such a perilous position to begin with. With fixtures against Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur all to come, the recent turn of events may have come too late.
Should they return to the Championship on this occasion, it is inevitable that Rafa Benítez will leave them there. Steven Taylor and Jack Colback will remain, but whether they can motivate an abject squad of overpaid misfits to lead them back to where they belong is another question entirely. With Mike Ashley set to remain in charge, the same question looms ever larger.
That Gutiérrez was perceived to be a liability following his recovery from illness encapsulates all that is wrong at the football club. It is missing a heart.
Following the Employment Tribunal’s determination that Gutiérrez had been discriminated against, the midfielder tweeted a stinging condemnation of Ashley’s handling of the club.
“I am a Geordie” Gutiérrez exclaimed.
“Thanks Newcastle fans for your support. I love the city. I hope WE stay up. Come on the Toon. Once a Geordie always a Geordie… Ashley, you don’t understand Newcastle. You don’t understand the fans and the city. We deserved more. We are the Geordie nation.”
For too long Newcastle United has turned its back on those to whom it means most. Perhaps with Gutiérrez on board, they might not be staring relegation in the face.