A few days ago Sabotage Times ran my Newcastle United Season Preview, and I've spent some considerable hours since having to defend my predictions.
My thinking was, as it normally is, that although it might look to others like things are going wrong, it could be a hell of a lot worse. We've not really bought anyone this summer, but at the same time we've not lost any of our key players either; we're now burdened with Joe Kinnear, but since his initial outburst things seem to have quietened down; the teams around us have invested heavily, but since when did that guarantee success?
Call it optimistic, call it naive, but a glass half full of your own tears is still a glass half full.
Then, after howls of derision had met their opening day humiliation at the hands of Aston Villa and their team of unlicensed PES 4 Master League players, Monday brought news of an official offer from Arsenal for the services of Yohan Cabaye. With the fans on their back and needing to look like they were addressing the issues, a very public but ultimately derisory bid was made for an exciting player. The old “look everyone, we tried” approach – easy to spot in these parts as our own board have used it in every window since we were promoted.
I wasn't too worried about that either. I mean, he's a good player, a very good player on his day in fact, so naturally he's going to interest other teams, but thankfully we've got a chairman who specialises in milking outgoing transfers for all their worth. Besides, we've got a match against Man City tonight to focus on, I'm sure everyone at the club's more concerned about that.
Later that evening, I slumped on my sofa at home to consider the abject and predictable drubbing I'd just witnessed. I thought about it for a while, shrugged my shoulders, and concluded that better teams than us would have their pants pulled down at the Etihad this season, so I shouldn't be too down beat. Even the late withdrawal of Cabaye from the squad, as disappointing as that was, didn't upset me too much. “He must really want to leave”, I thought. “Oh well, that's a shame”.
Naturally conversations the next day were heated. Other fans were angry at the performance, angry at Cabaye's desertion, angry at Taylor's recklessness, angry at Debuchy's indifference, angry at Pardew's blame shifting, angry at Kinnear's ineffectiveness, angry at Ashley's lack of investment. Angry at everything, but without having any way to act on it. Like a swarm of bees that have been caused particular offence by an errant vibrator. They swarm, they make a noise, but they change nothing.
I was half way through making excuses for all of it when it dawned on me. I just don't care as much anymore.
Yohan Cabaye is my favourite footballer in the world. Just like when you were little and you used to keep your most treasured panini sticker in your pencil case instead of the actual book, like baby pictures in your wallet, I adore him more than it's probably ok to. I've sang his name, I've got excited seeing him on a team sheet, I've ignored his footballing shortcomings and talked long into the night about his strengths – yet here he was, on the brink of leaving, and I couldn't stir up any emotion about it.
This is Newcastle United as it exists under Mike Ashley. You either accept that things won't be run they way you want them to be and consign yourself to going along with the sell-to-buy, just-do-enough mantra, or you spend your entire time wasting your energy being angry. The club, and indeed football en masse, is business now and like any good owner he's manoeuvred us into a position of reaping the maximum reward of the Premier League perks for minimal investment. We're eating at the same table as the big boys, why blow a load of cash just to get a seat that's a little closer to them.
I should be angry about that as well, but it's his name above the door and I wouldn't let my customers tell me how to run a business either. The fans will always come to support their team, the press need to get people excited about the club to shift papers, and he's got one of the best platforms for free advertising in the whole world. The man's a genius, really.
There's a well popularised saying about Newcastle United fans, that we'd rather lose 4-3 than win 1-0. It's complete and utter horseshit dreamed up by Sky to excuse their constant reshowing of Stan Collymore's late winner in *that* game, but I've always liked the underlying message – that as a club, and as a fan base, we really bloody go for it sometimes. Often to our own detriment.
In 2013 though, it all feels different. Wonga, Sports Direct, JFK, missed opportunities, Keegan, hoof-ball, one in one out, “we was”, horsegate, the lot of it. It's death (or rather resignation) by 1,000 tiny scratches. An earth-shattering catastrophe has the power to unite a fanbase, to break its spirit you have to gradually chip away at the flesh until everything that's left is scar tissue. It'll look the same at first glance, but it's become numb to the touch.
I wouldn't presume to speak for anyone else, but I think there's supporters of almost every club who'll identify with parts of this. Change a name here, a price tag there, it's all the same really. I am a football fan, a commodity, a number on a balance sheet, something to be taken into account only when there's a transaction I can be involved in. Match tickets and replica kits are extortionate, but not quite so extortionate that I'm unable to afford them. Funny that.
Don't get me wrong I'll still pay my money, turn up, sing, cheer, call the lino a burke and go home in a mood that more or less directly reflects the result. We all will. This is Ashley's club, but after a few pints it still looks like one that used to be ours, and in this age of bet-in-play and Hull City Tigers that's about all you can ask for. We could all walk away tomorrow if we wanted, but they know we won’t as much as we do. I digress.
A few years ago I'd have been heartbroken to see a player like 'Dreamboat' leave, now my expectations are so low I'm just thankful I got to see him at all. The reasonably priced replacements we ship in will do doubt provide me with as many fond memories before they're also moved on at lucrative resale value. We'll have other nights like we did at City, and all my friends will shake their fists in frustration while I do my best to join in. Like laughing at a joke you didn't quite get.
But what I'm really trying to say is this. For every gripe I can't rouse myself to anger for, I know there's going to be something at the elation end of the scale that doesn't quite move me as much as it used to. A late winner that doesn't give me the same spring in my step, or a touch of brilliance that doesn't stay as long in the memory – and that, I fear, is going to be a bigger loss to me than even Yohan Cabaye.
More Newcastle United…